Tag Archives: Soviet Subsidization

Ernesto Hernández-Catá, “Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Venezuela: A Tale of Dependence and Shock.”

The complete analysis is available here: “Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Venezuela:  A Tale of Dependence and Shock.”   September 2013


Recently there have been several estimates of Venezuelan economic assistance to Cuba—for example by Lopez (2012) and Mesa-Lago (2013). My latest estimates suggest that payments from Venezuela increased rapidly during the first decade of the XXI century and peaked at almost 19% of Cuba’s GDP) in 2009. They declined over the following two years but remained quite large: I estimate Venezuelan assistance in 2011 (the last year for which the required data are available) at just over $7 billion, or 11 % of Cuba’s GDP. These numbers are large, and they have invited comparisons with Soviet assistance to Cuba in the late 1980s. It has been implied that the adverse effect on Cuba’s real GDP of ending Venezuelan aid would be similar in size to the devastating impact of the elimination of Soviet aid in 1990. This is almost certainly wrong.


The analysis presented in this paper indicates that a complete cancellation of Venezuelan assistance to Cuba would cause considerably less damage than the elimination of Soviet assistance in the early 1990s, with the fall in real GDP estimated at somewhere between 7% and 10%, compared to 38% after the breakdown of Cuban/Soviet relations. Moreover, if the Cuban government were to avoid the policies of   subsidization and inflationary finance pursued in the post-Soviet period, the post-Venezuelan contraction would be at the lower end of the range or approximately 7%.

This is still a lot, however. To be sure, the danger of a sudden elimination of aid inflows has diminished considerably since the Venezuelan election of April 2013. Nevertheless, the prospect of a more gradual reduction in aid remains likely given Venezuela’s economic difficulties. In that case, the effect would be a reduction in the growth of the Cuban economy spread over several years, rather than a sudden contraction of output. Furthermore, current efforts to obtain financing at non-market terms from other countries, like Algeria, Angola and Brazil, would, if successful, diminish the magnitude of the shock. But it would perpetuate dependence and delay the needed adjustment.

The only way to diminish the pain of reduced income and consumption would be a decisive effort to expand Cuba’s productive capacity by intensifying the reform process. The list of required actions is familiar to all: liberalize prices, unify the exchange rate system, dismantle exchange and trade controls, stop the bureaucratic interference with non-state agricultural producers, continue efforts to downsize employment in the state sector, and increase substantially the list of activities opened to the private sector, including (why not?) doctors, nurses, teachers and athletes. Private clinics and schools would pop up, consultancy services would flourish, and the baseball winter leagues would come back to life.

 Karl Marx (1852) credited Hegel with the idea that history repeats itself twice. Unfortunately for him, he added: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce”. This is not necessarily true. Often the second time is also a tragedy, as when the West gave Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta, less than a decade after giving it to Hitler in Munich. And why couldn’t the second time be an epiphany? Cuba’s rulers now have a historic opportunity to allow people to improve their own standard of living, and to stop wasting resources to keep the faded and sinister red banner afloat. Without a doubt, history will absolve them if they take that chance. And then, perhaps, Cuba will be allowed to replace its politically inspired dependence on doubtful friends with free, mutually beneficial trade with all nations.

Ernesto Hernandez-Cata was born in Marianao, Havana, Cuba in 1942. He holds a License from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland; and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University. For about 30 years through, Ernesto Hernandez-Cata worked for the International Monetary Fund where he held a number of senior positions. When he retired from the I.M.F. in July 2003 he was Associate Director of the African Department and Chairman of the Investment Committee of the Staff Retirement Plan. Previously he had served in the Division of International Finance of the Federal Reserve Board. From 2002 to 2007 Mr. Hernandez-Cata taught economic development and growth at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the University of Johns Hopkins. Previously he had taught macroeconomics and monetary policy at The American University.

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The “FIDEL” Models Never Worked; Soviet and Venezuelan Subsidization Did

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” stated former President Fidel Castro, when asked if Cuba’s economic system was still worth exporting to other nations, by Jeffrey Goldberg, of  The Atlantic magazine during an interview in Havana. (JIM WYSS ,  AND LUISA YANEZ, Miami Herald, September 9, 2010), broken.html.

Was this a throw-away line? A rare moment of candor and  self-criticism? Or a mis-translation? Or is the implication that Raul can’t make things work anymore. but he, Fidel, could if he were back in charge?

In fact, the “Cuban Model” was a series of “FIDEL” MODELs. None of them ever worked effectively. They were all characterized by a dictatorial, overpowering and personal control by Fidel himself. From 1959 to 2006, the central feature of Cuba’s economic existence was Fidel’s micro-management of the economy. This was observed and analyzed in 1962 by the French agronomist Rene Dumont who lamented Fidel’s itinerant and ill-informed decision-making on every issue or problem that came to his attention. We saw it in January 2006, shortly before he left office, with “La Revolucion Energetica” in which again he micro-managed the issue.

The abolition of private enterprise in 1961, 1963 and 1968 (with the “Revolutionary Offensive”) has been a continuous disaster, suppressing and wasting the energies and entrepreneurial capabilities of the Cuban people. The 1961-1963 “Instant Industrialization” strategy was a disaster, quickly aborted. Likewise, the 1964-1970 “10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest” plus “New Man” plus Hyper-Centralization were all fiascos that also were aborted in 1970.

The Cuban economic expanded steadily from 1970 to 1985. Unfortunately this success was ephemeral, based as it was on Soviet support as well as a convertible currency debt build-up that led Cuba ultimately to declare a moratorium on debt servicing in 1986.

Cuba’s “Golden Age” of economic prosperity from 1970 to 1986 or so was one of Soviet economic Orthodoxy under-girded by massive Soviet subsidization.  This subsidization of the Cuban economy occurred mainly through the pricing of merchandise trade products. The USSR paid a ruble price for its sugar imports from Cuban that was a multiple of the prevailing world price at official exchange rates for many years. At the same time, Cuba paid a price that was below the prevailing market price for its petroleum imports from the USSR. The accompanying chart, derived from the work of William Leogrande, and J. M. Thomas illustrates the magnitudes of the assistance. My own quantitative estimates placed the value of this subsidization at around 23% to over 36% of National Income in the 1980 to 1987 period. (See the Table at the bottom of this note for the detail of the calculations.)

When economic stagnation set in 1985, Fidel designed the “Rectification Process” which was supposed to correct previous errors, re-centralize and de-marketize the economy and reignite economic expansion. This also failed.

Then with the termination of Soviet subsidies came the economic melt-down and the “Special Period in Time of Peace”. The latter in fact is not “special” but instead is the real world. In the “Special Period” the expansion of 2004 to 2008 is in large part due to the special relationship with Venezuela and the subsidization that this has produced. President Chávez supports Cuba through low-cost oil exports to Cuba, export and investment credits, and generous foreign exchange payments for Cuban exports of medical services.

In summary, the various development models and approaches that have dominated in Cuba have been Fidel’s personal models. Fidel Castro is correct in stating that they don’t work anymore. However, they have never worked.


Ritter, Archibald R. M. “The Cuban Economy inb the 1990s: External Challenges and Policy Imperatives.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 32:3; Fall, 1990.

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Has Cuba’s Catastrophic Decline in Real Wage Levels Been Reversed?

The level of “real” or “inflation-adjusted wage levels collapsed catastrophically in the economic melt-down of 1989-1993. Has this been reversed during the alleged economic recovery from 1994 to 2010?

The chart below indicates that real wage levels may have increased steadily after 1994, but they are still a small fraction of their pre-melt-down level. This Chart is based on calculations presented by Pavel Vidal Alejandro, an analyst in Cuba’s primary economic research institute, the Centro de Estudios sobre la Economia Cubana (CEEC), also reproduced below.

According to this data, Cuba’s real wage collapsed from high of around 190 pesos (Moneda Nacional) to 20 pesos by 1993, recovering only slowly to 2008. For those who observed this collapse in the early 1990s, these figures are indeed credible.  How Cuban citizens reliant upon peso incomes survived through this catastrophic decline constitutes several million stories of endurance and innovation – or the practices encapsulated by the “Special Period” terms “resolver”, “luchar”, “conseguir” and “inventar”.

Chart 1: Cuba: Real Inflation-Adjusted Wages, 1989-2009
(Pesos, Moneda Nacional)

Source: Pavel Vidal Alejandro, “Politica Monetaria y Doble Moneda”,
in Omar Everleny Perez et. al., Miradas a la Economia Cubana,
La Habana: Editorial Caminos, 2009, p.35

The 1989-1993 economic contraction – approaching 40% of GDP – resulted from the termination of the subsidization from the former Soviet Union camouflaged in the form of credits never to be repaid, the above market prices paid for Cuban exports, the below-market prices for Cuban imports with that country.  In terms of official statistics on aggregate per capita economic growth rates, it would appear that the Cuban economy has fully recovered and surpassed the 1989 level by about 20% in GDP per capita terms as indicated in Chart 2.

Source: the author on the basis of statistics from the Oficina Nacional de Estadisticas, Anuario Estadistico de Cuba, various issues and UN ECLAC, Preliminary Overview of theEconomies of Latin America and the Caribbean, various issues

“Where’s the economic recovery? We don’t see it.”

But this raises the question: How could the economy recover so fully while real wages are still only at about 22 to 25 % of the 1989 level? This is indeed a puzzle. Citizens of Cuba have observed the contradiction for some years, as suggested by the saying mentioned above.

One possibility is that the GDP statistics are dubious. Indeed the Cuban government adopted a new approach to measuring GDP relabeling it as “Sustainable Social” GDP, measuring the value of services not at the cost of their provision but at an estimated evaluation of their worth internationally.  This revised GDP measure increased Cuba’s GDP per capita and increased the ostensible growth rate as the service sector expanded.
A second partial explanation for the immense gap between overall economic performance levels and wage levels is that substantial portions of the goods and services produced in the economy are pilfered and distributed through the ubiquitous underground economy so that revenues seem seldom to permit higher wage and salary payments but actually more is produced but leaks out of official circuits.

There are undoubtedly other factors explaining this situation as well.

“Resolver”, “luchar”, “conseguir” and “inventar”

How have Cuban citizens managed to survive with real incomes still around 22 – 25% of their 1980s levels. In fact, many Cubans have been able to generate incomes higher than the official wages and salaries. The additional sources of income include:

  • “Income in kind” ranging from lunches for workers, food supplements for seniors;
  • “Income in kind” and special access to transportation and housing for well-placed government officials (e.g. use of official vehicles for private purposes);
  • Illegal but tolerated salary supplements for employees of joint foreign-state enterprises and embassies;
  • Remittances from abroad;
  • Legal self-employment incomes;
  • Home produced goods and services for exchange or sale with friends and neighbours;
  • Informal (un-registered or underground) economy activities;
  • Pilferage from the state sector for resale or personal use.

If citizens can tap such other income sources, as many or most do, then they can survive reasonably well. However, there are some that have no access to any of these additional sources of income – or perhaps only simple survival activities such as selling cigarettes or Granma in the street. Which groups of citizens fall into this category? Perhaps the following:

  • Some pensioners;
  • Workers in the state sector outside the major cities;
  • Some agricultural workers

However, given that the rationed monthly food allowance is meager and on balance covers around 10 to 14 days of food requirements, while the rest of food requirements and basically everything else must be purchased from the dollar stores – where products bear a 140% sales tax – or the farmers markets or self-employment sector or the underground economy , these individuals obviously are in dire straits.

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