Financial Times, July 25, 2016
Marc Frank in Havana
The crisis in Venezuela has spread to its closest ally Cuba, with Havana warning of power rationing and other shortages that some fear could mark a return to the economic austerity that traumatised the island nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Only a year after the euphoria that followed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US, hopes of an economic rebound in Cuba have faded and an undercurrent of concern and frustration is evident on the streets of the capital.
“Just when we thought we were going forward, everything is slipping away again,” says Havana retiree Miriam Calabasa. “I am worried people are going to decide enough is enough: then what?”
Government offices now close early, with open windows and whirring fans in lieu of air-conditioners. Already scant public lighting has been reduced further, and traffic in Havana and other cities is down noticeably.
“Nothing will get better any time soon; it can only get worse,” worries Ignacio Perez, a mechanic. “The roads won’t be paved, schools painted, the rubbish picked up, public transportation improved, and on and on.”
President Raúl Castro outlined the scale of the problem this month, telling the National Assembly that “all but essential spending” must cease. He blamed “limits facing some of our principal commercial partners due to the fall in oil prices … and a certain contraction in the supply of oil contracted with Venezuela.”
Fuel consumption has been cut 28 per cent between now and December, electricity by a similar amount and imports by 15 per cent, or $2.5bn, in a centralised economy where 17 cents of every dollar of economic output consists of imports.
But crippling shortages, rampant inflation and an economy that is expected to shrink 10 per cent this year have forced Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro to cut back. According to internal data from state oil company PDVSA seen by Reuters, oil deliveries to Cuba are down a fifth on last year.
Venezuela has for 15 years supplied unspecified amounts of cash and about 90,000 barrels per day of oil — half of Cuba’s energy needs. Havana in return sold medical and other professional services to Caracas. Venezuelan aid helped to lift Cuba out of an economic black hole after Soviet subsidies ended in 1991.
“Under current conditions, [Cuban] gross domestic product will dip into negative territory this year and decline 2.9 per cent in 2017,” says Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank employee who is now a professor at Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali. “If relations with Venezuela fall apart completely, GDP could decline 10 per cent.”
Although Venezuelan aid is a fraction of Soviet help, mention of the “special period” that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall provokes traumatic memories in Cuba, with many remembering shortages so severe they ate street cats. Karina Marrón, deputy director of the official Granma newspaper, this month warned of possible street protests similar to 1994.
“A perfect storm is brewing … this phenomenon of a cut in fuel, a cut in energy,” Ms Marrón told the Union of Cuban Journalists. “This country can’t withstand another ’93, another ’94.”
So-called rapid response brigades, formed in the 1990s to quell social unrest, are back on alert, according to one brigade member who asked not to be named.
For Mr Castro, the slowdown is a serious blow to the limited market-orientated reforms begun under his leadership, especially the long-planned liberalisation of the peso, which requires a comfortable foreign reserve cushion.
But foreign businesses hope it may speed economic opening. “Venezuela’s problems increase the chance of Cuban reforms. This government only acts when it has to,” says one Spanish investor on the island.
One complication lies in how the government apportions resources. Cuba relies heavily on tourists, most of whom expect hotels with electricity and air-conditioning. Meanwhile, some 500,000 people, or 10 per cent of Cuba’s workforce, are employed at restaurants, lodging houses and other recently allowed private businesses which need power to ply their trade.
Mr Castro insists residential users will be spared power cuts, for now, while Marino Murillo, who heads the reform commission of the ruling Communist party, says hard currency earning sectors such as tourism and nickel would be spared.
Another problem is that the other countries Cuba exports medical services to, such as Algeria, Angola and Brazil, are also expected to reduce spending. In 2014, medical services earned Cuba about $8bn, or 40 per cent of exports.
“We cannot deny there will be some impact, including worse than currently, but we are prepared,” Mr Castro has said.
Analysts suggest Mr Castro’s warning may in part serve to deflate expectations following the easing of US sanctions. Certainly, a full return to special period-style austerity looks unlikely as Cuba has more diversified income streams, from increased remittances, medical services, tourism to a nascent private sector.
However, “a majority [in Cuba] are still very dependent on state salaries that are now worth a third of what they were in 1989 in real terms”, said Prof Vidal. “[They] are in a situation of extreme vulnerability.”