Author Archives: Whitefield Mimi

WHAT TRUMP’S NEW CUBA POLICY MEANS FOR AMERICAN BUSINESS

By Mimi Whitefield

Miami Herald, June 23 2017

Some U.S. executives that do business with Cuba breathed a sigh of relief after President Donald Trump outlined his new Cuba policy in Miami because it won’t have much impact on their companies. But others have pressed the pause button until they see how the new regulations implementing the changes are written.

Lawyers who help firms navigate the thicket of laws and regulations governing the embargo and dealings with the island have been combing through a memorandum that Trump signed on June 16 as well as three pages of frequently-asked questions issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and a White House fact sheet to get a sense of the new policy.

Until the regulations are written, that’s all they have to go on. Trump has mandated that the regulation-writing must begin by mid-July.

“Until the regulations change, everything is status quo,” said Yosbel Ibarra, a Miami lawyer on Greenberg Traurig’s Cuba practice team.

How long it will take to write new rules is anybody’s guess, but it isn’t an easy task because multiple agencies and departments will be involved. Some key posts that would have oversight over the new policy also have yet to be filled by the Trump administration, according to lawyers.

Don’t expect a rush by U.S. companies that have proposals pending before the Cuban government to get deals inked before the new rules go into effect, say lawyers and business consultants.

“The way corporations are, when they know rule-making is underway, they are always going to hold up until the regulations are written,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba law. “They are not going to set themselves at the far end of the branch based on a Q&A from OFAC.”

There will be important changes in the new policy: it bars most business by U.S. companies with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the military or intelligence services and cuts out people-to-people trips to Cuba by individuals. Group travel in that category is still OK – although there is expected to be more scrutiny of all Cuba travelers to make sure the purpose of their trips isn’t tourism.

The prohibition on doing business with the military is significant because since the 1990s, the Cuban military has been taking control of ever larger chunks of the economy, partly because military managers are viewed as more efficient. Many officers have been sent abroad for business training.

Now the military conglomerate GAESA controls an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the economy, with heavy involvement in the tourism industry, logistics and retail operations.  The military’s Gaviota Tourism Group, for example, controls or has joint ventures with foreign partners in 64 hotels and villas, including many resort hotels as well as the Saratoga, a favorite of visiting Congressional and business delegations, and the new luxury Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Havana.

Even though former President Barack Obama opened up more opportunities for U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, not that many agreements have been finalized. Most are in the transportation sector, the telecommunications industry (notably roaming agreements and Google’s deal to install its servers on the island) and in the hospitality sector.

Some of the U.S. companies have inked deals with military entities. Telecommunications projects, for example, go through ETECSA, the state communications company that is controlled by the military, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, now a part of Marriott International, has signed an agreement with Gaviota, the military tourism company, to manage a Cuban hotel as a Four Points by Sheraton.

But the administration has said it doesn’t want to hurt American businesses that have engaged in lawful commercial opportunities with Cuba and those agreements will be grandfathered into the new Cuba policy. That’s also true of any other projects that are in place prior to issuance of the new regulations.

Meanwhile, the coming prohibition on doing business with the Cuban military has prompted calls from clients who want to make sure exactly who their Cuban counterparts and business partners are, said Ibarra.

But even companies looking at business that seemingly have nothing to do with the Cuban military are wary.      “I’ve already had a client from New York call and say I guess I’m not going forward [in Cuba],” said Charles Serrano, a Chicago business and travel consultant who has taken clients on more than 130 trips to Cuba.

He is helping four other companies that have signed agreements, have submitted proposals or are in negotiations. But Serrano, managing director of The Antilles Strategy Group, said: “This will slow the interest of American businesses in exploring opportunities in Cuba. They calculate risk based on real things.”

The next battleground is how the new regulations are written.   “After the announcement there was a little sense of relief because companies now know more or less what the landscape will look like and the direction policy is going,” said Pedro Freyre, chairman of Akerman’s international practice, which includes clients doing business or trying to do business in Cuba. “But now the next level of anxiety is about what the regulations will look like. Depending on how they are crafted, they could shut down a lot of business activity.”

Hardliners can be expected to make the case that the rules should be written so as much U.S. business activity as possible is precluded. But the Cuban Study Group, which includes executives and professionals who favor engagement, wants the administration to narrowly interpret what it means to do business with the Cuban military.

“There is a vast difference between a Fortune 500 company forming a joint venture with the Cuban military and a U.S. humanitarian worker buying a water bottle at a government-run store,” said the group in a statement. Among the military’s holdings are retail stores where visitors often buy bottled water.

“Nothing stops business like uncertainty,” said Ibarra. “The more clear and transparent the new regulations are, the better.”

Eventually, the State Department is expected to publish a list of military concerns that are off limits for U.S. companies.

Despite military links to airport and seaport operations in Cuba, the new policy allows cruise lines from the United States to continue to call at Cuban ports, U.S .airlines to keep on flying and limited legal trade, under exceptions to the embargo, to keep flowing.  “Carnival Corp. is pleased that the policy changes announced by the Trump administration will allow our ships to continue to sail to Cuba,” said spokesman Roger Frizzell. He said Carnival plans to review how the tightening of travel rules potentially might affect its passengers.  But he said all cruise passengers since Carnival’s social impact line Fathom inaugurated the first regular cruise service by a U.S. line to Cuba in March 2016 have been traveling under permissible categories for travel to Cuba.  Carnival Corp. has discontinued its Fathom service to Cuba, but its Carnival Cruise Line currently calls in Cuba and its Holland American Line plans to begin sailing there in December.

Other cruise lines also have jumped into the Cuban cruise market. With current sailings and service that is planned, nearly 200,000 travelers are expected to sail from the United States to Cuba this year.

American Airlines, which offers 70 flights weekly to six Cuban cities, doesn’t expect too much impact from the new Cuba policy. Because all but one of its flights — a Charlotte-Havana route — depart from Miami, they have proved popular with Cuban Americans whose travel is not restricted by the new policy.  “Because Miami is the heartland of Cuban exiles, we have a strong market of passengers visiting family and friends in Cuba,” said Martha Pantin, an American spokeswoman.  Since it began regular scheduled flights to Cuba last year, American has opened a ticket office in Havana, begun selling tickets at the Havana airport and installed self-service kiosks there too. “By July, we expect to have self-service check-in at all the airports we serve in Cuba,” said Pantin.

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CHARCOAL — FIRST LEGAL CARGO FROM CUBA IN MORE THAN 50 YEARS — ARRIVES AT PORT EVERGLADES

Original Article:  http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article128433209.html#storylink=cpy

BY MIMI WHITEFIELD

The first Cuban exports since the embargo went into effect over a half century ago arrived at Port Everglades Tuesday as port officials prepared to receive a business delegation from Cuba later in the week.

The delegation also plans to visit the Port of Palm Beach, which is located in Riviera Beach, and Port Tampa Bay durina a swing through the United States that has already included a stop at the Port of Houston. Also on the itinerary are visits to the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Virginia in Norfolk and meetings with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C., members of Congress and the American Association of Port Authorities, which is holding a conference in Tampa.

Two containers of artisanal charcoal made from Cuban Marabú, an invasive woody species from Africa that is considered a nuisance on the island, arrived at the Fort Lauderdale port aboard a Crowley Maritime ship called the K-Storm. The charcoal exports, which are produced by private worker-owned cooperatives, are legal under a rule change by the former Obama administration that allows the importation of some products produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs.

In Cuba, Marabú has taken over wide swaths of idle agricultural land and strangled other plants. But it makes a hardwood charcoal that is winning acceptance as a fuel for pizza and bread ovens in Europe and the Middle East. It will be sold under the Fogo Charcoal brand by various U.S. retailers.

The charcoal deal was put together by Coabana Trading, a subsidiary of Reneo Consulting, a firm chaired by Scott Gilbert, the Washington D.C. lawyer who represented Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who was jailed by the Cuban government for five years.

“This is truly a momentous occasion,” Gilbert said when the deal for 40 tons of charcoal was announced earlier this month. “Now U.S. consumers will be able to purchase this product, as have Europeans and others for many years. More importantly, this marks the beginning of a new era of trade between the United States and Cuba.”

The agreement was struck with CubaExport, a Cuban government entity that develops trade opportunities, but Scott said that the Marabú plant is cut and the charcoal produced by private Cuban cooperatives.

The embargo still remains in effect, but executive orders issued by Obama over the past two years eased some Cuba-related travel and trade restrictions.

Although the transaction was negotiated under the Obama opening, the historic Cuban exports are arriving during the Trump administration. Trump has said he might roll back some of Obama’s executive orders on Cuba unless Cuba offers a better deal to the United States and Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson has said that all Obama’s executive orders on Cuba will be reviewed.

Whether Cuban charcoal becomes a staple of U.S. trade with the island remains to be seen.

“It’s experimental, but the importer hopes to have regular shipments,” said Jay Brickman, vice president of government services and Cuba service at Crowley. Brickman called the shipment “the first truly commercial shipment from a Cuban cooperative to a private U.S. business since the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo was imposed more than 50 years ago.”

The shipping line makes thrice-monthly trips from Port Everglades to Cuba’s container port in Mariel and also calls in Honduras and Guatemala before returning to the Fort Lauderdale port. Crowley mostly carries frozen chicken parts and foodstuffs to Cuba but it also handles small amounts of other legal exports to the island and was involved in shipping some of the equipment that the Rolling Stones used in their historic concert in Cuba in March 2016.

Crowley has been calling on Cuba for the past 15 years. “We average about 40 to 45 loads of cargo [for Cuba] per voyage,” said Brickman.

Another port user, Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist, is currently on its maiden voyage to Cuba from Port Everglades.

On Thursday, a Cuban delegation will be at Port Everglades to sign a memorandum of understanding between the port and the National Port Administration of Cuba that could pave the way for joint marketing studies, joint training and other cooperation, said Jim Pyburn, the port’s director of business development.

“We would like to see U.S. exports to Cuba increase; imports are good, too,” said Pyburn.

He hopes for a future when large U.S. grocery chains and shopping clubs ship food to Cuba from the port. “Cubans are in dire need of paint and basic building materials and we’d like that to be part of the [export] mix, too,” he said.

At Port Everglades, the seven-member Cuban delegation will begin its day with a meeting with Port Director Steven Cernak, tour the port and then lunch with executives from Crowley and the cruise lines. In the afternoon, the delegation will present a “Doing Business with Cuba” seminar for about 150 invited businesses executives. It will include presentations on inland and sea transportation in Cuba, the Mariel Container Terminal and the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, which is prospecting for foreign investment projects leading to sustainable economic development.

The Cuban delegation includes Ana Teresa Igarza, general director of the Mariel zone; José Leonardo Sosa Barrios, deputy director of the Mariel Container Terminal; Eradis González de la Peña, president of Almacenes Universales; René Rolando Fernández, director of inland waterway and sea transport for the Ministry of Transportation; Tania Vazquez, an official with the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment; Joel Lago from the Cuban Embassy in Washington’s economic and trade office and Ernesto Viñas, an adviser to the deputy minister of transportation.

Pyburn said Port Everglades had been working on an MOU with Cuba since early 2016 but originally it was only going to cover Mariel, which is about 28 miles west of Havana. Now, with the involvement of the National Port Administration, it will cover all Cuban ports.

He said the MOU was completed for signing in May. But there was little action until Brickman visited Washington in December. During the trip, Brickman said he received a call from the Cuban Embassy “saying the Cubans would really like to sign a memorandum of understanding with Port Everglades.” He helped facilitate the visit and the signing.

The Port of Palm Beach also is expected to sign a MOU with the Cuban port administration on Friday.

Unloading Charcoal at Port Everglades, Florida

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ALABAMA COMPANY SAYS CUBA NEEDS ITS TRACTORS, BUT APPROVAL POCESS IS SLOW

By Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald, 26 April 2016

Original Article: Alabama Tractors in Cuba?

An Alabama tractor company angling to become the first American business in more than a half century to set up manufacturing operations in Cuba is about midway through the approval process.

Cleber, based in Paint Rock, Alabama, outside Huntsville, wants to assemble small tractors in Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Development Zone for use in Cuba and beyond. The simple tractor model that Cleber wants to produce is called Oggún in homage to the Santeria god of iron, tools and weapons, and it’s designed for small-scale farming.

Cleber is the first U.S. company to receive permission from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Commerce Department for a manufacturing project on the island since the Dec. 17, 2014 rapprochement between the two countries.

When President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March, he said that Cleber “will be the first U.S. company to build a factory here in more than 50 years.”

But Saul Berenthal, a Cuban-American who is a co-founder of the company and its chief operating officer, said it’s not a done deal yet. The Cubans still haven’t given final approval for the project. “I’d say we’re in the middle of the process,” Berenthal said. “Nothing is done until the fat lady sings.” I’d say we’re in the middle of the process. Nothing is done until the fat lady sings.

As overtures to Cuba by American businesses have picked up since the thaw, Berenthal said, “There are a lot of people in Cuba who are very busy and that tends to slow things down.” All documents and manuals also must be translated into Spanish, he said, and there’s plenty of other red tape.

But Berenthal, who was in Cuba two weeks ago for more talks, said he’s hopeful Cuban approval could come within the next 90 days. Cleber has been told it will take about six months to get a factory up and running. Initially, Cleber plans to have 10 employees and expects to add two more people annually as production ramps up.

From just serving the Cuban market, Cleber would like to eventually expand and export to other Central American and South American markets covered by Cuban trade agreements.

Berenthal and co-founder Horace Clemmons set up Cleber shortly after the rapprochement was announced with the idea of producing small-scale tractors particularly suited for the Cuban market.

Many Cuban campesinos still use livestock in the fields or aging tractors, Berenthal said. There are about 60,000 tractors in use in Cuba today, but many of them are from the 1980s, and 500 to 1,000 are lost every year because they are cannibalized for parts or simply stop working, he said.

The simple design of the Oggún, which uses parts that are widely available, also is in keeping with more sustainable agriculture.Cuba began a transition to more sustainable agricultural practices in the 1990s because it didn’t have much choice after the collapse of its benefactor, the old Soviet Union. With supplies of pesticides, fertilizers and oil scarce, Cuba began breaking up large state farms and Cuban producers began turning to organic farming techniques. But production has fallen.

Getting food production back on track is a Cuban priority. “Cuba’s mission is to be able to replace $2 billion in agricultural imports,” Berenthal said. “There’s also the pressure for more food from the tourism industry, which is increasing tremendously.”

“Not often in life do we get the opportunity, through simple efforts on our part, to make a difference in the lives of many. This venture represents that opportunity, to show the Cuban people the benefits of expanded commerce opportunities with the United States,” Clemmons said.

Even though new rules by the Obama administration make it easier to trade with and do business with Cuba, the embargo is still in effect and some U.S. projects require special approvals.

“There will be opportunities in Cuba. There are few places in the world with a real white space,” said Maguerite Fitzgerald, a partner at The Boston Consulting Group. But doing business with Cuba, she added, “isn’t a fast game or one that’s played with traditional rules.”

Berenthal said Cleber is prepared to let the Cuban approval process run its course. But if it drags on too long, Cleber plans to begin assembling Oggún tractors in Alabama and taking orders.

“We’re going to build tractors. We’d like to do it in Cuba,” he said. Cleber thinks Cuba’s Special Economic Development Zone, a 180-square-mile complex under development 28 miles west of Havana, is the place to do it. The Mariel zone wants to attract foreign investment in clean, sustainable projects with export potential.

Farmer Ploughing Field with Oxen

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The New Tractor: Appropriately Small-scale for Small Farms?

 

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A NEW-STYLE CUBAN COOPERATIVE HOPES ROAD TO SUCCESS IS PAVED WITH SPICES

By Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald, September 2, 2015

Complete Article Here: The Purita Cooperative

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carlosfernandez

Carlos Fernandez, Founder of the Purita Cooperative

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CUBA SLOWLY BEGINS TO REJOIN THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM

By Mimi Whitefield, Miami herald, April 19, 2015

Original Article here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article18915939.html#emlnl=The_Americas

CAF-Development Bank of Latin America plans a small overture toward Cuba later this month that could be a stepping stone toward the island rejoining the international financial community.

CAF — whose members include 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries, Spain and Portugal and 14 private banks in the region — is planning a conference with the University of Havana to explore economic development in Latin America and Cuba.

While the April 28-29 conference is an “intellectual” rapprochement, Enrique García, the executive president of CAF, said that while in Havana, he also plans to explore the possibility of Cuba becoming a member of the only multilateral bank owned by emerging nations.

CAF’s interest, García said, is improving the quality of life for the Cuban people. The overture responds more to a long-standing desire by Caracas-based CAF to bring Cuba back into the hemispheric fold than to the new U.S.-Cuba policy and President Barack Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, García said. But he added: “The new U.S.-Cuba relationship obviously facilitates the opportunity to do things. We are very pleased to see the way the situation is turning out. It’s very positive for Cuba, for hemispheric relations.”

FacahadaCAF-2012Caracas-based CAF – Development Bank of Latin America

Unlike other regional financial institutions such as the InterAmerican Development Bank, membership in CAF doesn’t require that a member country also belong to the Organization of American States. Although Cuba was one of the founding members of the OAS, it was suspended for nearly five decades after the organization found Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist government incompatible with OAS principles.

The OAS lifted that suspension in 2009 on the condition that Cuba take part in a “process of dialogue” on OAS principles. But that dialogue never took place and so far Cuba has said no thanks.

For decades, Cuban officials criticized the OAS as a tool of the U.S. government and said the organization would “end up in the garbage dump of history.” But that was before the United States and Cuba began the process of renewing diplomatic relations. “My feeling, however, is that Cuba will not return yet to the OAS,” said José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS. “It’s going to wait for some time. I think the issue of the U.S. continues to be very relevant for them. They want to have normal relations with the U.S. first.

“Second, it’s been so many years that probably they would prefer to go to other institutions of the inter-American system,” Insulza said. “The political step will be taken later. After telling your people for 54 years that the OAS is the worst thing in the world, you just don’t come and sit down without explaining.”

Things are percolating on other fronts too as Cuba tries to shore up its troubled finances and rejoin the global economy. In early March, for example, Paris Club Chairman Bruno Bezard met with Cuban finance officials in Havana. Cuba stopped servicing its debt with the Paris Club, a grouping of 20 industrialized nations, in 1987.

The two sides began talking about a year ago after previous Paris Club negotiations in 2000 broke down. “We have moved very quickly. There is plenty of will on the Cuban side and the side of the creditors to begin this work,” Bezard said at a news conference in Havana. During the talks, how much debt and interest are owed to each Paris Club creditor was discussed. France is currently the largest of 15 Cuba creditors.

Bezard, also director general of the French treasury, recently told AFP that in a matter of months, debt negotiations with Cuba might begin over the approximately $15 billion it owes Paris Club members.

In recent years Russia, Japan, China and Mexico have forgiven a portion of Cuba’s debt and given Havana more manageable repayment terms.

García said that CAF has been exploring the possibility of Cuban membership “for quite some time. The question is when and how and also to be pragmatic. Obviously we have to analyze membership very carefully.”

Cuba’s admission to other international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, however, is much more problematic. Not only does the Helms-Burton Act require the United States to oppose Cuban admission to such international institutions but it also requires the United States to reduce its funding to them if Cuba is admitted over U.S. objections.  But the United States isn’t a CAF member.

García said if Cuba were to join the development bank, the goal “at this stage” would be to provide technical assistance to Cuba rather than loans. In CAF’s 45-year history, García pointed out, it has never had a default.

If Cuba were interested, CAF might, for example, provide technical support as Cuba tries to unify its dual currency system, he said.

Now the focus is on the international seminar, “Opportunities and Challenges for Economic Development in Latin America and Cuba,” that will bring about 150 people together later this month. Among those who have been invited are Enrique Iglesias. former president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We’ll discuss how we approach development issues — how we see the world and how they see things,” García said. “It’s important to engage.”

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BUILDING THE NEW CUBAN ECONOMY

By Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

12/14/2014

Read more here: New Economy

Just a couple years ago, tourists who wanted to sample one of Cuba’s paladares were on their own. A bus from state tour operator Havantur wouldn’t think of stopping to allow visitors to dine on roast pork or grilled red snapper at one of these small private restaurants.

No more. Now, government tourism companies are doing business with them, booking reservations for tour groups at both paladares and casa particulares — private bed-and-breakfasts. “A few of our casas have been block-booked by Havanatur and Transtur,” said Matthew Sellar, who runs Scotland-based CubaCasa, an online booking site for private accommodations.

Call such co-existence the inevitable advance of market forces as the hemisphere’s only communist nation reforms its creaking state-owned, centrally planned economy. But entering the fifth year of a process that ultimately led to the economic reforms, the changes are still very much a work in progress with daunting challenges ahead.

 

MUCH UNFINISHED WORK REMAINS AS CUBA REFORMS ITS ECONOMY

The reforms are not nearly as fast or as profound as many — inside and outside the country — would hope. Cuban leader Raúl Castro has often said the process will continue “sin prisa pero sin pausa” (without haste but without pause).

Since the economic guidelines — or lineamientos — were approved, Cuba has allowed limited self-employment and worker-owned cooperatives, revamped its foreign investment law and agriculture system, allowed the private sale of homes and cars, changed rules so Cubans can more freely travel abroad and begun to phase out the ration book.

“The biggest change is that the government and the party have now accepted the idea of a larger private sector,” said Phil Peters, president of the Cuban Research Center and a regular traveler to Cuba. “You see it in every town in Cuba — and it’s being discussed around every family table in Cuba. It’s a huge ideological shift, and it’s not something you would have seen under Fidel Castro.”

But when Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo visited Cuba in November, he urged the government to pick up the pace. “Spain would like to see a more rapid pace to the economic reforms that give more space for private initiative and foreign investment,” he said.

The changes extend beyond the purely economic.

In 2013, Cuba removed the bureaucratic barriers that made it so hard for Cubans to take foreign trips and also allowed its people to stay abroad for up to two years without losing citizenship rights. That meant Cubans seeking an economic solution no longer had to leave their homeland definitively to take part in the global economy or seek new opportunities.

The reforms also have laid bare Cuba’s racial divide. But unlike in the past, the government has now sanctioned discussion about the economic inequities between blacks and whites.

“The population generally speaking wants change. There is a thirst for change,” said Arch Ritter, an economist and Cuba scholar at Carleton University in Ottawa. “The economic changes are real.” But the government “could prevent the reforms from going much further if they threaten the political control of the [Communist] Party,” he added.

Already some targets have slipped. The government initially said it wanted to move 500,000 Cubans off state payrolls into self-employment by 2011. Then the target was revised to 1.8million workers by 2015. Early this year, state payrolls had been reduced by 596,500 workers through layoffs and by converting workplaces to co-ops. Some 476,000 self-employed workers were registered at the end of September.

But analysts say significantly speeding up dismissals from state enterprises is risky for the Cuban government because it could cause social problems.

So far, the government has made reforms only around the edges. Castro talks of perfecting or updating the current socialist system instead of doing away with it. But it’s also clear Havana wants a smaller government, a more vibrant economy and citizens who don’t look at emigration as the only solution to economic problems.

Though the government has blown hot and cold on foreign investment, officials now say foreign investors are essential to spurring the type of growth Cuba needs to develop. This fall, it released a wish list of 246 projects for which foreign money is welcome.

And the 800-pound gorilla — unifying Cuba’s dual monetary system and fixing its haphazard pricing system — has yet to be dealt with, although the government says it is preparing conditions for elimination of the two-tiered system.

What all the reforms will add up to is something of a mystery. “The Cuban government hasn’t set out clearly what the desired end state should be. They haven’t laid out a clear development model,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at University of California, San Diego and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Castro — who officially became Cuba’s leader in 2008, two years after he took the reins from his ailing brother — has made it clear he won’t be rushed. He “likes to experiment before moving forward and measure the results and the repercussions,” said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in South Florida.

“That’s reasonable, but Raúl just doesn’t have the time,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba expert and economics professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.

FAILED STATUS QUO

The reforms were fueled not so much because Cuban leaders truly embraced them but because they had little choice as the world shifted, support from traditional allies came into question, and the economic status quo became unsustainable.

Cuba has previously flirted with economic reforms and pulled back when its economy has improved. But Amuchastegui said “reversing the process is now out of the question, and everyone knows that.”

So far, the results have been mixed and economic growth has remained sluggish.

The Cuban economy is expected to grow by only 1.3 percent this year, according to government estimates. The 2014 target was 2.2 percent. The merchandise trade deficit in 2013 topped $9billion — the second-highest ever.

At a recent Cabinet meeting, Economy Minister Marino Murillo Jorge said 2015 growth was expected to come in at just over 4 percent. The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates 2015 growth at 3 percent. Mesa-Lago finds both estimates optimistic.

The problem in gauging the reforms’ success or failure, said Peters, is that the process isn’t complete. “There has been substantial progress in many areas, but they’re not done,” he said.

Although self-employment is proceeding more slowly than the government envisioned, it now seems to have moved beyond simply legalizing the shadowy realm of Cuba’s informal economy and black marketeers.

Among the most popular fledgling businesses are those linked to the tourist trade. Both casas and paladares have been legal since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Cuba into an economic crisis. Then the regime seemed to view them grudgingly as competition rather than business partners.

“Now, they’ve begun to integrate them into the broader economy,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in Latin America.

Also spurring the establishment of new paladares is a change in rules that allows them to hire staff rather than just family members. Up to 50 seats are also permitted, compared to 12 previously. Mood lighting, contemporary art, terrace or poolside dining, nouveau cuisine and Cuban fusion dishes are among the features of the most upscale ones.

Sellar recently visited Havana to add more casas particulares to his online booking site. The 20 new ones he liked will bring the total on the site to 120. During the high season in December and January, most have no vacancies, he said. Casa owners also have been busy upgrading with new Chinese bathroom fixtures, air conditioning — even rooftop hot tubs — and adding services. The Artedel Luxury Penthouse in Havana, for example, offers a private driver, a translator and assistant, massage and laundry and will organize salsa and Spanish classes for guests.

In September, the government announced plans to gradually shift Cuba’s 8,984 state-owned restaurants into private hands — although it will still own the land they sit on. And more than three years ago, the government began turning over state-owned beauty salons and barber shops to employees who run them as cooperatives. Murillo said the creation of 498 cooperatives has been approved, and 329 of them are in operation. Another 300 proposals are under evaluation, he said.

“The key now is these non-agriculture cooperatives. If the Cubans do this right, it will create a means to move a large number of small and medium-sized state businesses to the private sector,” Peters said.

But many of the self-employed are hustling to merely get by. During a recent trip to Cuba, LeoGrande found one street-corner cuentapropista whose business was refilling disposable plastic lighters. He’d drill a hole, fill it up with lighter fluid and then cover the hole. Almost all the private ventures he saw — from bicycle repair shops to pizza stalls were tiny. “I got the sense they are open to taking advantage of any opportunity they see,” he said.

When Amuchastegui traveled to Artemisa, a small city west of Havana, in November, he found lots of home building and renovation taking place as well as many small private businesses from cellphone and computer repair shops to carpenters’ workshops. “It’s become business and making money, business and making money,” he said. At the Banco de Crédito y Comercio, said Amuchastegui, lines snaked down the block as people waited to apply for credits, mostly for home improvements.

WEAK AGRICULTURE REFORM

But if self-employment is the most visible of the reforms and among the most popular, agricultural reform may be the least successful.

“For me, agriculture is the key to a successful economic reform, and so far they don’t have the results,” said Mesa-Lago.

In an effort to boost its agricultural output, Cuba announced a new plan for land tenure in 2009 and then further reformed the process in 2012 to allow larger plots and permit small farmers to build homes and barns on the land. Although the state retains ownership of the land, farmers are allowed to cultivate it under 10-year contracts with the state.

“It is not doing the trick,” Mesa-Lago said. Among the problems, he said, is the farmer must be tied to inefficient state farms or cooperatives to get seeds and farm equipment and must market through them. Investments in the land also are restricted by the state.

Other reforms established wholesale markets for farm supplies and eliminated the requirement that 70 percent of the harvest be sold to the state at set prices. But the latter reform applies to only three provinces — Havana, Mayabeque and Artemisa.

“Essentially, they need to provide more incentives for farmers,” Feinberg said.

It’s possible agricultural production will edge up slightly this year, but it will be below 2005 levels and well below the peak year of 1989, said Mesa-Lago. “Cuba is still importing 70 to 90 percent of the food it needs at a cost of around $2 billion annually,” he added. Next year, the government estimates food imports will increase to $2.194 billion.

Since Cuba began allowing its people and permanent residents to freely buy and sell real estate in November 2011, se vende signs have begun to pop up on homes and apartments. Last year, real estate agents, who had long operated illegally, were added to the list of approved self-employment jobs.

Internet sites like Revolico.com and cubisima.com also have sprung up. The cubisima site recently listed a four-bedroom, three-bath colonial home on Miramar’s Fifth Avenue that had been partially renovated for $280,000.

“This is a game changer,” said Antonio R. Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment. For the first time since the early days of the revolution, Cubans have been able to unlock the value of their homes and begin building capital, he said. “It’s a big change in the net worth of the Cuban people — and it doesn’t really involve the government” other than making payment through a state bank, recording a sale and paying tax on it, Zamora said.

Despite all the activity, Mesa-Lago said, there are still only pockets of a market economy in Cuba. The changes to date, he said, add up to only a “fraction of the total economy.” He’d like to see the reforms accelerate and deepen — and he believes Castro, who is 83 years old and plans to retire in February 2018, may have the best chance of pushing them through.

That’s because it’s unclear whether Miguel Díaz-Canel, first vice president of Cuba’s Council of State and Castro’s heir apparent, or whoever succeeds Raúl Castro will have the same political clout as he does to carry out reforms that may be unpopular with Communist Party conservatives, Mesa-Lago said. “They are afraid of delegating economic power, and they fear what happened in Eastern Europe,” he said. “They want to avoid the classic example of the snowball that gets bigger and bigger and can’t be stopped.”

SOME PHOTOS OF THE NEW ECONOMY (by Arch Ritter, 2014)

New Cooperative BusCooperative Bus, coming up Aguilar St. at Reina

Cuba Mar 2014 060Food Vender in the Street

Cuba Mar 2014 080Private Barber Shop on Agramonte

Cuba Mar 2014 105“Casas Particulares” on Neptuno

Cuba Mar 2014 114Advertising Private Enterprises

Cuba Mar 2014 118Tourists at the Plaza Vieja

Cuba Mar 2014 084Not the New Economy: Old Sugar Mill Locomotive on Display near the Capitolio

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MUCH UNFINISHED WORK REMAINS AS CUBA REFORMS ITS ECONOMY

December 14, 2014 – Miami Herald – MIMI WHITEFIELD

Original here: UNFINISHED WORK

Unifying Cuba’s cumbersome dual-currency system tops the list of reforms the government says it will carry out, but analysts say other changes — from measures to speed up foreign investment to a new tax structure — are critical to deepen and expand the reforms.

Cubans use one type of money, the Cuban peso, for everyday purchases and most salaries. But tourists generally use another currency, the convertible peso, which is also needed to purchase coveted consumer items.

To add to the confusion, there’s also one exchange rate for state enterprises and another for Cuba’s fledgling private businesses. The official exchange rate is 25 Cuban pesos (CUPs) for one Cuban convertible peso (CUC), but for state enterprises the CUP is on par with the CUC. One CUC equals $1 U.S.

The government first said it planned to eliminate the unwieldy two-tiered system in 2013 and work toward a single currency, the Cuban peso, but currency unification remains the most important piece of unfinished business as Cuba seeks to overhaul its ailing economy.

“This is probably the most difficult reform of all. It’s extremely complex but it’s also a key reform, especially at a time when Cuba is trying to attract foreign investment,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an economist who has written extensively on Cuba.

Not only is the CUC over-valued but it creates distortions across the Cuban economy. The 1-1 exchange rate, for example, makes it difficult to determine the true productivity of state enterprises. Most wholesale and retail prices in Cuba are out of whack and the over-valued CUC tends to make Cuban exports less competitive.

“It holds them back and deforms everyone’s economic behavior,” said Arch Ritter, an economist and professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The dual-currency system also has created severe wage disparities in Cuba. Those who work for foreign companies and receive tips paid in CUCs are far better off than those who work for the state and receive their salaries in CUPs.

Cuban Economy Minister Marino Murillo said last month that eliminating the dual-currency system is the most important task now before the government and that certain transitional steps are underway.

There had been speculation that currency unification would come as a big bang, but now it appears the government is taking the gradual approach.

Stores that once only accepted CUCs have begun to accept both currencies, and prices are now being posted in both currencies at selected stores. The practice is gradually being rolled out across the island.

The government also has been running small-scale experiments with different exchange rates — 10 CUPs for 1 CUC, for example — in some state industries, said Mesa-Lago.

Analysts said a realistic and unified exchange rate will make the Cuban economy more competitive, but the process isn’t without risks, and there may be winners and losers during the transition.

“They need to be very careful; there could be unrest,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But government officials have tried to calm the population by saying the currency unification will be done in way that won’t be detrimental to those who have maintained their savings in Cuban banks in either CUCs or pesos.

“I don’t know how they will do this,” Mesa-Lago said. “There is also the possibility that it will generate inflation. But if they do it right, in the long-run it will be beneficial.”

Feinberg and a group of scholars and economists from the United States, Cuba and other Latin American countries met over the course of a year to examine how to shape Cuban economic policy in a way that encourages sustainable growth.

“We wanted to look at a country transitioning from a central economy to a somewhat more market-oriented economy” and study it from the point of view of economies that have already gone through the process, Feinberg said.

“We’re not saying you can take lessons learned and copy them like a stencil but there is no point in repeating mistakes,” he said.

The collaboration resulted in a Brookings report, Cuba’s Economic Change in Comparative Perspective, that concludes now is the time for Cuba to accelerate its reforms and prioritize price reforms, expansion of the private sector, foreign investment and gradual engagement with international financial institutions.

Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va., agrees that the government needs to come up with a way to allow lawyers, engineers, architects, consultants and other professionals to engage in self-employment.

Some are getting around the prohibition. An architect, for example, may take out a license as a self-employed construction worker, Peters said.

“But if they don’t find a way to allow skilled professionals to work, they are leaving a lot of money on the table,” he said.

There are other missing pieces — both big and small — in Cuba’s economic reform process. If they’re implemented, Cuba analysts say they would make the island’s fledgling entrepreneurs more successful and could help revive economic growth.

When Cuba’s National Assembly convenes Friday, it’s expected to review the reforms to date, and discuss the 2015 budget and the island’s new foreign investment law.

Not so much a missing piece as a question mark is Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment, which officials have said is essential to the island’s development plans.

This fall, Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz announced 246 projects adding up to an investment of $8.7 billion that are open to foreign investment. The government hopes to attract $2 billion to $2.5 billion annually from foreign investors.

Among the projects on the wish list are 86 in the oil industry, 56 tourism projects — including golf-condo projects and 21 new hotels, a plant to produce bottles and another to produce aluminum cans, shrimp and peanut farming projects and wind farm projects where 100 percent foreign ownership will be allowed.

Health, education, the media and the military remain closed to foreign investment.

The Cubans hope that their foreign investment list in combination with the new foreign investment law plus a special economic zone tied to expansion at the Port of Mariel will entice the investors who are needed to jump-start development.

Malmierca has said the Cuban economy must grow at the lofty level of 7 percent annually for the type of development the country needs and that foreign investment will play an important roll in that equation.

The foreign investment law exempts investors from paying a tax on profits for eight years and cuts the tax from 30 to 15 percent.

But foreign firms will not be free to hire and pay workers directly.

“A lot of potential foreign investors question whether there will be sufficient freedom, profitability and security for their investments,” Feinberg said.

Malmierca himself also pinpointed another issue that makes foreigners wary. “Many people complain about the time in which we do things, but everyone’s got their own pace. We’re going to do this our way and we want to do it well,” he said.

In the past, approvals for joint ventures have often come at a glacial pace and the process has been excessively bureaucratic.

The 180-square-mile Mariel Special Development Zone, about 30 miles west of Havana, is supposed to be a focal point for foreign investment and offers the possibility of 100 percent ownership for foreign ventures that set up there.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff jointly opened the first phase of the nearly $1 billion Port of Mariel renovation in January. It is largely financed by Brazil and Cuba purchased more than $800 million in goods and services from Brazilian suppliers during construction.

The container port, which is eventually supposed to take Havana’s place as Cuba’s main commercial port, is operating and a ship from South Florida, a Crowley vessel loaded with frozen chicken, was the first to call. A rail link to the port also has been completed.

But those who have toured the special development zone recently say it is far from finished and companies are yet to move in. Build-out for specific projects is expected to take place some time next year.

Tim Cole, the British ambassador to Cuba, was among the recent visitors. “What’s immediately striking as you drive in is the ambitious nature of the project. The area set aside for the zone is huge… with plans that include logistics facilities for offshore oil exploration and general cargo and bulk foods facilities,” he wrote in his blog.

“There are, apparently, more than 100 companies who have expressed an interest with the first projects likely to be approved by the end of the year,” Cole wrote. “Deadlines are tight as those companies coming to Mariel will need efficient services — for example, water, sewerage, electricity and high-speed Internet — to be able to operate.’’

As the work proceeds in Mariel, enforcement of the slew of new regulations and tax evasion by budding entrepreneurs remain problems for the government.

Granma, the Communist Party daily, recently reported that the government plans to tackle a number of enforcement issues in 2015. Among them: the under-reporting of income by self-employed workers and misrepresentation of how many workers they employ in their businesses.

Changes allowing Cubans to take full advantage of the new real estate market are also needed. Before Cubans could legally buy and sell homes, a permuta or swap was the way people moved from house to house — often with an under-the-table cash payment to sweeten the deal. Some of that sleight-of-hand has translated to the new market with off-the-books foreign owners putting up money for purchases, buyers and sellers declaring a lower-than-actual purchase price to lessen taxes and sales masquerading as donations.

To curb such practices and help calculate taxes, Granma reported that Cuba will begin using a market-based assessment tool that considers a number of factors, including the number of rooms, location and amenities, such as a garden or patio.

Granma also said the government planned to crack down on illegal economic activity in the coming year and concentrate on increasing the productivity and efficiency of state enterprises to stem losses. A new 2 percent tax on wholesale transactions also will be levied in 2015.

Other issues Cuba needs to address as it shapes economic policy are boosting agricultural production by giving small farmers more incentives, making more credits available so small entrepreneurs can expand their business, and improving wholesale markets, according to Cuba watchers.

Ritter said that even though he’d like to see a complete overhaul of Cuba’s labor laws and wage system, “I don’t think they’re going to do this.”

“The lineamientos were most ambitious,” he said. “If the Cubans could manage to do everything outlined in the lineamientos, it would be a huge reform.”

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