• The objective of this Blog is to facilitate access to research resources and analyses from all relevant and useful sources, mainly on the economy of Cuba. It includes analyses and observations of the author, Arch Ritter, as well as hyper-links, abstracts, summaries, and commentaries relating to other research works from academic, governmental, media, non-governmental organizations and international institutions.
    Commentary, critique and discussion on any of the postings is most welcome.
    This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' original blog "Generation Y" this is not dedicated to those with names starting with the letter "A". Instead, it draws from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation A which begins with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut at a University Commencement:
    "... I hereby declare you Generation A, as much as the beginning of a series of astounding triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

The Economic Consequences of Lifting the US Travel Restrictions on Cuba

On Wednesday, June 30, 2010,  the House Agriculture Committee approved  by 25 to 20 to take the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645) for a vote in the House of Representatives. This bill was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on February 23 2010 by Representatives Collin Peterson (D, Minnesota) and Jerry Moran (R, Kansas) with forty bi-partisan House cosponsors.

The Peterson-Moran Bill may be a winner. It would be difficult for Congressmen and Senators in the Republican farm states to vote down an agricultural promotion bill – even with the travel provision. The Bill is supported by a coalition of some 130 US organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, AFL-CIO, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Cato Institute.

A group of 74 of Cuba’s most prominent political prisoners, independent librarians, bloggers, independent journalists, magazine editors, clerics, intellectuals, artists, members of the civil society and of political organizations also supported the Bill in a letter to the Members of the United States House of Representatives and its Agriculture Committee. It is therefore difficult for remaining hard-liners in the US Congress to argue that the Bill is objectionable because it would be supportive of the Cuban Government.  Of course the Cuban Government would benefit from the foreign exchange earnings from tourism. But all citizens would benefit. Most important,  the process of normalization would be well launched.

Enactment of the Bill would generate major benefits for both countries. By modifying financial terms and requirements of sales to Cuba, it is expected that the US share of Cuba’s food imports will increase further. It is already the largest exporter of agricultural products to Cuba, with food exports reaching US$ 711 million in 2008. The U S quickly displaced Canada as the main food supplier following the 2000 liberalization of agricultural exports by the Bush Administration.

American citizens will acquire a right to travel that they lost, in large part, in 1961. However, Cuban Americans have been able to return to Cuba and many other US citizens have travelled to Cuba for educational and religious reasons, or illegally. In fact, in 2003, there were some 85,000 US visitors.  Last year, following the liberalization of travel for Cuban-Americans, this number was estimated at around 300,000.

Cuba will benefit from lower cost food imports from the US – though this will further reduce the incentive for Cuba to improve its own faltering agricultural economy, where the 2010 sugar harvest will likely be about 1 million tons, the lowest since 1908.

A Tourism “Tsunami ” for Cuba?

Free travel for US citizens to Cuba will produce a deluge of US visitors to Cuba. Among the varieties of tourists would be the following:

  • Curiosity tourism. There could be a huge tourist influx of US citizens wanting to see Cuba for the first time since 1961. Relatively few US citizens appear to have broken US travel restrictions so that the pent-up demand is enormous.
  • Family Reunification tourism. When all controls are lifted on the US side for travel to Cuba, a large increase in short-term visits by Cuban-Americans for family purposes is likely to occur. Such an increase already occurred in 2009-10.
  • Sun, Sea and Sand tourism. Many US citizens, especially from the North Eastern and Central parts of the country will likely follow the winter-escaping Canadians to Cuban beaches for one to two week periods.
  • “Snow-bird” tourism. Some US citizens, mainly retirees, will spend several of the winter months in Cuba. This will be limited until accommodation arrangements such as time-share condominium arrangements are possible.
  • Medical tourism. There may be some travel to Cuba for access to medical services which will likely continue to be inexpensive relative to the United States.
  • Convention tourism. Short-term visits for conventions could increase significantly.
  • Cultural and Sport tourism. One might expect more visits for purposes of interacting with and experiencing Cuban art, music, cinema, and sports.
  • Educational tourism. It is likely that American students and teachers at various levels would enroll or visit Cuban institutions of higher learning or cultural and sports centers for courses, years abroad, sabbaticals, language training etc., in much greater numbers than have been possible under the embargo.
  • March-Breaker” tourism. Students from the US are likely to try a visit to Cuba for the March Break, instead of the Maya Riviera, Florida or elsewhere.

One could imagine US tourism quickly doubling the 2009 Canadian level of 915,000 and redoubling again in a decade or so, as Cuba’s capacity to accommodate more tourists expanded. This would perhaps double Cuba’s total foreign exchange earnings from tourism within a decade, which were already at about $US 2.6 billion by 2008.

The “Jitters” for President Raul Castro?

The Peterson-Moran Bill will also give the Cuban leadership the jitters as 50 years of pent-up tourism from the US inundates the Island.  While the Act is an economic “win-win” for both countries, the deluge of US visitors could have an impact on internal politics in Cuba.  It has often been said – perhaps with some truth – that the best ambassadors for the US are its own citizens. They undoubtedly will be treated warmly and will bring charm and goodwill as well as dollars. They may also bring “contamination” from the perspective of the Government of Cuba  as Cuban citizens learn more about life in the United States on a first hand basis. Increased knowledge and independent income generation will make Cuban citizens more restless – especially if the Cuban government does not immediately liberalize foreign travel for its own citizens.  Indeed, the Cuban government may attempt to decelerate the wave.

Negotiating normalization with Cuba is a politically contentious, complex but ultimately low priority issue for the Obama Administration given all the other problems it faces. It is helpful for Obama to have the normalization process move forward by independent bi-partisan Congressional action.

Will the Cuban Government respond constructively by releasing the political prisoners incarcerated in 2003, or by dropping the 10% tax on US dollar remittance payments and transfers?

Will the Cuban Government, in reply, liberalize travel abroad for its own citizens to the US and elsewhere?

Actions such as these would facilitate additional steps by the United States in the difficult process of normalization and reconciliation.

School Children, Parque Central Havana, Circa 1996

Photograph by the Author


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Bad News for Cuba’s Nickel Industry and Sherritt

A major technological breakthrough in the production of “NPI”, a substitute for refined nickel mined and concentrated in Cuba – as well as Canada. Russia and Australia – is already having a major impact on the nickel market and causing reductions in the price of nickel. This will probably reduce Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings from nickel exports in future, and will likely halt any expansions of nickel mining for years or even decades to come.

A June 11 2010 report by Andy Hoffman in the Toronto Globe and Mail describes a new product, “nickel pig iron” or “NPI”,  that permits a low cost alternative to nickel with obvious implications for the Cuban, Canadian and international nickel industry. NPI is a low-cost and low-tech innovation in the production of stainless steel, developed since 2006 on China. It now accounts for about 10% of world’s $21-billion-a-year nickel market and is increasing rapidly in China, as indicated in the chart below. It also has a long way to go before it captures a large share of the Chinese nickel market.The emergence of NPI has reduced the demand for smelted and refined nickel from traditional sources and will likely lead to further reductions in future. The peak prices of nickel in 2006-2007 that resulted from the tightening market generated by sustained Chinese economic growth over the last 30 years and the general rapid expansion of the world economy from 2000 to 2007 are likely a thing of the past. The cost of NPI will put a permanent ceiling on nickel prices and perhaps reduce demand and mine extraction for traditional nickel in future.

The new technology is based on the direct smelting via cheap electricity of Indonesian or Philippine ore that contains very low levels of nickel – around 2% – but also around 50% iron ore together with coking coal and a mix of gravel and sand . This produces the NPI that is suitable for stainless steel products.

Hoffman estimates that future prices for nickel will remain below about $8.50 per lb. after peaking at about $24.00 a pound in 2007. This means that Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings will never again reach the approximate $2.33 billion of 2007. More likely they would remain around one third this level and then perhaps diminish if new mine development were to be halted because of sustained low prices and shrinking markets.

But there are some questions about the long term attractiveness of NPI.

  1. Does it produce a high grade stainless steel of consistent quality?
  2. To what extent is the electricity used for the smelting process subsidized?
  3. To what extent does the relative cost competitiveness depend on China’s grossly and obviously undervalued exchange rate?
  4. Will environmental concerns and potential pollution abatement costs of mining coal for coking purposes raise costs and reduce the competitiveness of China’s NPI production?

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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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