Investing in Cuba

Investing in Cuba
Tuesday June 16 2015 | @ftreports
Renewal of
relations with
US heightens
Tentative signs of openness raise hopes, but is the
island ready to do business? By John Paul Rathbone
here is a new entry among
Cuba’s roll of important
dates. Alongside Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement
and the January 1 1959 “triumph of the revolution”, there is now
December 17 2014.
That was the day when Barack Obama
and Raúl Castro, the US and Cuban presidents, announced that they wanted to
normalise bilateral relations and end
more than 50 years of cold war enmity.
To be sure, communist Cuba was
already changing. After formally
becoming president in 2008, Mr Castro
began a tentative economic liberalisation process to boost the country’s flag-
ging economy — especially urgent now
that Venezuela’s growing crisis jeopardises the $1.5bn of aid it sends every year.
But the December 17 announcement
lit a bonfire of expectations among US
businesses — even if Cuba’s $80bn economy, for all its exotic allure, is much the
same size as the Dominican Republic’s.
“There is a new sense of excitement,
of US companies coming to look and
thinking of starting seed businesses,”
says one long-established European
investor in Havana. “It makes sense.
Start small, learn how the system works
and then see how it all goes.”
So, how might it all go? US and Cuban
officials have warned that expectations
Diplomatic flurry: (top to bottom)
Raúl Castro meets President Obama,
Pope Francis and President Putin;
Fidel Castro with François Hollande
in May
Reuters; Getty
are too high. “Prospects [in Washington]
for lifting the embargo in the short term
are dim,” cautions Michael Shifter of the
The notion that US businesses and
tourists might soon turn Cuba into a
Disney-style communist theme park
with McDonald’s outlets spread along
Havana’s seafront is also unlikely;
Havana has run its own government for
Furthermore, even if the US embargo
were to end overnight, the island still
faces an “internal embargo” — the
thicket of Soviet-style bureaucracy and
centralising socialist attitudes that
makes doing business difficult.
“All of Raúl’s economic reforms
Even if the US embargo
ends, an ‘internal embargo’
remains — a thicket of
Soviet-style bureaucracy
Obama’s overtures
divide opinion at home
Thaw in relationship has
played better than
expected — with some
Page 2
Glimmers of glasnost
The Communist party
retains a tight grip but
there are signs of a shift
Page 2
The Miami connection
‘Blood always trumps
politics’ — Florida’s
Cuban-American link
Page 3
Government backs
co-operative thinking
Leadership promotes
‘a more social form’ of
non-state production
Page 4
involved decentralisation, which is
good, as Cuba needs that,” says Rafael
Hernández, editor of Temas, a statepublished cultural magazine. “The
problem is this . . . has not happened.”
Still, change is coming to Cuba, however slowly, and one way to mark the
changes is to travel back to Pope John
Paul II’s 1998 visit. “Do not be afraid,” he
said. “May Cuba, with all its magnificent
potential, open itself to the world, and
Today, Cubans appear less afraid.
Activists are still hounded, but there is a
willingness among many to speak their
Continued on page 2
Island is poised to call
time on dual currency
Cuba looks likely to
drop its parallel
system by the end of
the year
Page 4
Tuesday 16 June 2015
Investing in Cuba
after 55 years
but overtures
divide opinion
Renewal of
relations with
US heightens
Diplomacy Renewed relations play well in the US
— although not with everyone, writes Geoff Dyer
arack Obama surprised the
world in late December with
the announcement that he
planned to normalise relations with Cuba, bringing to
an end more than five decades of diplomatic estrangement from the island
nation 90 miles south of Florida.
In April, he held his first proper meeting with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro at
a summit in Panama. “The United States
will not be imprisoned by the past; we
are looking to the future,” President
Obama said. “I’m not interested in battles thatstartedbeforeIwas born.”
But six months after the original
announcement, what has emerged is a
much more patient and cautious opening betweentheformeradversaries.
The Obama administration is working on two fronts. It is trying to use a
modest relaxation in business and trade
with Cuba to press the government into
more political reform. At the same time,
it hopes to wear down resistance in
the US Congress to a broader relaxation of the nearly 55-year embargo.
For US companies keen to jump into
a new market, it is likely to be a
slow process.
So far, the administration’s policy changes towards Cuba have
been limited to what is possible through
executive ordersissuedbythepresident.
The White House has made it somewhat easier for Americans to visit Cuba
and has issued a licence for a ferry service from Florida. Restrictions remain,
but tourists report there is little attempt
by US authorities to check whether they
qualify for one of the 12 categories of
Difficult call: President Obama
(top) talks to President Castro in
December; (below) US senator
Marco Rubio is a critic — Getty
approved travel. Another order made it
easier for US companies to sell telecommunicationsequipmenttoCuba.
In late May, the administration formally took Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. While largely symbolic in terms of helping US companies
do business in the country, it is an
important step in legitimising relations.
US officials say an agreement is close
on opening formal embassies — at the
moment, the US has an “interests section” in Havana.
Despite the hype, most restrictions on
US companies remain. More substantial
changes will require Congress to start
peeling back the web of laws that make
“This is only the door cracking open,”
says Peter Kucik, a sanctions specialist
at the Inle Advisory Group in Washington. “It is the beginning of the process.”
How will Congress respond? One of
the most surprising aspects of Mr
Obama’s policy is how popular it has
been. Not only have polls shown broad
public support for the push to normalise relations with Havana, but some
have shown a majority of CubanAmericans in favour of the move.
In Congress, there has been
bipartisan support. On board the
plane to Havana in December that
brought home Alan Gross — a US contractor whose release from a Cuban jail
after five years was an effective prerequisite for the Obama announcement —
was Republican senator Jeff Flake.
But there is also a bipartisan group of
members of Congress and other senior
figures who are bitterly opposed to any
further rapprochement with Cuba,
including three potential candidates for
the Republican presidential nomination
— senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
In early June, the Floridian Mr Rubio
said he would block efforts to appoint an
ambassador to Cuba if the administration did not first introduce far-reaching
political reforms and settle billions of
dollars of legal claims over property
Given such a climate over the idea of
sending an ambassador to Havana, few
analysts are expecting Congress to make
any significant changes to Cuba sanctions legislation in the near future.
As a result, the administration is
developing a longer-term strategy of
using modest changes to build a case for
relaxing more restrictions. The changes
to date have been designed to encourage
the sorts of private entrepreneurship
that escape the controls of the state —
an oblique way of putting pressure on
the Cuban government but also of
showing critics at home the potential
for further engagement.
By making it easier for US companies
to export telecoms equipment to Cuba,
the administration is clearly trying to
boost the sort of internet access and
other communications that might subtly undermine political control.
Last month, US-based IDT Corporation announced that it had signed a contract with the Cuban telecom company
to provide direct phone links between
the two countries.
After Mr Rubio used a recent Senate
hearing to claim the Cuban government
would be the main beneficiary of more
US tourists, Mr Flake brought out his
tablet to show off the new operation in
Cuba of Airbnb, the holiday home rental
site. “If you just scroll down, they have
now more than 2,000 listings in Cuba,”
he said. “Virtually all these listings are
people in their homes.”
Ted Piccone, an expert on Latin
America at the Brookings Institution in
Washington, says that Airbnb’s Cuban
business is a good example of “how US
companies can do business in Cuba in
ways that empower Cuban people”.
Glimmers of glasnost
begin to warm island
The government retains a
tight grip, but there are
signs it is loosening a little,
writes John Paul Rathbone
Shortly after the US and Cuba
announced talks about normalising
relations, a neighbourhood watch committee — often a bastion of communist
prying — held its regular Committee for
the Defence of the Revolution meeting
not far from Havana’s Interior Ministry.
According to witnesses, many of the
government stalwarts there were wary
of the new US approach. “You can’t trust
the Yankees. Their opening is a Trojan
horse,” was the general tone. Others saw
the prospect as an opportunity for themselves, their families and their country.
Yet they muffled their opinions out of
habit and, perhaps, of fear. In later meetings,theyslowlyvoicedtheirviews.
The anecdote is emblematic of the
state of Cuban political debate. It is cautious, often suspicious, and the state
keeps a firm grip. But spaces for political
argument are slowly opening up, thanks
in part to President Raúl Castro’s encouragementofeconomiccriticism.
The process is relevant particularly to
foreign investors, who will encounter
wildly contrasting attitudes depending
on which bureaucrats they deal with.
The journalist
Yoani Sánchez is
part of a fledgling
media tolerated by
the government
“The Tourism Ministry is businesslike
and open-minded. They are mostly
pragmatists drawn from the military
who have long dealt with foreign businessmen,” notes a European diplomat.
“The agriculture ministry, by contrast,
is still Soviet — closed, suspicious and
hard to deal with.”
In the press, there are dull organs such
as Granma, the official Communist party
newspaper, which even Mr Castro has
called an “insult to the intelligence”. But
their main alternative is a fledgling independent media — such as Havana Times,
a bilingual website, and,
set up by dissident journalist Yoani
Sánchez — where coverage is lively, well
Only 5 per cent of Cubans have unfettered internet access, but the news sites
suggest growing tolerance of dissent.
This can be seen on officially sanctioned
online forums. In one sponsored by the
Union of Young Communists, an anonymousposterasked:“Iwouldliketoknow
if direct elections for the principal leadership positions of the country are under
consideration . . . the current system is
Glimmerings of glasnost can be seen
in debating groups such as that hosted
by Temas, a state-sponsored cultural
magazine, or independent groups such
as “Cuba Posible”, whose website carries
a range of opinion pieces from diehard
communists and exiled dissenters.
Such shifts do not portend imminent
political change. Dissidents can travel
abroad but extreme views are punished
in Cuba. Last year, there were almost
9,000 short-term arrests of pro-democracy activists, dissidents say. However,
there has been a 5 per cent drop in detentionsinthefirstfourmonthsofthisyear.
“That drop is a potentially positive
sign of the effects of the December 17
announcement of the US-Cuba talks,”
another European diplomat said.
The US wants to press the issue of
human rights but the process is difficult.
Talks about re-establishing embassies
almost bogged down over the US desire
to promote human rights from Havana.
US political rhetoric can also colour the
domestic economic conversation.
Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas,
notes: “Raúl Castro has said the private
sector is not an agent of capitalism, and
has spoken of the need to end old habits
of thinking. But for the US, the private
sector is an agent of capitalism. So there
is a problem of rhetoric on both sides.”
Many analysts argue that the faster
the US embargo ends, the faster
reforms will happen — and vice versa.
(Critics hold diametrically opposed
views). Either way, next April’s party
congress will be a barometer of the government mood.
Mr Castro, 83, says he wants to deepen
economic reforms, and so boost the
probability of a soft landing for 2018,
when he says he will retire. Retirement
need not, however, preclude him from
remaining head of the party, where
power ultimately resides, or from
appointing someone from his inner circletobecomethenextpresident.
“Cuba is a long game,” notes one US
official of the island’s transition.
“Patience, much patience,” is required,
as Mr Castro himself has said.
Continued from page 1
minds, and some official tolerance too.
One sign of this is the continued existence of news website, set
up by dissident journalist Yoani Sánchez
— even if limited internet access means
few of Cuba’s 11m people can read it.
The world has also begun to open up to
Cuba. Before December 17, there were
only 35 enquiries from foreign investors
about Mariel — the $800m port and free
trade zone on Cuba’s northern coast (see
page 3), built by Odebrecht, a Brazilian
construction company, and operated by
Singapore’s PSA. “After December 17,
there is talk of 300 enquiries,” notes
Emilio Morales of the Miami-based
Havana Consulting Group — although
how many of these enquiries turn into
The embargo, whose removal
requires settling tricky issues such as
$7bn of US nationalisation claims, puts a
brake on US businesses. It can also put a
brake on third-country businesses, too.
“We have to be entirely self-financed,”
comments one European resort operator. “The new US approach has been
‘that may be no longer illegal, but it is
not necessarily legal either’ — which
makes financing problematic.”
Lastly, Cuba is opening to the world,
albeit slowly. The Communist party is
torn between letting reforms rip and
Foreign direct investment
$m (’000)
Dominican Republic
2005 06 07 08 09 10 11
Sources: Unctad, Peterson Institute
for International Economics
maintaining control. Little surprise that
results are disappointing — as was tacitly
recognised by Mr Castro, who wants to
deepen reforms, increasing the chances
of an economic “soft landing” in 2018,
“Dealing with the internal embargo is
one of Cuba’s biggest challenges,” says
Pedro Freyre of US law firm Akerman.
“The state might want to let small businesses grow . . . but then it often taxes,
regulates and clobbers them.” One sign
of ambivalence is the emphasis on statesanctioned co-operatives, rather than
the 500,000 self-employed workers.
Cuba also suffers from limited bandwidth to deal with foreign interest. That
is as true of Havana’s stretched tourist
capacity as it is of Cuban officials with
sufficient authority to make decisions.
Mariel’s six approved projects, for example, required approval from the Council
Even so, there is strong business interest in Cuba’s so-called “knowledge economy”, especially biotechnology. A handful of large foreign corporates — such as
Canadian miner Sherritt International,
and France’s drinks maker Pernod
Ricard and telecom’s group Bouygues —
set up profitable businesses years ago. So
too, more recently, have émigré momand-popentrepreneursfromMiami.
At Miami discount store Ñooo! Que
Barato! (or “Wow! How cheap!”) CubanAmericans can buy school uniforms for
relatives’ children. The island’s recent
flowering of private restaurants and
hotels — mostly refurbished private
homes — is also largely financed by
Cuban-Americans, who remit up to
$2bn annually to relatives.
The message from foreign businesses
in Cuba is that the island is a potentially
exciting market for anyone content to
wait for uncertain and long-term
returns. In the meantime, a word of caution about the surge of private foreign
interest in Havana property, where purchases are possible only via a resident
Cuban partner, who then has legal title.
“The outsider takes all the risk,” says
one European businessman. “I’ve heard
as many unhappy as happy stories.”
GDP growth
Annual % change
Latin America
& Caribbean
*2014 data: Cuba = EIU estimate;
Latin America = IMF estimate
Source: UN ECLAC
Tuesday 16 June 2015
Investing in Cuba
Straits dealing bridges many gaps
Diaspora Retailers in
Florida cash in on items
needed by customers
across the water,
writes Cardiff Garcia
erafín Blanco has been
described as the Florida
Cuban émigré community’s
equivalent of Sam Walton, the
founder of Walmart. But the
merchandise he sells mostly ends up
back in Cuba, which he has not visited
since he left nearly 50 years ago as a
teenager, and where he has no stores.
“People in Cuba still need a lot of
things they can’t find,” he says, “and
they deserve a good life.”
Mr Blanco owns Ñooo! Que Barato!
(which roughly translates to “Wow! How
cheap!” though some suggest a coarser
interpretation), a store spanning 40,000
sq ft in the working-class city of Hialeah,
nearMiami,wherethree-quartersofresidents areCubanorCuban-American.
He is among a group of local vendors
who are famous to visitors from Cuba
and their Florida relatives, selling cheap
items that are in short supply on the
communist island and expensive for the
average Cuban. These retailers, like the
Cuban-Americans who send more than
$2bn in cash remittances annually, have
provided a source of capital for families
and a growing number of privately run
small businessesinCuba for years.
“Hialeah is the blue-collar underbelly
of a vibrant economy,” says Joe Scarpaci,
executive director of the Center for the
Study of Cuban Culture and Economy.
Mr Scarpaci, who recently wrote an
article about the economic ties between
Hialeah and Cuba in the journal Focus
on Geography, sees a day when these
vendors can use their existing brand
recognition to open franchises in
Havana if Cuba liberalises enough.
For now, the items sold by these outlets reflect the oddities of the Cuban
economy and highlight the importance
of this economic lifeline. Owing to the US
embargo on trade and historic ties with
Russia, for instance, the modern cars
used as taxis are Russian, not American.
Primary colours: Serafin Blanco, founder of the Ñooo! Que Barato! store, with school uniforms in Cuban hues — AP
Often the spare parts are scarce. Fabián
Zakharov, whose father is Russian and
mother is Cuban, imports the parts from
Russia to his shop in Hialeah and sells
them to Cubancustomers.
“It’s very common for people to ask
two questions when they come to me,”
he says in Spanish. “First, how much
does the part weigh? And second, how
much are the taxes on it?” He refers to
arbitrary charges imposed by Cuba for
importing certain parts and the rules
governing the amount of cargo that can
be carried into the country.
Internet access in Cuba is unavailable
in the home and prohibitively expensive
outside it. Yoel Juarez therefore sells old
Gateway laptops for $150 along with
dial-up modems that Cubans can use to
go online illicitly at their workplaces.
Mr Blanco sells reusable diaper pins,
which appeal to Cubans who cannot
afford or find disposable diapers. School
uniforms for Cuban children are always
in demand and easy to find in Hialeah,
where students wear burgundy outfits
that closely resemble those of their
counterparts in Havana.
These stores often pack items tightly
into an easily carried bundle. Direct mail
between the US and Cuba remains
banned, and the packages are normally
taken to Cuba in person on charter
flights that shuttle between Florida and
Cuba. When families and businessmen
cannot make the trip and prefer to avoid
the commission taken by the Cuban government on the shipment of goods, they
sometimes hire a mula (mule) as an
The commerce that connects Hialeah
and Havana is in contrast to the fractiousness — perceived and real — that
long defined the relationship between
Cubans and their former compatriots
now in Florida, the exiles whose businesses and homes were expropriated by
the Castro regime soon after its revolution in 1959.
Those tensions remain but are now
easing. Hardline Cuban-Americans,
who advocate a policy of isolating Cuba
and the continuance of the US embargo
on trade and travel, are ageing and losing political influence. Meanwhile their
children and grandchildren prefer a
New port zone harbours big ambitions
A would-be capitalist enclave
in a socialist state, Mariel
is emblematic of change in
Cuba, writes Marc Frank
Waves of foreign businessmen have
washed up on Cuba’s shores since the
thawing of US-Cuba diplomatic relations. They are following such prominent figures as the president of France,
foreign ministers of Japan, the Netherlands and Norway, the commerce secretary of Spain and the EU’s foreign policy
chief, Federica Mogherini.
Invariably, the delegations want to see
the new Mariel port and container terminalwestofHavana,andthesurrounding Chinese-style special development
zone. The terminal is meant to lure ships
from a renovated Panama Canal, and the
free-trade zone is a would-be capitalist
enclaveinastaunchlysocialist country.
But like waves receding from the
island’s beaches, the visitors have left
little in the sand. While some are looking to set up shop in the next few years,
most await further evidence of a new
Cuban attitude, and that the change in
US policy will lead to more progress in
the contentious relationship.
The Mariel special development zone
is a metaphor for Cuba, a work in
progress whose future appears both
bright and clouded by risk. The terminal, built with Brazilian credit and managed by Singapore’s PSA, is poised to
boom if the US embargo is lifted. It
anchors the zone, with a competitive tax
and customs regime. But this vast area
still lacks basic infrastructure, development and a competitive edge in terms of
property ownership, labour policy and
the legal environment.
In Mariel, as elsewhere in Cuba, investors must go through a government hiring hall for labour, ostensibly designed
Eye to the future: the cranes of Mariel
to protect Cubans from capitalist labour
practices. Investors pay the state in
exchangeable currency, while the workers are paid in pesos.
“Our companies’ business model is to
have total control of their employees,”
said one Japanese diplomat after a visit
by 30 companies. “They all adopted a
wait-and-see attitude.”
Eighteen months after the zone
opened, just six projects have been
approved, all but one involving just a
few million dollars, employing only dozens of workers and authorised by the
Council of Ministers. That is in part
because while the zone has a 60-day
approval process, one must first develop
a joint plan with one or more ministries,
which can take months or even years.
Spanish hotel food supplier Hotelsa
Alimentación announced in April that it
would build a €6m factory at Mariel
employing 50 workers. And CMA CGM
of France is set to operate a 17 hectare
logistics centre on site. Both have been
active in Cuba for more than a decade.
President Castro has reduced imports,
cut payrolls and subsidies, and called on
the government to get its bureaucratic
and financial houseinorder.
Cuba is juggling various initiatives and
trying to play by established international rules as it seeks billions of dollars
in investments. The initiatives include:
improving relations with the US; negotiations to normalise relations with the
EU; restructuring debt; Mariel; tax
incentives for investors; and expansion
The Communist party adopted a comprehensive reform plan in 2011 that
pledged to “enhance Cuba’s credibility
in its international economic relations
by strictly observing all the commitments that have been entered into”.
While companies inspect Mariel, the
dignitaries leading the delegations have
held talks with Cuban leaders, where reengagement with the global economy
and debt have been high on the agenda.
The reform plan calls for hastened
rescheduling of Cuba’s foreign debts and
implementation of “flexible restructuring strategies for debt repayment” soon.
debts with Russia, China, Japanese commercial creditors and Mexico as a prelude to more investment, and has made
paymentsontimetosuppliersandcreditors. The Economist Intelligence Unit
puts the debt at $25.8bn, some $8bn of
When François Hollande, the French
president, visited Cuba last month, he
told companies in his delegation that
Havana and the Cuba Working Group of
the Paris Club of western creditor
nations had reached agreement on the
amount owed from a 1980s default.
“The first phase is over,” Mr Hollande
said, referring to the work needed before
formal negotiations start. Cuba owes
Paris Club members about $15bn in
defaulted debt, interest and service
charges. France, Japan, Spain and Italy
The Paris Club negotiations are
expected to begin before the end of the
year and will be the first multinational
attempt at restructuring in 15 years.
Success would open the way to settling
old commercial debt held by the London Club and eventually access to multilateral lending organisations if the US
lifts opposition to Cuba’s membership.
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Geoff Dyer
US diplomatic correspondent
John Paul Rathbone
Latin America editor
Richard Feinberg
Professor, UCLA San Diego
Jerry Andrews
Commissioning editor
Marc Frank
Journalist based in Cuba
Steven Bird
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FT Alphaville reporter
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better diplomatic relationship with
Cuba, as do the Cuban immigrants who
arrived more recently.
Such attitudes are increasingly visible
on both sides of the Florida Straits. In
Cuba, 97 per cent of citizens believe that
a normalised relationship with the US
would be good for them, according to a
recent, secretive poll conducted by the
consultants Bendixen and Amandi.
“I’m not going back to Cuba unless the
Castros are gone,” says Angél Elías, who
left three decades ago and considers
Florida home. But on a Thursday afternoon, he is happily escorting his elderly
mother through the aisles of Ñooo! Que
Barato! She lives in Matanzas, Cuba, and
will return with clothes and toys that
Angél buys for her to give to his siblings,
nieces and nephews.
Such scenes are typical here, with
familial ties and economic needs bridging the gaps imposed by politics and
geographic separation.
“It’s a beautiful story that most people
don’t have a clue about,” Mr Scarpaci
says. “And the moral is simple: blood
always trumps politics.”
US companies Still facing investment hurdles
“There was a kind of euphoria after
last December,” says Pedro Freyre, who
chairs the international practice at law
firm Ackerman and advises US
companies on Cuban issues. “But now,
companies are realising that it makes
sense to kick the tyres first before
investing in Cuba.”
Despite improved relations since
President Obama’s announcement last
year, US companies seeking to invest
in Cuba still see more roadblocks than
welcome signs. The US embargo on
trade and travel remains and requires
an act of Congress to overturn. But
this is not the only impediment.
Most of Cuba’s 11m citizens are
very poor, which limits market
opportunity, and infrastructure is
corroded. Gary Hufbauer, fellow at the
Peterson Institute for International
Economics and co-author of Economic
Normalization with Cuba, emphasises
the flawed incentive structure of the
statist model. Investment is inefficient
because of bad data and a workforce
with little experience of big projects.
The distorting effects of the
embargo and communism have also
produced idiosyncratic obstacles for
US companies.
Taking Cuba off the government’s
list of terrorism sponsors makes it
easier for financial institutions to offer
services there. Yet doing so would
continue to pose a regulatory risk for
US banks, which might worry about
their liability if they process a
customer transaction that runs foul of
the embargo or laws that govern
money laundering.
MasterCard removed its block on
the use of its US-issued credit cards in
March, but the banks that issue the
cards decide whether they will work.
They have declined so far, as the risk
may be small but is still hard to justify.
It is a balancing act, says Yosbel
Ibarra, co-chair of the Latin America
practice at Greenberg Traurig, the law
firm. “What are the bank’s compliance
costs? How much money can be
made? It’s complicated. Though I also
think that it’s just a matter of time.”
Telecommunications companies
could try to capitalise sooner. IDT Corp
became the first US company to offer
direct, long-distance telephone calls to
Cuba after a deal in March with
ETECSA, the state telecoms company.
But ETECSA will not allow IDT to
offer other services, such as sending
top-up mobile minutes to relatives in
Cuba, and fees imposed by the Cuban
government for calls from the US are
some of the highest in Latin America.
To the rest of the world, tourism is
Cuba’s most appealing economic
sector, and it is growing. The number
of tourists climbed by 36 per cent in
the first quarter from the 2014 figure,
and available bedrooms at hotels or
privately run casas particulares have
been hard to find lately, according to
economist Omar Everleny of the
University of Havana.
Arnold Donald, chief executive of
cruise line Carnival, cites “pent-up
demand” and the country’s proximity
to the company’s main port in Miami.
Yet cruises to Cuba almost certainly
cannot begin until the embargo, which
prohibits American tourism to Cuba, is
lifted. Certain categories of travel are
permitted — for journalistic activity,
cultural exchange, to visit family —
but it is unrealistic to fill a cruise ship
with people who satisfy these criteria.
A different set of challenges awaits
US hotel groups, should they try to set
up in Cuba, says Mr Hufbauer: “Any
US company [considering future
Gone, not forgotten
What now for legal claims by
Cubans and Americans who
had property expropriated?
investment] must do its own strategic
analysis about whether it will
eventually want to compete with
state-owned enterprises or partner
with them.”
The state typically insists on having
a majority stake in partnerships with
foreign companies. And for now,
Cuba’s dual-currency system
effectively functions as a tax on this
sector (see page 4).
Similar obstacles arise in other
sectors, and they all point to the same
The promise of closer diplomatic
ties is exciting, but without an end
to the embargo and a further
liberalisation of the Cuban economy,
US corporates can only wait, watch
and prepare.
Cardiff Garcia
Tuesday 16 June 2015
Investing in Cuba
Moves to unlock the nation’s wealth of knowledge Could communist
Specialist skills
With strengths in science
and computing, Cubans have
money-spinning expertise,
writes John Paul Rathbone
Technically, it is called a skills mismatch, and Cuba has it in abundance.
Take the Havana taxi driver who tells
you he is in fact a surgeon, or the waitress who is, in fact, a physicist.
Skill mismatching represents the cost
of misinvested human capital, and thus
economic inefficiency. But the state and
some foreign investors want to turn it
into a boon, and the ground source of a
future “knowledge economy”.
“Cuba’s knowledge economy is
stronger than people often credit,” says
FaquiryDiazCala,aCuban entrepreneur
now living in the US. “It has one of the
hemisphere’s highest literacy rates, one
of the highest college graduate rates, and
PhDs in hard sciences . . . One should
think of Cuba as a start-up nation, with
some similaritiestoIsrael.”
Even if the comparison is a big stretch,
Cuba’s health sector holds immediate
promise and other sectors, such as computing, have alsodrawnforeigninterest.
The government has made medical
services a money spinner: some 12,000
Cuban doctors work abroad in Africa,
30,000 in Venezuela and about 12,000 in
Brazil and elsewhereinLatinAmerica.
Their services are sold by Cuba, which
pays the doctors a smaller fraction. This
brings in billions of dollars a year — a system critics call a tacit form of indentured
labour, although medics earn more
abroad than at home and enjoy perks on
their return. Some reportedly bribe officials to bump themupwaitingliststogo.
Now, foreign health groups want to get
in on Cuba’s commercially untapped
pharmaceutical expertise. In May, US
research centre Roswell Park agreed to
begin clinical trials on a Cuban-developed lung cancervaccine,Cimavax.
“We know [the drug] is not an easy
one to develop clinically,” said Philippe
Pouletty, chairman of French biotech
company Abivax. “But it is good news
that a US cancer institute evaluates it
and that the FDA [US Food and Drug
Administration] builds confidence in
Cuban products.”
Abivax has operated in Cuba for five
years, building relationships with
research institutes, using investments
and agreements to trial and commercialise Cuban drugs — such as a vaccine
to help chronic hepatitis B sufferers —
and also to develop new drugs.
Mr Pouletty, a venture capitalist and
qualified doctor, says that if Cuba’s biotech capability was floated into a listed
company, it might be worth $20bn. But
he stresses: “We don’t think it is the biggest cheque that persuades the Cubans.
They are looking for sustainable growth;
short-term, medium-term and particularly long-term solutions.”
He says Cubans are slowly feeling their
way into new language such as “spinoffs”, and are still getting used to notions
such as foreign joint ventures requiring
But he adds that he is “pathologically
optimistic” and points to a new “SiliCuban” advisory board, designed to help
Cubans develop their drug industry and
“where all things can be said without
censorship”. Another positive sign is the
separation three years ago of the three
main research institutes into a holding
group, BioCubaFarma, a move that freed
them from the Ministry of Health’s
Computer programming is also promising. Local computers are so old and
slow that Cubans have become adept at
‘One should
think of
Cuba as a
to Israel’
Diaz Cala,
writing lean software programs that
require little memory to run —a skill
ideal for writing mobile apps. The state
has commercialised some of this expertise through Datis, which sells computing and internal security expertise to
allies such as Venezuela that use it for
Privately harnessing such knowledge
is another matter. Difficulties are compounded by poor internet availability, a
barometer of Cuba’s willingness to
embrace the “knowledge economy”.
The government says it wants half the
population wired by 2020, to boost productivity. Yet it is reluctant to permit
such a powerful tool as it would mean
ceding control. There have been small
trials of public WiFi, but most Cubans
can only get online for $4.50 an hour at
internet cafés in hotels, a quarter of the
On a recent visit to Miami, organised
by the Cuba Study Group, a US organisation that promotes US-Cuban engagement, island entrepreneurs were agog at
the possibilities of online retail and rued
Cuba’s poor connectivity. Airbnb’s
run by a relative abroad, who communicates internet bookings with the guesthouseoperatorviatelephoneorSMS.
Running repairs:
state experiments
with co-operative
business model
Reforms From garages and restaurants to dealers
in exotic birds, co-ops are growing. By Marc Frank
arly on a sunny Sunday
morning in Havana, few
passers-by or police are
around to witness the two
men at work. They emerge
from the back of a state-run restaurant
with cases of beer that they carry to a
private restaurant two doors away.
They return for a second load of
crates, soft drinks this time, and then
back again for some bottled water.
Within a year this scene, at least at this
restaurant, may not be repeated. That is
restaurants slated to become a co-operative, run and owned by its workers — a
move that, in theory, will mean staff will
not stealfromthemselves.
But the move also means that the private restaurant the two men were supplying will have to look elsewhere for its
stolen beverages, or purchase them
from state retail outlets at a minimum
240 per cent mark-up — a potentially
crushing blow for its business model.
Both of these changes capture the
essence of the Cuban government’s latest attitude to non-state businesses.
In May, for example, tourism minister
Manuel Marrero publicly praised the
private sector for its “authentic Cuban
cuisine and hospitality” and said the
ministry was linking up with restaurants
and caterers,landscapers and farmers.
The statement would have been
unthinkable a few years ago and is a
strong indication that the government
will notbacktrackoneconomic reforms.
But, while the Communist party has
created more space for non-state business, it is clear that it also wants statesanctioned co-operatives to dominate
the secondary economy rather than
private sector entrepreneurs. Almost
500,000 Cubans are registered as selfemployed workers, although the vast
majority simply ply their skills as smallscale freelancers.
It is a key difference between Cuba
and Asian communist societies, such as
China or Vietnam, that have undergone
economic transition by prioritising
market forces and private enterprise.
Co-ops are preferable to other nonstate solutions, says economy minister
and politburo member Marino Murillo,
who is in charge of the economic
reforms. “They are a more social form of
Some of the co-ops form spontaneously, although most are fashioned from
small or medium state businesses that
rent state premises. Examples include
construction co-operatives, contractors
and tradesmen who are winning state
contracts for everything from hospital
repairs to public housing construction.
“The construction co-operative La
Concordia . . . has become one of those
preferred to carry out repairs and maintenance in the public health sector . . . winning contracts to work on
hospitals, clinics and homes for the elderly,” a National Information Agency
dispatch recently stated.
State-run Radio Reloj also recently
reported that Holguin University in
eastern Cuba was contracting out to “90
actors in the non-state sector”. The University’s dean justified the move, saying:
“when a pipe breaks, I can’t wait around
to get it fixed”.
His statement was a thinly veiled criticism of the inefficient state sector. But
the change does not signify a wholehearted embrace of the private sector,
Smoothed over:
fixing a sovietmade Lada at
a Havana garage
as co-operatives will be favoured over
private businesses with tax breaks,
access to wholesale supplies and subsidies in exchange for low prices.
A transport co-operative in Havana
now has more than 50 minibuses and
100 members. It charges 5 pesos a ride;
overcrowded public buses charge 20
centavos, while private taxis from 10 to
20 pesos.
Then there are Havana’s restaurant
co-ops. A handful were ordered to
become co-operatives a year ago in a
pilot now set to become generalised,
according to a mid-level Havana official
who asked not to be identified. He says
they discovered the co-ops could not
survive without access to wholesale supplies,eventhoughprivaterestaurantsdo
“We are setting up six wholesale locations in Havana for the new co-operatives,” he says, adding they were not
open to private restaurants. “If the manager [often the current state administrator] is ambitious, creative and energetic
the co-operative can work. But if he or
she is stuck in their old state ways, they
About 500 non-farm co-ops operate in
Cuba,fromrestaurantsandcaféstowholesale and retail produce markets, clothing
and furniture manufacturers, a shrimp
farm, body shops, recycling operations,
computing services, beauty salons, nightclubsandevendealersinexoticbirds.
They generally perform better than
state firms and members earn more,
despite heavy taxes, a state monopoly
on foreign trade and a generally dysfunctional soviet-style economy.
But economists point out that in a
land where politics often trumps economics, the co-ops’ relative success
poses a question: would private businesses perform better still?
isle be Vietnam
in the Caribbean?
Richard E
What might Cuba look like a decade or two from now, when
its ageing revolutionary leadership has faded from view?
Consider the remarkable economic success of Vietnam, once
a highly centralised planned economy as Cuba is today.
Vietnam has evolved into a hybrid system with a dynamic
interplay between a hefty public sector of state-owned
enterprises, a vibrant and expanding private entrepreneurial
class and an influx of global brands: the likes of Nike, Honda,
Canon and Samsung employ millions of Vietnamese.
Vietnam’s surging economy is also well diversified,
exporting rice, fish and minerals, hosting tourists and
participating in cross-border manufacturing supply chains.
Domestically, the construction and real estate businesses —
driven by foreign and domestic investors — are booming,
and efficient telecommunications empower the ambitious
Vietnamese middle classes to fixate on Facebook.
By the standards of developing countries, Vietnam’s big
cities are refreshingly people-friendly. Hanoi is proud of its
greenery while Ho Chi Minh City is attractively remodelling
the banks of its winding canals. Abundant affordable public
housing prevents the shocking slums that surround so many
Asian and Latin American population centres. Vietnamese
eateries offer a healthy local diet of vegetables, fresh fish and
rice noodles, and locals drive fuel-efficient motorbikes.
But Vietnam has weaknesses. Corruption is rife. Inequality
is glaring and widening. People complain about poor-quality
social services. And many deeply resent the lack of political
freedoms and the monopoly of the Communist party.
So what can Cuba learn from Vietnam?
The government could relax the constraints it puts on
entrepreneurs. President Raúl Castro could transform his
words of welcome to foreign investment into rapid
authorisations of tangible capital projects. State-owned firms
could partner with domestic and international businesses.
As Vietnam did, Cuba could quickly shift from being a
large net importer to a net exporter of agriculture and
fisheries. It must allow farmers to earn healthy profits, while
creating distribution networks that supply essential inputs
and that market foodstuffs at home and abroad.
Cuba has the requisite resources — natural and human —
and the location to create a balanced economy. It has fertile
soil. Capable scientists have begun building a biotech cluster
and the many computer engineers await opportunities that
will come with global interconnectedness. The island could
again become a shipping and logistics hub. And exotic Cuba
could draw a variety of tourists, offering urban culture, ecoresorts, maritime sports, as well as traditional sun and surf.
If Cuban cities are to preserve their charm and liveability,
urban planners must be empowered to preserve public
spaces and ensure plentiful affordable housing and attractive
public transport. Already, the brilliant if slow-paced renewal
of Havana’s Old City is a
promising precedent.
As it evolves
Avoiding the pitfalls of
into a more
corruption and inequality
will be difficult. But Cuba has open and
advantages: a well-educated
and politically aware middle market-driven
class will probably demand
better governance once it has economy, Cuba
internet connections and
can improve
social media. With a western
upon Vietnam’s
legal tradition, Cuba may be
more open to monitoring by
corporate auditors and nonprofit watchdogs.
As Cuba enlarges its narrow socialist wage differentials,
inequalities will grow. But socialist mores run deep and racial
and gender divides have narrowed. Debates about market
efficiency and equality can be heard in seminar rooms and on
city streets. With its superior social services, Cuba has
another edge. But its universal education and healthcare
facilities have deteriorated and only a more vibrant economy
can generate the resources that high-quality services require.
Vietnam’s Communist party can survive in an
authoritarian Asia, but can a one-party state endure in the
democratic Caribbean? Only time will tell, but even in
Vietnam, economic pluralism has opened space for a more
tolerant and evolving political system.
As it evolves into a more open and market-driven economy,
Cuba can improve upon Vietnam’s experience. Cubans can
study Vietnam’s mixed and diversified economy, while
eschewing rampant corruption and offensive inequalities and
conserving impressive social achievements.
Richard E. Feinberg is professor of international political economy
at the University of California, San Diego, non-resident senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Soft Landing in
Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes”.
Government likely to bring an end to dual currency system
The change would be part
of reforms to remove price
distortions, says Marc Frank
Cuba is likely to eliminate its dual
currency system by the end of this year
in a first step to simplifying a multiple
exchange system that investors view as
a serious obstacle to business.
Cuba currently operates two currencies: the peso (CUP), which largely circulates in the domestic economy, and the
so-called convertible peso (CUC). Residents and tourists can purchase CUCs at
government exchange offices at a rate of
one for 25 CUP ($0.04). State and foreign
companies must exchange CUCs at the
official one-to-one rate. Neither currency isconvertibleoutside the island.
“It is my understanding that the CUC
will be removed from circulation before
the next Communist party congress in
April,” says a Cuban economist with
knowledge of reform efforts.
The move would continue President
Raúl Castro’s efforts to introduce market
elements and remove price distortions,
and improve accounting transparency
and the efficiencyofstatecompanies.
The economist adds that the currency reform was one of more than 300
reforms adopted at the last party congress, “and Raúl wants them all done by
then [April]”.
In a country where the state controls
more than 75 per cent of the economy
and most wages and local goods are
priced in CUP, the CUC is used in tourism, to price imports such as gasoline,
and also in upscale eateries and stores.
Until recently, the currencies operated separately, with CUC used by those
Ending? A Cuban holds CUP and CUC
with access to foreign exchange, or who
changed CUP for CUC to shop in betterstocked stores. But there are signs of
convergence. Many previously CUConly outlets now accept either. At the
same time, a new system of CUP pricing
and accounting is being rolled out.
Bigger CUP notes, ranging from 200 to
1,000 pesos, went into circulation this
year, and anyone can go to state-run
CUC stores and buy a fridge for 1,000
CUCS or the equivalent 25,000 CUPs.
The prospect of reform has unsettled
Cubans since the announcement in
October 2013 of plans to do away with
the dual system. Better-off Cubans have
turned to other currencies.
“It is all funny money, only the dollar
or euro are safe,” says the owner of a private Havana restaurant. “I change what
I can and send it out of the country.”
There has been talk of return to a single currency since Cuba legalised the
dollar in 1994 and let the CUC circulate
alongside the peso. At the time, the dollar traded at 150 pesos on the black market,comparedwithsevenin1989.
“day zero” — is a step forward, it is a
far cry from full convertibility, which
typically requires the backing of large
hard currency reserves, often supported
Cuba is not a member of the IMF. Nor
does it report its holdings of foreign currency, but the Economist Intelligence
Unit estimates it has $11bn of reserves
against a forecast 2015 current account
deficit of £524m as of May 20.
Economists say currency unification,
by itself, ignores the real issue: a devaluation of the official exchange rate of one
CUP to the dollar, in effect since 1959 and
“A real monetary reform implies a
significant devaluation of the CUP
exchange rate,” says Cuban economist
and monetary specialist Pavel Vidal, of
Javeriana de Cali University in Colombia. “This would change the financial
situation of state companies — some of
which would fold — improve competitiveness of the sectors operating within
the global economy and promote more
transparency in financial accounts.”
Mr Castro says there will be no shock
therapy. Central bank officials have told
foreign businesspeople that devaluation
will proceed cautiously and only in tandem with a strengthening economy.
For now, the government will continue to tinker in the hope of improving
the trade balance, stimulating local production and paying workers more.
For example, the state-run sugar
monopoly receives 1,000 CUP, instead
of 100 CUP, for every $100 of sugar
exports, letting it invest and pay workers more. In the Mariel special zone (see
page 3), the state will pay workers 10
CUP for each $1 foreign businesses pay
their employees, instead of 1 CUP.
The state-run tourism industry also
began buying food direct from farmers
in 2013, instead of via state distributors
or imports. Hotels now change one CUC
per 10 CUP to buy local produce.