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Cuba Responds to Pandemic, Blockade and New Economic Troubles

Photograph Source: NatalieMaynor – CC BY 2.0

Buffeted for six decades by the U. S. economic blockade and recently having had to cope with restrictions on daily life and work due to COVID 19, Cuba’s already shaky economy is deteriorating. Government leaders recently outlined remedial steps leading to what they call a “new normal.”

The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) reported in October that the region “is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a century” and that Cuba’s GDP this year will be down at least eight percent. Tourist income, remittances, foreign trade, and tax collections have fallen. Oil and gasoline shortages, the result of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, have stressed the economy.

Public spending on health care, unemployment compensation, and pensions is up; I50 000 state workers and 250,000 private sector workers have been idle. Effects of the U.S economic blockade compound matters with restrictions affecting the tourist industry, foreign imports, and access to foreign currency and loans.

Responding to the pandemic, Cuban officials excluded foreign visitors (tourism resumed in July) and instituted vigorous case-finding, strict isolation of the infected and their contacts, and hospitalization for people infected with COVID 19 who have symptoms. The Cuban public has received comprehensive informational updates regularly. Vaccines and treatment products are being developed. Health workers have treated pandemic victims in 39 countries.

Data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center show that, as of October 21, COVID 19 has infected 6305 Cubans; 127 of them died. Deaths per 100,000 persons for the United States, Cuba, China, and Vietnam are, respectively: 67.28 (11th highest), 1.12, 0.34, and 0.03.

Cuban leaders appearing on national television in October outlined plans for managing the multi-faceted crisis. Summarizing, Alejandro Gil Fernández, Minister of Economy and Planning, pointed out that “We’ve never had this dilemma between health and the economy. Obviously the restrictive measures we’ve adopted … have had an economic impact but there’s no room for doubt that health comes first.”

Health Crisis

The officials reported that the intensity of viral transmission was down, that fewer new cases were being diagnosed, and that more COVID 19 patients were leaving hospitals than being admitted. Outbreaks have cropped up recently in Havana, Ciego de Avila, Pinar del Río and Sancti Spíritus provinces, while no new cases have appeared in Cuba’s 11 other provinces

President Miguel Díaz-Canel told Cubans that from now on isolation and distancing requirements would be less strict. He advised them to “learn to live with the disease, resume economic and social activities, strengthen prevention and treatment protocols, and aspire to a new normality with a minimum of risk.”

Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz on October 9 presented elaborate protocols for transitioning to a “new normal.” Efforts to prevent virus transmission would be accompanied by “mitigation of both the social and economic impact of COVID 19 and the [U.S.] blockade.” New cases would trigger local measures for countering spread of the infection but community activities would continue as before.

Stages and phases of the pandemic’s evolution figure into how the intensity and reach of preventative measures are determined. Local authorities will participate in decision-making. Under new isolation protocols, infected persons with only minor symptoms will be monitored in the community and no longer in hospitals. The seriously ill will enter specially designated hospitals, allowing other hospitals to be able to resume full care of illnesses other than COVID 19.

Cubans are being asked to take personal responsibility for preventing infection. Many will continue working at home via computer or telephone. Students have been attending school throughout Cuba since September, except in Havana, where schools open on November 2, and except for temporary closings elsewhere due to local clusters of infection.

The impression here is that, without question, explanations provided by multiple officials and the protocols presented by Prime Minister Marrero Cruz testify to a process of planning and analysis marked by rigor, comprehensiveness, and respect for human life.

Economic crisis

For more than 10 years, the government has been working to transform Cuba’s economy. Land-tenure arrangements changed in 2008. The Communist Party’s “Economic, Political, and Social Guidelines,” approved by the Party’s Sixth Congress in 2011, established the framework for change that has been evolving since. The current crisis is a jolt demanding recalibration.

Priority areas include: production and distribution of food products, enhanced export capabilities, overhaul of state-owned businesses, support for self-employed workers, and monetary reform – in other words, unification of Cuba’s dual currency and exchange rates.

Steps along the way are many. Newly efficient “productive chains” will extend from raw materials, to processing and manufacture, to sales. They will involve state and non-state enterprises and affect both foreign and domestic trade. State businesses will receive incentives for good management. State-owned agricultural marketing enterprises will receive new support.

Cubans will lose subsidies but some goods and services will be available cost-free. Consumers will have access to more Cuban-produced goods and fewer imported items. Export sales are prioritized. Monetary reform will entail price regulation, currency devaluation, elevated wholesale prices, savings and salary uncertainties, and risk of inflation.

“[E]limination of the dual currency and exchange rate … constitutes the process that is most decisive to the updating of the Cuban economic model.” That was former President Raúl Castro speaking in 2017. Now that change process, anticipated for many years, is in the hands of “14 working subgroups.”

Cuba’s two currencies are the “Cubano peso nacional” (CUP) and the “peso convertible Cubano” (CUC), which is set for elimination. As regards institutions, businesses, and wholesalers, the two are assigned the same value – one US dollar. In retail situations or in transactions among individuals one CUC is also valued at one U.S. dollar, but in those settings it’s worth 25 CUPs.

To illustrate the problem: a Cuban milk producer selling directly to Cubans receives 4.50 CUP ($4.50) per liter, which equals 450 centavos per liter. But milk produced abroad and sold to a Cuban purchaser yields $3000 (or 3000 CUC) per ton. To cover that cost, the selling price to Cuban consumers need only be 30 centavos per liter. Pity the plight of the Cuban dairy farmer.

There is good news. The Paris Club is a group of European and U.S bank officials who try to ease poor countries’ difficulties with debt-repayment. On October 15 they agreed to suspend Cuba’s obligation to make a payment by November 1 on debt worth $5.2 billion. How long the delay would be is unknown.

Speaking to the Cuban people on October 8, President Díaz-Canel pointed out that, “Our socialism excludes the political maneuver of applying shock therapy to the workers. Here, therefore, no one is going to be left helpless. It’s preordained that if someone ends up in a vulnerable situation with the reorganization project, he or she will be helped and supported. We are responsible and promise that the fundamental conquests of the Revolution such as health and free education will be preserved.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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