Cuba: Risk Assessment
Country Risk Rating
Business Climate Rating
- Tourism and mining sectors (nickel, cobalt), and agricultural potential (sugar, tobacco)
- Agriculture, commerce, catering and construction being opened up to the individual and cooperative private sector
- Skilled and inexpensive workforce
- High-quality medical and education sectors
- Relatively satisfactory social indicators
- Low crime and efforts to fight corruption
- Dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union
- External vulnerabilities (climate, commodities)
- Low productivity in the public sector and in agriculture
- Weak investment and infrastructure
- Cumbersome administrative processes; trade regulations still very recent
- State control over wholesale trade, credit, foreign trade and foreign investment
- Subsidies for basic products putting pressure on public spending
- Limited access to external funding
- Major shortages
A slow recovery from the crisis
The country’s economic situation should slowly improve throughout 2022, boosted by the global recovery, while the consequences of the recent and painful reforms implemented by the government will diminish. The initial effects of currency unification, which took place on 1 January 2021, should begin to fade, and the single currency’s exchange rate should stabilize after plunging throughout 2021 (CUP 64 to USD 1 on the black market in September 2021 compared with an official exchange rate of 24 to 1). However, supply constraints and growth of the black market will keep upward pressure on prices while the sanctions implemented by the Trump administration are still in place. As a result, inflation should remain contained at double-digit levels after exploding in 2021, and pressure on households should ease. However, the constraints on household consumption will remain high, while the fourfold increase in the public sector minimum wage in 2021 failed to keep pace with inflation. Public subsidies are trending downwards, while shortages of necessities are accumulating. Expatriate remittances and receipt of the foreign currency sent by expatriates will also continue to be restricted by U.S. sanctions and government exchange controls. Within a largely state-owned economy, public consumption will continue to suffer from the lack of government funding. This is expected to push the government to continue with reforms aimed at partially liberalizing the economy following the expansion of self-employment in February 2021 and the law passed in August 2021, allowing the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises with up to 100 employees. Despite the opening up 678 projects to foreign investment, 175 more than in 2021, investors will probably remain cautious. Title III of the Helms-Burton Act has not been repealed by the Biden administration and continues to authorize legal action against entities benefiting from assets expropriated in Cuba since 1 January 1959. External demand should, however, allow the country’s exports to pick up somewhat, helped by higher nickel and sugar prices. The agricultural sector is poised to benefit from this but remains highly vulnerable to climatic events. The manufacturing industry should benefit from global demand for pharmaceuticals and chemicals but will continue to be heavily constrained by supply problems. The tourism sector (10.3% of GDP in 2019), which is mainly seasonal, should perk up a little in the first quarter of 2022 after the country reopens to tourists on 15 November 2021.
Limited improvement in the public and current accounts
Following monetary unification, with GDP no longer being overestimated at a rate of USD 1 = CUC 1 (the old currency used in external trade) = CUP 1, debt as a percentage of GDP surged. The increase was further exacerbated by the high deficit level and the high share of external debt (131% of GDP). With the country in default since 2020, an agreement was finally reached in the spring of 2021 with the Paris Club allowing Cuba to meet its obligations under the debt restructuring agreement signed in 2015. A proposal to restructure the debt with private creditors was also sent to the government by the London Club, which suggested a 60% haircut for this debt, most of which is held by CRF I Ltd, an investment fund. Against this backdrop, the public deficit should decrease in 2022. Reduced spending on COVID-19 and the gradual recovery in tourism will provide significant revenue in the face of rising oil prices at a time when U.S. sanctions prevent Cuba from obtaining low-cost supplies from its ally, Venezuela. The domestic bond issuance will finance this deficit along with some sparse international financing provided through bilateral loans, notably from China.
Turning to the external accounts, the fall of the CUP has increased the import bill, while domestic production is struggling to meet internal needs, and oil prices have risen. However, exports, notably of pharmaceuticals, chemicals, agricultural and mining products (nickel), should be made more competitive by the devaluation, allowing them to rebound. The same goes for services exports, which the tourism recovery and sales of medical services abroad will drive. Cuban doctors were in high demand during the pandemic and undertook around 40 external missions. This and expatriate remittances should allow a small current account surplus to be restored while foreign direct investment, mainly from Europe, is set to increase timidly.
Tensions running high in urban areas
In July 2021, the government faced a historic nationwide wave of protests over worsening economic and health conditions. The government responded by repressing and making hundreds of arrests, particularly in the cultural sector. Externally, the main issue will remain the normalization of relations with the United States, a possibility raised by the arrival of Joe Biden in power. However, the prevalence of domestic interests and the new president’s need to win votes in Florida ahead of the mid-term elections are likely to slow the pace of this normalization, as evidenced by the automatic renewal of sanctions implemented by the Trump administration.