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The Cuban Economy: An Overview

Nov 19, 2007
The study of the economy of Cuba can be divided into four phases. The first phase consists of the occupation of the island by the Spanish, which led to the extinction of the aboriginals and the bringing of African slaves to work on the sugar plantations. At this point of time, Cuba provided for the highly profitable business of sugar cultivation and its exports. Sugar industry was the crux of Cuba's economy and Cuba rose to become one of the largest producers of sugar in the world.

The second phase pertains to the years following the wars of independence against the Spanish and also the invasion of Cuba by the US. It is marked by the sweeping powers of intervention obtained by the US in 1902, with the Cuban economy being controlled by the growing investment of the US citizens in the sugar plantations of Cuba. Now, again, money and profits from the sugar plantation, sugar refineries and subsidiary sugar products such as rum went to the many American investors and a few Cuban elite. The other major industries also included tourism, tobacco, transportation, mining and the communication industry.

The third phase begins with the Cuban revolution and the beginning of Fidel Castro's rule in the year 1959. All plantations that were more than 400 hectares became state owned and all industries including the petroleum and the telephones became nationalized. This lead to the US trade embargo towards Cuba. Cuba lost its traditional international market. However, Cuba found a trade and political ally in the USSR when the Cuban-sugar for Russian-oil package worked well. Cuba reoriented itself to the Russian and pro-Russian market and did over 80% of its international trade with them. The next 30 years saw tremendous improvement in health care, education and social welfare. Cuba boasts of a 97% literacy rate and the life expectancy increased to 76%. There was an egalitarian distribution of income and Cuba's income inequality index became the lowest in the world.

All was well until 1989 when it became clear to Cuba that sooner or later Cuba would have to learn to do without any subsidies or trade relations with the USSR and the eastern European countries. The fourth phase begins here with the government dubbing it as the 'Special Period in Peacetime'. The economic reforms include:

(i) the opening and gearing up of tourism as an industry
(ii) diversification of the agricultural sector by producing fruits and vegetables and rice along with live stock for local consumption that include the visiting tourists.
(iii) production of more of citrus food and less of sugar
(iv) focusing on that sector of fisheries which sent its fleets to nearby seas and exporting spiny lobsters to Japan
(v) State-owned lands have been converted to agricultural cooperatives that are managed to a certain degree by the workers. Retail outlets at a small scale have been allowed for the food market. In the field of food production, allowing the sale of excess production (which is above the state-fixed production quota) in the free market has brought down black markets, in addition to enhancing production
(vi) Foreign investments in various industries such as tourism, mining, telecommunication, construction and manufacturing sectors have been allowed
(vii) Self employment has been legalized for around 150 occupations.

Investment into biotechnology and pharmaceuticals during the third phase reaped returns when products of this industry were available for export now at the fourth phase.

The other Cuban industries include cement, steel, agricultural machinery and construction.

Fisheries, nickel and ore production, growing agricultural products such as fruits, tobacco are some areas that have shown growth in the export sector. Cuba now exports to European countries (50%), Canada and Latin America (20%), and Asia (20%).

Spain, France, and United Kingdom have invested in the tobacco and cigar production. Spain and Canada have invested in the exploration of oil off the shores of Cuba. Mexico, Canada, Australia, South-Africa, Netherlands, Brazil, and Chile are the other major countries that have invested in the various industries of Cuba.

Cuba has entered into an agreement with Venezuela whereby thousands of Cubans who are doctors, teachers and sports trainers, and engineers would move in to Venezuela to assist their development program in return for 53,000 barrels of oil per day being shipped to Cuba for the next five years.

"Energy revolution" where apart form changing the entire system of power generation and distribution, energy conservation is also aimed at, has been in vogue in Cuba for the last two years. The quality of life of the Cubans are improving with the volunteers of the government replacing on a door-to-door campaign, the existing electric stoves and lights with the ones that are more efficient and less energy consuming. Energy efficient refrigerators and television sets have been distributed and would be installed in all the thousands of housing units that the government is building. Energy efficient buses from China would soon be available for the Cuban public transport. It is just a matter of some time when power generation would take place at hundreds of units that are well synchronized, thus avoiding wastage of power while distributing it through very long distances. Generation of natural gas while exploring for oil at oil rigs is also considered.

Cuba has also legalized the US dollars. Further, the Venezuelan inputs for domestic oil production and upgradation of existing power stations have raised the level of optimism. Cuba is also hoping to find oil off its shores. Apart from the sugar industry and its related products, there are various industries such as tourism (also called the lung of the Cuban economy), fisheries, nickel and ore production, production of tobacco, Cuban cigar, citrus fruits, pharmaceuticals, coffee, besides basic manufacturing industries which have earned Cuba foreign exchange. Cuba has learned to manage its post-USSR economic condition and is steering towards a more prosperous economy.
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