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Analysis-Cuba's looming monetary reform sparks confusion, inflation fears

Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta
·6-min read
FILE PHOTO: People stand outside a bank in Havana

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - A major monetary reform that will hike prices and state wages in Cuba starting on Friday is sparking widespread uncertainty as the Communist-run island resumes market-oriented changes to its Soviet-style economy after years of flip-flopping.

The reform, announced earlier this month by President Miguel Diaz-Canel, will eliminate a complex dual currency and multiple exchange rate system that masked a host of government subsidies, pegging the remaining peso currency at a single rate.

To reflect the resulting steep devaluation and reduced subsidies, Cuba is raising prices on goods and services ranging from transport to electricity at varying rates. It will also quintuple pensions and wages in the state sector, which employs around two-thirds of the working population, from the current low rates to better reflect the real value of labor.

The measures, which will accelerate the transition from late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro's paternalistic model, will bring more transparency to the economy and should help raise competitiveness over time, economists say, albeit only if combined with other reforms.

Yet the immediate impact of the changes remains a worrying puzzle to many Cubans already struggling to get by amidst the country's worst economic crisis in decades, one that has spurred a partial dollarization of the cash-strapped, import-dependent economy.

Hours-long queues outside shops amid shortages of even the most basic goods have lengthened as some Cubans rush to buy what they can before the measures go into effect, the value of the dollar on the black market has risen and banks have been overwhelmed with queries.

Private businesses and foreign investors also are scrambling to gauge the impact on their operations and whether they can adjust prices and wages.

"It's going to be tight, so I'm just buying what I can now," said Sulema Sotto Rojas, a 57-year-old cleaner for a state firm, as she waited in line to buy cooking oil and tomato sauce at one store after waking up eight hours earlier to queue at another for chicken.

While she could actually stand to gain from the monetary reform, her company has still not confirmed her new wage level and the government has been making last-minute tweaks to some electricity and gas rates in response to widespread consternation that they were too high.

INFLATION WORRIES

The reform is part of a package of measures Communist Party leader Raul Castro unveiled a decade ago to make the economy self-sufficient after decades of dependence on Soviet and then later Venezuelan aid in the face of domestic inefficiency and a crippling U.S. trade embargo.

The government had stalled or even backtracked on some of the changes due to opposition from entrenched bureaucratic and ideological interests, but a new generation of leaders headed by Diaz-Canel has opted to resume them amid the current crisis.

That means, however, more short-term pain will be inflicted on an economy that already has shrunk 11% this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the tightening of U.S. sanctions.

Many state companies working with an exchange rate of one peso to the dollar likely won't be able to survive at the new rate of 24 to one. The government says it will give these enterprises a year to become competitive, subsidizing them in the meantime, though that could prove too little, especially given the feeble global economy and Cuba's lack of capital to upgrade its creaking infrastructure.

"If the government had taken structural reforms to boost the agricultural, private and state sectors first, the economy would be in a much better condition to face this," said Ricardo Torres, an economist with the Havana-based Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

The Communist Party has resisted such moves because doing so would reduce its political power, said Pedro Monreal, author of a popular blog on Cuban economics.

Now it will have to pay the price, Monreal said, as a wage-fueled rise in demand for goods and services in the absence of an increase in supply will lead to inflation and further hardship in an economy with a flourishing black market.

"This is a purgative we need to take," said Mauricio Alonso, who rents out rooms in his apartment in Havana. "Obviously it will generate inflation."

BRAVE NEW WORLD

While Cubans are still struggling to figure out whether they will be better or worse off, one thing seems clear: those who have savings in a local currency or who work in the non-state sector, which will not automatically hike wages, stand to lose.

The government has set price caps on agricultural produce and said the fledgling private sector cannot raise prices more than threefold, with anything above that considered "abusive" and violators subject to fines.

Several business owners told Reuters they would need time to gauge the compensatory impact of smaller recent reforms, such as being able to import and export via state companies and to offset all costs against their taxes.

"There are many challenges at the same time," said Liber Puente, the owner of a private tech firm, who hired a financial strategist to help him map a strategy. The entrepreneur, who wants to keep wages competitive vis-a-vis those in the state sector, said he would hold off on developing other projects until the dust settled, predicting six months of uncertainty.

One important unknown worrying all Cubans is the value of the greenback on the black market, as many basic items like shampoo and cheese can now only be purchased with dollars at special stores or with hard currency on the informal market supplied by "mules" from abroad.

The black market dollar rate has appreciated to around 1.5 times the official rate this year, given that it has become almost impossible for residents to acquire dollars through state financial institutions.

"Already prices are rising everywhere and not because of the currency reform, but because of the lack of dollars," said Maykel Suarez, who owns a private cellphone repair shop.

The government says the controversial dollar stores, which were opened this year, are a temporary solution to its cash crunch. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will loosen the existing sanctions on Cuba, and Cuban officials expect tourism and trade to pick up slightly next year.

Havana has also tinkered with some other minor economic reforms over the past year, including allowing firms to retain a larger share of their export revenue rather than depend on the centralized allocation of hard currency.

Economists, though, are urging the government to quickly enact further-reaching structural reforms like the legalization of small and medium enterprises and the liberalization of the ailing farm sector to solve underlying problems.

"I just hope the measures that need to be taken in parallel to this (monetary reform) to increase production and services will be approved in a short time period," said Omar Everleny, a Cuban economist.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Paul Simao)