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Cuba scholars meet in Miami to assess real impact of Raúl’s economic reforms
CubaNews / August 2012

If Cuba ever found offshore petroleum in exportable quantities, would the island one day resemble democratic, squeaky-clean Norway — or impoverished, corruption-ridden Nigeria?

Even without any huge oil discoveries, is the growth of Cuba’s economy in the first decade of the 21st century really sustainable? What about prospects for economic reform under President Raúl Castro — should Cuba follow the Chinese model, the Vietnamese model or neither?

These were only a few of the dozens of questions raised by scholars at the 22nd annual conference of the Association of the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE).

The Aug. 2-4 event — held at the Downtown Miami Hilton Hotel — attracted some 120 academics, Cuba experts, journalists and government officials eager to share their research in the midst of some of the most sweeping economic changes Cuba has seen in half a century.

“The most visible change we’ve seen in Cuba is the rise of the cuentapropista. It’s been very dramatic,” said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute. “In the 1990s, it was seen as a necessary evil. Cuban officials held their noses when talking about it, because it had nothing to do with the central goals of the government. Now it’s at the center of the process. The licensing process is pretty open. It’s like night and day.”

Peters and other scholars presented 45 papers during the event, and CubaNews is summarizing their findings in a series of exclusive articles running this month and next.

In some ways, the conference marked a turning point for ASCE, which for the first time in its history elected as its president someone with no family ties to Cuba: 40-year-old professor Ted Henken of New York’s Baruch College (see our profile of Henken, page 8 of this issue).

In a keynote speech, Harvard University professor Jorge Domínguez addressed the issue “Can Cubans Rule Cuba?” by pointing out what he said was the weakening of the communist regime under Raúl.

Domínguez said he respects enormously Raúl’s ability to take total responsibility for the failures of the Cuban economy but criticized the “micromanagement” of the economy as spelled out in the newly promulgated rules for self-employment.

“For instance, this band can play this type of music but not that one,” he said. “You’re creating extraordinary uncertainty by saying you can engage in an activity, but that it can be taken away. Why would you invest in Cuba under such circumstances?”

Among the papers presented at ASCE was one by retired IMF economist Joaquín Pujól entitled “Cuba’s Membership Requirements in the IMF and the Possible Role of Other International Institutions in Financing Sustain-able Economic Growth in Cuba.”

Not all the papers had such long titles.

“Trade and Agriculture” — presented jointly by legal experts Tim Ashby and Stephen Kimmerling — looked at the implications of opening the U.S. market to imports of Cuban fruits, vegetables and other items that don’t compete with American farmers.

Ashby held up as an example the African Growth and Opportunity Act, signed into law in 2000 by President Clinton. AGOA’s aim is to boost trade and investment opportunities for 38 sub-Saharan African countries.

“The United States has a history of providing development assistance and trade access to developing nations, particularly to its neighbors in Latin America and the Carib-bean,” he said. “A strong argument could be made that the best means of assisting Cuba at minimal cost would be to implement trade access for the island’s products — particularly those of agricultural origin which would not compete with products grown in the U.S.”

Miami real-estate lawyer Antonio Zamora, part-owner of CubaNews, gave a compelling talk on recent property reforms and their implications for hotel and marina investment.

Retired IMF economist Armando Linde, in a lengthy presentation that examines whether Raúl Castro is serious about liberalizing the Cuban economy, concludes that he is not.

“If Raúl is truly a reformer, then why were the modest economic liberties put in place during the Special Period rescinded as soon as the risks to the regime ended?” he asked. “How come Raúl waited six years from the time he took over to launch with great fanfare the so-called economic reforms?”

Linde’s conclusion: “I do not find the reformist version complelling. It portrays Raúl as meek and submissive. To me, Raúl is a grudging reformer at best.”

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