Two weeks after Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela, the Cuban government has shown no sign of diminishing its support for the Nicolas Maduro regime. Havana’s bet on Maduro is risky because many other countries are increasingly supporting Guaido, but it has a good reason for sticking with him: If his regime collapses, the island could fall into a new economic crisis, economists said.
“If Maduro falls, I don’t know how they can get out of that,” said Carmelo Mesa Lago, the leading expert on the Cuban economy. Mesa Lago believes the Cuban government is already embellishing its economic figures to hide a crisis, and that the loss of Venezuelan subsidies could only make things worse.
“The crisis in the ’90s was much worse because there was more dependency on the Soviet Union, but the blow will be tremendous,” Mesa Lago said. Cuba endured a withering financial crisis after the crumbling Soviet Union stopped its subsidies to the island.
If Venezuelan subsides stop, the experts said the island might suddenly lose 10 to 12 percent of its gross domestic product. But they based their estimates on dubious official Cuban figures.
Venezuela was Cuba’s largest trade partner in 2017, the last year for which figures are available. Bilateral trade hit more than $2.2 billion during the year, nearly 12 percent of the island’s GDP.
“If Venezuela totally collapses, the impact on Cuba would be clearly significant because the majority of the fuels that Cuba receives come from there. But more important are the conditions under which it is received, at prices different from the world market,” said Omar Everleny Perez, former professor at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
Under an agreement signed by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Cuba gets Venezuelan oil at subsidized prices and pays with medical services and medicines. The Chavez government also spent $1.2 billion updating a refinery in the city of Cienfuegos so it could process Venezuelan.
At the peak of the arrangement, Cuba received 100,000 barrels of oil per day. But that figure dropped by more than half in recent years because Venezuelan oil production plummeted under Maduro.
From 2012 to 2017, Cuban imports from Venezuela — largely crude — dropped by $4.5 billion while exports — mostly medical services — fell by $1.5 billion, said Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, a professor at the Universidad Javeriana in Colombia.
Those drops indicate that a shock from an end to Venezuelan assistance would not be as harsh as the blow the Cuban economy took when the Soviet Union collapsed. Castro decreed an emergency known as the Special Period at the time, as the Cuban economy shrank by 35 percent. But unlike the 1990s, the Cuban economy now receives more foreign investments and revenue from tourism and remittances from Cubans abroad. More than half a million people work in the private sector.
The impact will be significant nevertheless, the experts agreed.
“The dependence (on Venezuela) has been decreasing, although it remains high and leaves Cuba in a vulnerable situation,” Vidal said.
In the short term, Cuba would have to buy crude oil at market prices or seek favorable agreements with countries like Russia, Algeria or Mexico.
Russia sent Cuba nearly 200,000 tons of crude and diesel in 2017, but analysts said that was paid for by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, known as PDVSA. Russian officials have made it clear that they want a secure source of financing for future shipments.
Everleny said Cuba might find a new oil supplier in Mexico’s new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
“The outlook is complicated, and there are few options if Venezuela is hit with a major political crisis,” Everleny said. “Cuba could study what Mexico could offer it, based on what Cuba could offer Mexico, because the country is critically low on hard currency and its only option is to earn revenues through Cuban exports.”
Neither Russia nor Mexico appear ready to offer the large subsidies Venezuela once provided.
The economists interviewed also said the strategies used so far by the Cuban government to compensate for the reduction in Venezuelan subsidies — cutting imports and betting on the growth of tourism and the private sector — will not be enough if Venezuela suddenly stops all its subsidies.
The private sector shrank last year under tight new regulations, and Cuba did not reach its 5 million tourist goal and tourism revenue fell, especially from U.S. visitors who now arrive mostly on cruise ships. At year’s end, the Cuban government also lost the income from medical personnel working in Brazil.
Sugar prices are low, food production is stagnant and there is tension in relations with the U.S. government, which has threatened to add sanctions on Havana for its continuing support of Maduro.