Make us your home page

Cuba shows signs of freeing up the flow of information

HAVANA, Cuba — A recent one-hour briefing at the International Havana Fair about the efforts of several Latin American and Caribbean countries to create a common currency was newsworthy — not so much because of what was announced, but thanks to the more open atmosphere at the event.

The leftist ALBA bloc — first created by Cuba and Venezuela and now joined by several other nations — is trying to establish a currency called the sucre to reduce dependence on the U.S. dollar and the euro.

The panelists, including a Cuban Central Bank official, an Ecuadorean government economist and the Cuban minister of foreign trade and investment, explained to an audience of mostly Cuban state company executives how the common-currency mechanism could help them increase exports and imports with ALBA member countries. The move, they said, would save them a bundle by eliminating the need to convert payments from one national currency to the U.S. dollar or euro, and then to another national currency.

Sounds like a great idea.

During the speeches, though, the Cuban executive sitting next to me became increasingly restless. Finally his impatience bubbled over. He leaned over to whisper a question: Is the use of the sucre obligatory? I whispered back I knew as much as he did, and that I was an American journalist. In the past, this often would have been the end of the conversation.

Not this time.

The executive continued our low-voice exchange, explaining that his state company exports construction supplies to Bolivia, a participant in the sucre mechanism. He added that he needed the U.S. dollars his Bolivian partners have been paying him, because that allowed him to buy many of his company's supplies and all of the machinery. He was worried that he wouldn't be able to make those purchases using the sucre. They were available only in hard currency, and he couldn't find them in Cuba or Venezuela, let alone Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua.

In a nutshell, the executive was voicing the main challenge facing Cuba's ALBA strategy: Many businesses can't rely on the sucre to make big purchases, and if those businesses can't use the sucre, it won't become a viable currency.

My neighbor didn't show any signs of trying to wrest an answer from the officials. So, after the speeches were over, I walked down the aisle to the stage and headed to Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba's minister of foreign trade. When the photographers and TV crews were gone, I gave him my business card, told him I was an American journalist and asked him about my neighbor's concern. The minister gave me a straightforward answer (no, sucre use is not obligatory), and proceeded politely to explain. On my way out, I briefed my neighbor.

What's the big deal? While this kind of open back-and-forth with an American journalist is a given at public business events in many places around the world, it's been fairly unusual for Cuba.

I also know from Google Analytics and anecdotally that more Cuban officials rely on sites like to satisfy their information needs, despite the difficulty of Internet access. And they do this in an increasingly open way.

If you ask me, that's exciting change.

• • •

Talking about change: Barely three weeks after the government announced it would grant 250,000 private-business licenses for 178 additional activities, some 80,000 Cubans have expressed interest or already applied for self-employment licenses.

While that number is impressive, I reserve my judgment for later. For one, 43 percent of the applicants are retirees. In other words, the 1 million state employees who are in the process of losing their jobs as a result of the government's tough adjustment policies have not yet jumped en masse at the new opportunities.

What's more, the Cubans who have spent years working outside the public light in black-market activities are not exactly excited about starting to pay taxes, in return for some security and predictability.

For now, the 41-year-old who shuttled me around Havana in November in his equally young blue Lada is skeptical. Since graduating from the University of Havana with an accounting degree in the mid 1990s, Amaury has never been formally employed. Instead, he has been running a series of "informal" businesses, often under duress. Even so, he doesn't think that what the government has to offer in return for a 50 percent income tax makes legalization worthwhile.

Case in point: Because he can't run his taxi business legally, Amaury must continue having his Lada serviced by a state-employed mechanic who not only uses his employer's workshop on Sundays for private business but also pilfers car parts.

However, the government seems to recognize the challenges. Just last week, officials announced Cuba will spend $130 million on imported goods in 2011 to supply the new businesses with whatever they need. Considering the current cash crunch, this is a major sacrifice. It also seems the government is eager to work with foreign funders regarding microcredit for private businesses.

A commitment to improving the flow of information combined with pragmatic economic moves — as a I said, exciting change.

Johannes Werner is editor of, a Web site featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy. He can be reached at

Cuba shows signs of freeing up the flow of information 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 3:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Law firm's Russia ties prove nothing about Trump


    The statement

    "Law firm @POTUS used to show he has no ties to Russia was named Russia Law Firm of the Year for their extensive ties to Russia. Unreal."

    Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., stands during a media availability on Capitol Hill, Monday, June 20, 2016 in Washington. A divided Senate blocked rival election-year plans to curb guns on Monday, eight days after the horror of Orlando's mass shooting intensified pressure on lawmakers to act but knotted them in gridlock anyway — even over restricting firearms for terrorists. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  2. Pasco county lawyer disbarred for taking woman's money

    Real Estate

    NEW PORT RICHEY — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred Pasco County attorney and former congressional candidate Constantine Kalogianis.

    The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred Pasco County attorney and former congressional candidate Constantine Kalogianis. 
[2016 booking photo via Pasco County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Rick Scott signs package of tax breaks

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott signed a tax cut package Thursday that — while vastly scaled back from what he wanted — eliminates the so-called "tampon tax" and offers tax holidays for back-to-school shoppers and Floridians preparing for hurricane season.

    Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a tax cut package that will cost state coffers $91.6 million during the upcoming year. [Joe Raedle | Getty Images]
  4. FBI probes fraudster's alleged church scam following Tampa Bay Times report

    Real Estate

    PLANT CITY — Once again, the FBI is investigating felon fraudster Victor Thomas Clavizzao.

    The FBI is investigating convicted mortgage fraudster Victor Thomas Clavizzao on new allegations following a Tampa Bay Times report.
[TImes file photo]

  5. Tampa Bay is ground-zero for assignment of benefits cases over broken auto glass


    When Rachel Thorpe tried to renew her auto insurance last year for her Toyta RAV4, she was stunned to see her monthly premium had nearly doubled to $600. The Sarasota driver was baffled since her only recent claim was over a broken windshield.

    Auto glass lawsuits filed by a third party (through what's known as assignment of benefits) are skyrocketing in Tampa Bay.
[Times file photo]