According to a U.N. 2015 study led by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba's services sector is responsible for the growth in the Cuban economy, representing roughly 70 percent of gross domestic product. Tourism in particular has and continues to provide significant revenue to Havana, contributing $2.5 billion, or roughly 3 percent of GDP. From January to September 2015 alone, Cuba received more than 2.6 million tourists, and it is likely to surpass the 2014 total of 3 million tourists, according to Cuba's National Statistics and Information Office.
Furthermore, Cubans and Cuban-Americans have sent approximately $2 billion worth of remittances in the past year. The revenue is expected to grow within the coming years as well, ever since the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control raised the limit of remittance exports from $500 to $2,000 per quarter as part of Washington's rapprochement with Havana. The amendments also authorized U.S. citizens to import $400 worth of Cuban goods, which will boost Cuba's domestic market sales. As a result, the Cuban economy, unlike other Latin American economies, is forecast to grow on average more than 4 percent between 2016 and 2020.
Unfortunately for Cuba, the U.S. trade embargo and the restrictions it places on economic growth remain, and unrestricted trade with the United States is unlikely to begin in 2016. For all the benefits tourism and remittances provide, Cuba's economy still heavily depends on these revenues, with no alternatives to diversify the economy because of the embargo. Cuba also incurs major economic trade imbalances after five decades of economic isolation, despite President Raul Castro's 2010 legalization of Cuba's untaxed and unmonitored informal business activities. In 2016, Cuban state-owned companies will reduce their demand for imports such as steel, machinery and other basic goods needed to streamline and grow the manufacturing, agricultural and construction industries. Because of high demand in the surging tourism sector, there is simply not enough liquidity to afford such inputs. And because U.S. sanctions continue to isolate Cuba from the international financial system and prohibit transactions, Cuba will be unable to buy these inputs, reinforcing its dependence on tourism and remittance revenue.
The embargo will also continue to cause structural problems, such as a shortage of foreign currency, to persist, which may require decisions that have ramifications beyond 2016. Cuba has a two-tiered currency exchange rate consisting of two types of pesos. One is a convertible peso pegged to the U.S. dollar, which is used for foreign trade and tourism, and the other is a local peso, which is mainly used by the locals to support their livelihoods. But to attract much-needed foreign investment into the manufacturing, agriculture and construction industries, Cuba will eventually have to unify these two currencies. Of course, it will not be a simple decision to make. Unifying the currencies would ultimately be at the expense of the general population, as a needed economic adjustment would occur, causing the cost of basic goods to skyrocket and possibly leading to social unrest. Until the U.S. embargo is gradually and or fully lifted, it is highly unlikely that this currency system will be unified, creating uncertainty for economic investments in Cuba in the coming years.
Finally, as long as the United States upholds the embargo, Cuba will have no short-term alternatives but to continue depending on Venezuelan aid and fuel subsidies. Roughly 50 percent, or around 100,000 barrels per day, of the country's hydrocarbons supply comes from Venezuela. But Venezuela's sagging economy has put the country's political environment in a precarious situation that will continue to threaten Cuba. The Venezuelan opposition has already achieved a two-thirds supermajority after winning in legislative elections as a result of the economic crisis, threatening the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela's hold on power. The opposition-led National Assembly can now legally call for a referendum on Venezuela's international treaties that are deemed to compromise its national sovereignty, specifically its controversial treaties with Cuba. For this reason, throughout 2016 Cuba will attempt to expand ties with Mexico and China, while simultaneously aiming to negotiate more economic agreements with the U.S. Congress to counterbalance its uncertain but critical ties with Venezuela.
The Politics of the U.S. Embargo
The embargo on Cuba will define the success or failure of its economy in 2016, and unfortunately for Cuba, chances that the United States will lift restrictions are slim at best. With congressional and presidential elections approaching in 2016, domestic politics will limit U.S. politicians' and lawmakers' ability to cooperate in lifting the embargo, which must be removed by congressional vote. Without even considering the presidential race, divisions within the U.S. Congress on the subject of Cuba will likely hamper meaningful dialogue toward passing legislation addressing the matter. Unresolved legislative matters remain, which opponents of a Cuba rapprochement can promote in an attempt to halt congressional action. For example, negotiations over compensation for seized U.S. property in Cuba will curb Congress' desire to seek a full repeal of the embargo.
The most likely way the U.S. Congress will eventually lift the Cuban trade embargo is by amending the process by which Cuba may meet legal requirements to have the embargo removed. As of now, laws in the Helms-Burton Act that make up the U.S. embargo require Cuba to make substantial policy changes involving transitioning to a democratic government and a free market-based economy before trade can resume. Without amendments to make the transition more gradual, Cuba would have to make significant — and potentially destabilizing — changes to its domestic politics, such as allowing a wider spectrum of political parties to participate in elections. The act would also specifically require Castro to step down as president before the embargo is fully lifted. Confined and unable to expand the economy without dramatic repercussions, Havana will avoid equally destabilizing political decisions at all costs, making it unlikely that it would agree to such stringent measures in the near term.
More to the point, Cuban leaders may change their minds on the rapprochement with the United States as well. Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, one of the first major leaders to rise through the ranks of the Cuban Communist Party after the revolution, will assume Cuba's highest office in 2018. And though Diaz-Canel fulfills the criteria of leading a civilian government in Cuba as well as replacing Castro, it is still far from certain that he will follow his predecessor's lead and fully re-establish ties with Washington. As a result, it is uncertain how the Diaz-Canel government would comply with the U.S. legislative criteria regarding the embargo, especially concerning the role of the Cuban armed forces — which are intimately involved in planning the Cuban economy — in government affairs.
Thus, despite the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in 2015, it is unlikely that the United States will lift its embargo in 2016. It will be a more difficult year for Cuba as it becomes more dependent on tourism, remittance revenues and Venezuelan oil subsidies, all while remaining economically isolated.