Cuba’s Joint Venture Companies: Pressing Questions & Needs

Emilio Morales* (Cafe Fuerte)

Photo: Juan Suarez
Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — In recent months, Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, coupled with the absence of investment capital in Cuba, have given rise to desperate attempts at returning to the days of financial success that characterized the boom of joint venture companies on the island.

Joint venture companies played an important role in economic recovery efforts during the 90s, when Cuba experienced the severe economic crisis known as the Special Period. Many of them were created to meet the needs of the tourism market (which was growing at the time) and the decriminalization of hard currencies, which gave rise to the dollar retail market in the country.

The chief aim was to develop the infrastructure of those industries that were the backbone of the tourism sector, substitute imports and reinvigorate the country’s economy. Joint venture companies were created in several sectors of the economy, primarily the industrial sector, tourism, the food and real estate sectors.

Decisions, for the most part, were left in the hands of the foreign partners (following consultation with their Cuban counterpart), for they were the ones investing both the financial capital and the technology. These companies played a central role in the training of human resources and the use of capitalist market strategies. This process was paralleled by the so-called “company streamlining” campaign led by the economic planning apparatus of the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR).

Among the managers of these companies were government officials trained in and taught marketing techniques. This was particularly true of those occupying the highest positions. It was a way of guaranteeing loyalty, preventing corruption and maintaining strict control over information.

The boom in this new type of commercial activity was so intense that, coupled with companies that operated in free trade zones and other types of partnerships, the country managed to accumulate an investment capital of about 3 billion dollars.

The Shadow of Uncertainty

As of 2002, however, Cuba’s investment capital began to decline. In 2004, the government took a 180-degree turn and returned to a centralized economy, prompting the rapid deceleration of investments, a process which gradually drove the liberalizing process began in the 90s to a halt.

Photo: Juan  Suarez
Photo: Juan Suarez

The government’s decision to step on the brakes led to the closing of around 200 joint-venture companies and resulted in a drop in the total capital devoted to investments around the country. In place of such investments, Cuba opted to prioritize investments made by partner governments such as Venezuela, China and Brazil, relegating private investments to the background through a rapid reduction in the number of contracts signed with foreign companies.

If we compare the years 1999 and 2011, we can appreciate the abrupt decrease in the number of joint-venture companies and direct investments in Cuba. All of the country’s markets experienced a drop in the number of foreign companies operating on the island, with the exception of Venezuela, which was the only partner with which businesses and investments were broadened.

Venezuela went from having 13 joint-venture companies in Cuba in 1999 to 30 in 2001. By contrast, the number of Spanish companies dropped from 85 to 48, Canadian companies from 61 to 33 and Italian companies from 54 to 30 in the course of those three years.

Many of the entities that survived and remained in the country experienced a series of financial restrictions from 2008 to 2010. The measure affected some 300 Spanish firms that operated businesses on the island in some form or another and led to tensions between the Cuban government and Spanish diplomacy.

Obstacles and Shortages

The Cuban government’s lack of financial solvency led to financial stagnation, a situation which, in addition to undermining the supply of raw materials destined to different industrial sectors then in operation, resulted in inventory shortages in the hard currency retail chains and affected the supply of products in the tourism sector. Delays in payments also contributed to a decrease in foreign capital investments.

After Raul Castro took office, the Cuban government went on to reform the economy through the so-called “updating of Cuba’s economic model.” The priorities established as part of Raul Castro’s reform process include the introduction of market mechanisms, to be subordinated to the socialist planning system at all levels. One of the premises of the reform process is to open up the economy to foreign investment through the creation of joint-venture companies, in which the Cuban government is to own at least 51 % of the shares.

Since the reforms began to be implemented, the bulk of measures undertaken to reform Cuba’s economic model have been aimed at broadening the private sector and liberalizing agriculture. On the other hand, incentives for foreign investment have not been that vigorous. Quite the contrary, they have been suspended as a result of the government’s crusade again corruption among foreign investors and Cuban company managers who represent State enterprises that maintain relations with foreign companies based in the country.

As a result of this anti-corruption campaign, several foreign businesspeople and high-ranking Cuban officials (including one minister, several vice-ministers and company managers) have been arrested in Cuba. Those arrested were tried on charges of corruption, the taking of bribes and other crimes.

Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian, president of the Tokmakjian Group, has been imprisoned in Cuba since September of 2011.
Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian, president of the Tokmakjian Group, has been imprisoned in Cuba since September of 2011.

Some, like Chilean Max Marambio, have received sentences as severe as 20 years imprisonment. Others have been absolved after more than a year in prison, awaiting their trials. The most alarming case involves 73-year-old Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian, who has been in prison for two years without having been informed of criminal charges, and whose companies have been shut down in Cuba.

Without a doubt, this anti-corruption crusade has created a less-than-attractive environment for foreign investors, producing a sense of uncertainty and insecurity which, far from drawing investments, has served to stop the flow of capital towards the country.

Looking for New Investors

The Cuban government has just created a special, commercial development zone in Cuba’s Mariel port, to the west of Havana, through a 900 million dollar investment from the Brazilian government, with a view to getting a second wind and attempting to once again attract foreign capital.

Clearly, cognizant of the current situation of Cuba’s economy and the crisis in Venezuela (its main ally and one of the island’s main economic pillars), the government is moving towards encouraging foreign investment in different sectors of the economy. This strategic move is aimed at reaching a better financial performance than that achieved in the 90s.

Within this context of pressing financial needs, the development of joint-venture companies in Cuba is being fostered in the tourism, agriculture and real estate sectors.

However, it is not clear whether Cuba’s traditional commercial partners with operations on the island will step up their investments in these markets.

The uncertainty created by the lack of transparency in the cases of the detained foreign businesspeople and the foreign companies that have been shut down have resulted in a climate of mistrust which continues to haunt alternative investment sectors of the Cuban economy.

The need for a new foreign investments law that will be more flexible and attractive– announced by Raul Castro at the beginning of the year – is being patiently awaited by potential investors, and the delays in its implementation explains the scant movement of capital towards the island this past year.

Work underway at the port of Mariel, located 30 miles west of Havana. File Photo by Raquel Perez.

Waiting for Cuba’s Monetary Unification

The announcement of a future monetary unification is another element of this atmosphere of mistrust and financial paralysis. It is obvious that foreign companies with investments in Cuba will be hit, in one way or another, by the adjustments in exchange rates, and waiting is far more advisable now in all matters money related.

Thus, government efforts to attract a new wave of investors to the Mariel commercial zone will suffer a considerable impact. The uncertainty surrounding the unification of the two currencies constitutes an element which, for the time being, is holding back foreign investment.

The government is desperately looking for new sources of investment and assures us that its legislative reforms will create conditions bound to attract more foreign capital to the country. The big question prompted by this new legislation is whether the investment map drawn by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment will include, for the first time in more than fifty years, the community of Cubans residing abroad, a community which, according to the official rhetoric, is an indissoluble part of the nation.

The new legislation, however, fails to appear when Cuba needs it the most and this is a dangerous situation for, as the crisis intensifies, the country continues to lose the appeal and trust it needs to win over the new investors of the 21st century.
* Cuban economist. Former head of marketing of Cuba’s CIMEX corporation and author of the books “Cuba: A Silent Transition to Capitalism?” and “Marketing without Advertising, Brand Preference and Consumer Choice in Cuba.” He is the president of the Havana Consulting Group based in Miami.

5 thoughts on “Cuba’s Joint Venture Companies: Pressing Questions & Needs

  • You are mistaken. Cy Tokmakjian is not an immigrant from Europe. He is originally from Turkish Armenia (that’s in Asia minor, not central Europe, by the way). He came to Canada in 1970 and built a very successful business. He became a Canadian citizen decades ago.

    Amongst their varied operations, the company he founded now runs Vaughn Transit and York Region Transit. He was drawn to Cuba in the hope that he could help improve their notoriously inefficient transit systems. He conducted his business in Cuba the only way the Cuban officials operate: by paying bonuses.

    Then one day the Cuban government decided the bonuses were bribes and arrested Tokmakjian on corruption charges. They also confiscated his property in Cuba and handed it on to GAESA, the huge holding company owned by the Cuban military. That’s how the Revolution has operated from Day One: seizing property at the barrel of a gun.

    Any foreign businessman thinking of doing business in Cuba needs to bear that in mind: their Cuban partners can and will turn on them when it suits them and there will be nothing you can do to protect yourself.

    Tokmakjian is not the only foreign businessman to wind up jailed in Cuba. British citizen Stephen Purvis and his Lebanese-born colleague Amado Fakhre of Coral Capital Group were arrested and tried in secret. There are dozens more we haven’t heard of.

  • Are you suggesting that because he was born in Europe he is less deserving of fair and transparent due process? He has not even been formally charged so who knows what he is accused of? The Castros justice system seldom relies on ‘proof’ to effect their kind of justice. Why are you so sure things are any different in this case.

  • Cy Tokmakjian is “nominally” Canadian, but indeed is a first wave immigrant from central europe, who seemingly was attracted to cuba for more than the weather. His activities have been condemned, and his imprisonment most assuredly was effected with substantial proof of wrongdoing. The Cuban government have not as of yet, disadvantaged a legitimate, honest and forthright Canadian citizen. Once in awhile some Canadian gets in trouble in Cuba, and instead of confessing to their activities, they instead try to suck the media into making some bloated press issue based on false information and eventually unjustified criticism. Canada and Cuba are solid. We both have some crooks in our midst, and neither nation will suffer fools and cheats. I am sick and tired of reading articles that suggest Mr Cy Tomakjian is somehow an innocent victim of some massive error. One of the charges in political corruption. So whilst I would never pre-judge the issues he faces, I’ll just say…”buena suerte” and leave the rest to the Cuban courts.

  • The Mariel port is a “Cargo Cult” scheme. The Castro regime imagines if they build something that looks like a modern industrial cargo port, then a modern industrial economy will suddenly appear like magic.

    They have it the wrong way around. First they have to build the modern industrial economy, then the port will have a purpose. Until Cuba updates their financial, property and business laws, their economy will remain in a shambles.

  • Given the widely-known risks associated with doing business in Cuba and the Castros reputation for reneging on business deals, prudent foreign investors will unlikely be interested in engaging in joint ventures with the regime. Especially without the natural US market available to these businesses. Enterprise zones are nothing new. Normally, governments establish enterprise zones to kick-start local employment and skills training in trade for cheap rents and low taxes. The usual goal is and should be to grow small businesses to a point where they can begin to pay taxes and expand employment. This is classic Capitalism 101. Like Fidel’s super cow, his 10 million ton sugar harvest, and the recent drilling for Cuban oil, this latest ‘magic pill’ to resuscitate the moribund Cuban economy appears to be much ado about nothing.

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