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Cuba 2016: An Evolving Economic Landscape for Foreign Investment

October 25, 2016
This blog serves as an update to my post from October 2015, which offered a historical perspective on U.S. business ventures in Cuba and identified several of the challenges and opportunities for American foreign investment in the Cuban market.[1]

By Louis M. Davis

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the United States Department of Commerce or the United States Government.


After providing a brief overview of the progress in the U.S.-Cuba relationship since my previous post, the main pieces of Cuban legislation relevant to American businesses looking to invest in Cuba will be discussed, intertwined with several more in-depth suggestions and cautionary notes regarding U.S. investment on the island. Additional resources will also be offered to enable U.S. businesses to take full advantage of potential opportunities to enter the Cuban market.

Continued Thaw of the U.S.-Cuba Relationship

The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)[2] and the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)[3] have issued a series of regulatory changes, from January 2015 through March 2016, to support the Obama administration’s Cuba policy. These reforms included, but were not limited to, the lifting of financial restrictions for many types of authorized exports, the expansion of remittance limits, and the change in requirement from a specific to general license for authorized travel to Cuba.[4] Since October 2015, three rounds of the U.S.-Cuba Regulatory Dialogue have been held, co-led by the Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce. This forum has enabled the U.S. government and its Cuban counterparts to gain a better understanding of our respective economies, explain the recent U.S. regulatory changes, discuss challenges facing U.S. companies conducting business in Cuba, and identify areas for future bilateral discussion.[5] As underscored by the Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, the Regulatory Dialogue served to “better understand the way our two governments and economies can work together in support of the Cuban people.”[6] In March 2016, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President in 88 years to visit Cuba. A highlight of his trip included an entrepreneurship and opportunity event followed by a Q&A session.[7]

Challenges for Future Business Success

With substantial progress made on the diplomatic front, the challenges I identified in my blog from last October still stand – the legislative restrictions of the embargo remain in place, Cuba maintains the dual currency and a tightly controlled state-run economy, and the average Cuban has limited purchasing power.[8] In their recent report, consultants from the Boston Consulting Group succinctly identify several additional hurdles for foreign investors to consider, including a weak manufacturing sector, lack of infrastructure, limited Internet penetration, an aging workforce, Cuba’s inability to receive funds through MDBs as a non-member, and the Communist Party’s hesitancy towards full-fledged free market reforms.[9] Additionally, there is a plethora of bureaucratic red tape that foreign businesses must navigate; for example, there are 18 separate state-run companies that deal with the import and/or export of goods and services, with oversight from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment (MINCEX). The President’s Export Council’s recent letter to President Obama notes additional hurdles facing U.S. businesses in Cuba.[10]

Foreign Investment Opportunities

Law No. 118 - 2014 Law of Foreign Investment

In order to consider investing in Cuba, U.S. companies must gain a solid understanding of the main Cuban laws and regulations related to foreign investment. Law No. 118, the 2014 Law of Foreign Investment, establishes the legal framework for foreign investments in Cuba.[11] It permits three distinct types of foreign investment – joint ventures, international economic association agreements, and totally foreign capital companies. Joint ventures include one or more national investors and one or more foreign investors as shareholders. International economic association agreements, with an emphasis on projects related to non-renewable natural resources, construction, agricultural production, hotels, production and services management, and professional services,[12] are defined as business arrangements between one or more national and foreign investors without combining the parties into a separate legal entity.[13] 

Pursuant to Law no. 118, foreign investments are permitted in all sectors except health, education, and the armed forces; additionally, foreign investments cannot be found to be detrimental to national defense, security, or the environment.[14] Other than certain managerial, technical, and administrative positions, all foreign investors with a physical business presence on the island are expected to exclusively hire Cuban citizens and foreign permanent residents of Cuba through state-run employment entities.[15] Unlike totally foreign capital companies, joint ventures and parties to international economic association agreements are eligible for special customs tax exemptions for the imports of their goods during the investment process.[16] However, one particularly worrisome provision of Law No. 118 states that “[foreign investments cannot] be expropriated, unless such action is executed for reasons of public or social interest as previously stated by the Council of Ministers, in accordance with the provisions of the [Cuban] Constitution.”[17] Companies should be wary of this, provided that it is, in essence, up to the discretion of the Cuban government when, and if, to dissolve a foreign entity.

Decree-Law No. 313 & Decree No. 316 - Mariel Special Economic Development Zone

Law No. 118 notes that it its provisions are applicable to any and all Special Economic Development Zones, which are defined as areas devoted to attracting foreign investment, fostering technological innovation, and facilitating industrial production with hopes of increasing exports, maintaining a favorable balance of trade, and generating new sources of employment within the framework of the domestic economy. One such example is the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone (ZED Mariel), created in 2013 and located approximately 30 miles west of Havana. Governed primarily by Decree-Law No. 313 and Decree No. 316, ZED Mariel offers foreign businesses a special tax regime generally not available outside the Zone, including an exemption from labor tax and customs duties as well as an exemption from income tax for the first ten years of newly established businesses in the Zone.[18] In 2014 and 2015, the Government of Cuba released a “Portfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment” to advertise hundreds of sector-specific investment proposals within and outside ZED Mariel. As Richard Feinberg notes in his recent book Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy, the 2015 Portfolio “reveals dramatic progress—and tensions—in officials’ thinking about their nation’s economic future.”[19] One area of opportunity for U.S. businesses, as highlighted in the most recent portfolio, are projects related to renewable energy and oil; there are 98 projects explicitly listed in the 2015 Portfolio for these sectors.[20] Furthermore, U.S. regulations are particularly conducive to exporting such products. As part of its recent regulatory changes, BIS now has a general policy of approval for license applications for goods related to environmental protection, including those that emphasize renewable energy and/or energy efficiency.[21] That being said, U.S. businesses should be realistic about the approval timeline for their foreign investments in Cuba; while Decree-Law No. 313 stipulates that the Council of Ministers must approve or deny business applications for a physical presence in Mariel within 30 calendar days,[22] companies can expect to wait much longer. One such example is Cleber, which gained approval from OFAC to build tractors in Cuba back in February 2016[23] but has, to this day, not successfully received final approval from the Mariel authorities to establish a physical business presence within the Zone.

Cuba’s Emerging Private Sector

In addition to renewable energy and oil projects, another area where U.S. businesses should place particular emphasis in the Cuban market is its nascent private sector. Out of the total Cuban population of 11 million, there are between 500,000 and 2 million Cuban cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, on the island. Although these cuentapropistas face particularly strict regulatory and tax regimes, the recent U.S. regulatory changes work in their favor; for example, there is specifically a License Exception Support for the Cuban People (15 CFR § 740.21), which authorizes the export and re-export to Cuba, without a license, of certain commercially sold categories of items.[24] Airbnb is a success story of using the cuentapropistas as the basis for an American business model in Cuba; it maintains thousands of listings for casas particulares, the “bed and breakfast” sub-set of cuentapropistas permitted by the Cuban government. This past June, the Communist Party of Cuba’s Seventh Party Congress announced an internal review of Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social, which, if approved, would expand the scope of the private sector to include “medium, small, and micro-scale businesses.”[25] This document demonstrates that the Cuban government is experimenting with various economic models, and underscores the importance of Cuba’s emerging private sector for foreign investors.

Additional Cuba Resources for U.S. Companies

Although the U.S. Government is prohibited from providing export assistance to U.S. companies pursuant to the Trade Sanctions Reform and Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA),[26] the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)[27] and the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)[28] evaluate export applications on a case-by-case basis to ensure U.S. businesses remain in compliance with federal statutory limits. Both BIS and OFAC publish Cuba FAQs, which address industry-specific inquiries regarding the regulatory changes. BIS also holds monthly call-in programs to answer questions from the U.S. exporting community.[29]

The Importance of Relationship Building For Market Entry

With these resources in mind, it is prudent for U.S. companies to proceed with caution when considering business ventures in Cuba. Even if ambitious leaders within the American private sector are willing to work within the confines of the aforementioned challenges in order to gain early market share, they must realize that their business plans in Cuba, regardless of their financial resources and proactive planning, will take time. As is the case in many Latin American countries, meaningful relationship building is the first step for successful, long-term business negotiations in Cuba.

References:

[1]Louis Davis, “American Business Interests & Entrepreneurial Activity in Cuba: Past, Present, and Future,” Wharton Public Policy Initiative. [Online]. Available: https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/888-american-business-interests-entrepreneurial.

[2] Bureau of Industry and Security, “Cuba,” U.S. Department of Commerce. [Online]. Available: https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/policy-guidance/country-guidance/sanctioned-destinations/cuba.

[3] Office of Foreign Assets Control, “Cuba Sanctions,” U.S. Department of Treasury. [Online]. Available: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/cuba.aspx.

[4] Press Center, “Treasury and Commerce Announce Further Amendments to the Cuba Sanctions Regulations,” U.S. Department of Treasury. [Online]. Available: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0169.aspx.

[5] Office of Public Affairs, “U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Inaugurates Regulatory Dialogue in Cuba,” U.S. Department of Commerce. [Online]. Available: https://www.commerce.gov/news/secretary-speeches/2015/10/us-secretary-commerce-penny-pritzker-inaugurates-regulatory-dialogue.

[6] Press Center, “Commerce and Treasury Announce Second U.S. - Cuba Regulatory Dialogue in Washington, DC, February 17-18, 2016,” U.S. Department of Treasury. [Online]. Available: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/media-advisories/Pages/02122016.aspx.

[7] Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama at an Entrepreneurship and Opportunity Event – Havana, Cuba,” The White House. [Online]. Available: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/21/remarks-president-obama-entrepreneurship-and-opportunity-event-havana.

[8] Louis Davis, “American Business Interests & Entrepreneurial Activity in Cuba: Past, Present, and Future,” Wharton Public Policy Initiative. [Online]. Available: https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/888-american-business-interests-entrepreneurial.

[9] Marguerite Fitzgerald and Enrique Rueda-Sabater, “What Cuba’s Economic Evolution Means for Multinationals,” BCG Perspectives, April 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.bcgperspectives.com/content/articles/globalization-growth-what-cuba-economic-evolution-means-multinationals/.

[10] President’s Export Council, “June 8, 2016 President’s Export Council Meeting,” International Trade Administration, June 2016. [Online]. Available: http://trade.gov/pec/.

[11]Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014.

[12] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 180.

[13] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 178.

[14] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 180.

[15] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 184.

[16] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 186.

[17] Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, “Ley No. 118: Ley de la Inversión Extranjera,” Gaceta Oficial, April 2014, pp. 186.

[18] Consejo de Estado, “Decreto-Ley Numero 313: De La Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel,” Gaceta Oficial, September 2013; Consejo de Ministros, “Decreto No. 316: Reglamento Del Decreto-Ley de La Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel,” Gaceta Oficial, September 2013.

[19] Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016, pp. 89

[20] Government of Cuba, “Porfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment,” 2015.

[21] Bureau of Industry and Security, “Cuba Frequently Asked Questions, U.S. Department of Commerce, May 2016.

[22] Consejo de Estado, “Decreto-Ley Numero 313: De La Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel,” Gaceta Oficial, September 2013, pp. 209.

[23] Daniel Trotta, “Alabama company gets U.S. permission to build tractors in Cuba,” Reuters, February 16, 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-usa-tractors-idUSKCN0VO28R.

[24] Bureau of Industry and Security, “Cuba Frequently Asked Questions, U.S. Department of Commerce, May 2016.

[25] Congreso PCC, “Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social Cubano de Desarrollo Socialista.” [Online]. Available: http://www.granma.cu/file/pdf/gaceta/Copia para el Sitio Web.pdf, pp. 10.

[26] Resource Center, “Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) Program,” U.S. Department of Treasury. [Online]. Available: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/tsra.aspx.

[27] Bureau of Industry and Security, “Cuba,” U.S. Department of Commerce. [Online]. Available: https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/policy-guidance/country-guidance/sanctioned-destinations/cuba.

[28] Office of Foreign Assets Control, “Cuba Sanctions,” U.S. Department of Treasury. [Online]. Available: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/cuba.aspx.

[29] Bureau of Industry and Security, “Cuba,” U.S. Department of Commerce. [Online]. Available: https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/policy-guidance/country-guidance/sanctioned-destinations/cuba.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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