Liberalizing Investment in Cuba

I’m no Cuba expert, but I have followed the events of recent years with interest. It seems that there have been tentative steps towards liberalizing the Cuban economy, as well as slightly better economic relations between the United States and Cuba. I’m hopeful the long-term trend is towards Cuba becoming a free market democracy, with normal relations with the United States.

In the short-term, though, I’m frustrated by how the “liberalization” of foreign investment is being carried out there. Here’s the Economist:

But on March 29th Cuba’s parliament approved a new foreign-investment law that for the first time allows Cubans living abroad to invest in some enterprises (provided, according to Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign-trade minister, they are not part of the “Miami terrorist mafia”). The aim is to raise foreign investment in Cuba to about $2.5 billion a year; currently Cuban economists say the stock is $5 billion at most.

The law, which updates a faulty 1995 one, is still patchy, says Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist living in Colombia. It offers generous tax breaks of eight years for new investments. However, it requires employers to hire workers via state employment agencies that charge (and keep) hard currency, vastly inflating the cost of labour.

Welcoming new foreign investment is great. Here’s the problem, though: In order to liberalize investment, a government really doesn’t need to do anything fancy. It can just say, “foreign investment is permitted, and will be treated like domestic investment.” Very simple. Furthermore, lower tax rates and reduced regulatory burdens can help encourage such investment. Again, very simple.

In practice, though, governments make this process difficult and less liberalizing. Here, what Cuba seems to have done is offered special tax breaks for new foreign investments, and then subjected receipt of these tax advantages to certain hiring conditions. In effect, it introduces two distortions as part of the liberalization process: favoring new foreign investors over other investors through the tax code and then subjecting the favored investors to additional regulation.

To be clear, Cuba is not the only country who does this; this is what many countries do. But there’s just no reason to approach it this way. The simpler way, with low tax rates for all investors, is the more economically beneficial way. Unfortunately, it seems as though “liberalization” is often just a catchword, and governments insist on using their power to intervene in private economic transactions, even when ostensibly moving away from interventionist policies.