HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s economy will grow next year at about the same sluggish 1 percent pace it did in 2018 and an austerity program begun in 2016 will continue, the country’s economy minister said on Sunday, according to state-run media.
The communist-ruled country has been hard hit by the economic collapse of its strategic ally Venezuela, a decline in export earnings over four consecutive years, bad weather and the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions.
Cuba’s economy is notoriously inefficient and dependent on foreign revenues. The government also spends a large amount of its revenue on a free healthcare system, education and other services.
Economy Minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez, speaking at a closed door session of the National Assembly’s economic commission, said export earnings declined further this year, though no figures were provided by the media.
Gil said plans for 2 percent growth this year were dashed mainly by Hurricane Irma and other weather-related events that hurt tourism, sugar production and agriculture, all of which should improve next year, as well as domestic inefficiencies and tighter U.S. sanctions.
Cuba’s economy grew 1.8 percent in 2017 and 0.5 percent in the previous year.
The country has been late paying suppliers and its debt, and some investors report they have had problems repatriating profits from Cuban banks.
Gil said austerity measures, which began in 2016, would continue in 2019. They include cuts in energy and fuel to state companies and reduced imports of inputs for the economy, which have led to scattered shortages of everything from bread and medicine to eggs as production sputters for lack of spare parts and raw materials.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was also present at the closed-door session, said improving the economy was the government’s top priority.
“Most of our time must be used in how we unblock things, in how we remove litter from the road that leads to the solution of economic and financial problems,” he was quoted as stating.
Diaz-Canel also blasted U.S. sanctions, which he said cost Cuba $4.3 billion this year.
But he focused on domestic economic woes and the need to push forward reforms begun by former President Raul Castro, whom he replaced in April.
Diaz-Canel called for further loosening of government controls over the state-run companies that dominate the economy and which remained “hamstrung” and the formation of better ties between them and foreign investors and a growing private sector.
Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Paul Simao