Cuba sees 1.5 percent growth next year after hard 2018

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s economy grew 1.2 percent in 2018, below the government’s forecast, and is expected to expand 1.5 percent in 2019 despite falling export revenues and continued austerity measures, the communist-run country’s economy minister said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a hotel under construction in Havana, Cuba, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Economic growth has slowed in part due to a steady decline in export earnings since 2014, which has led Cuba to slash imports and fall behind on payments to some suppliers, joint venture partners and governments.

The government had planned on 2 percent growth for this year, Economy and Planning Minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez told an end-of-year parliament meeting. The economy grew 1.8 percent in 2017.

Gil said sectors such as sugar, agriculture and tourism would rebound next year after poor performances in 2018, largely caused by the impact of Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and out-of-season rainfall this year.

Economic growth this year and in 2019 would also be driven by an expansion of social services such as free healthcare, Gil said.

Cuba estimates the value of these services and includes it in its gross domestic product, unlike most countries.

Gil said debt and other financial problems, aggravated by tighter U.S. sanctions which cost the country $4.3 billion, also dragged down the economy. He added that Cuba would not increase its debt load in 2019 to achieve growth.

“We have to hold back the increase in debt. We will begin to reduce the debt, paying out more than the new credits,” he said.

Cuba last reported its foreign debt as $15.8 billion in 2015.

The decline in export earnings has occurred even as debt payments mounted, which has been offset somewhat by increased revenues from telecommunications and remittances, though those earnings are treated as state secrets.

Combined exports and imports fell around 25 percent from 2013 through 2017, with annual imports dropping to $11.3 billion from $15.6 billion during that period, according to the government.

The government began reducing fuel and power allocations to state-run enterprises in 2016.

In August, the government slapped a hold on approved “non-essential” imports and further cut fuel allocations.

The measures have led to scattered shortages of everything from bread and medicine to eggs as production sputters for lack of spare parts and raw materials.

Gill said the country also drew on its inventories and improved repatriation of export earnings and other efficiencies to keep the economy in the black, measures that would continue in 2019.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Paul Simao