Monday, January 17, 2011

Doctors for Dollars

World News from GlobalPost
Cuba trades doctors for dollars
By Nick Miroff

HAVANA, Cuba — "$100 a barrel oil in sight," read a recent headline in Granma, Cuba's communist party newspaper, and not long ago, such news would likely have been followed by hand-wringing admonitions to conserve electricity or brace for transportation cuts and rolling blackouts.

Not anymore.

In today's Cuba, climbing oil prices are channeling much-needed cash into government accounts, even though the island is years away from commercially developing its own offshore reserves or becoming a significant energy exporter.    

Instead, Cuba is turning a tidy profit on other nations' crude.

Over the past decade, in a feat of political and diplomatic ingenuity, Cuba's leaders have transformed the country from a place hurt by high oil prices into one that rides their rise straight to the bank. Through service agreements that send Cuban doctors, nurses and other skilled professionals to energy giants like Venezuela, Angola and Algeria, the Cuban government is compensated on a sliding scale pegged to the price of oil.



The exact terms of those service contracts have not been made public, but the basic formula is that when energy prices go up, Cuba earns more.


Last year, the island accumulated a $3.9 billion trade surplus, and services — such as health care — accounted for $9.4 billion out of $13.6 billion in total export revenue, according to the government's National Statistics Office. Those earnings now dwarf Cuba's traditional export commodities, such as sugar and nickel.

The added revenue is helping to ease the cash shortage that forced the Castro government to freeze accounts of foreign businesses operating in the country and defer payments on its estimated $20 billion in foreign debt.

It has also provided a cushion to Cuban authorities at a time of economic tumult, as 500,000 state workers — 10 percent of the island's workforce — are due to be laid off or reassigned in the coming months.

Analysts who track Cuba's energy sector said the country's increasingly lucrative service agreements are "a game changer." "Any exponential rise in oil prices will continue to increase export revenues," said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvaro, a Cuba energy expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

During the leanest years of the so-called Special Period, the post-Soviet economic collapse that gripped Cuba in the 1990s, frequent blackouts left Cubans simmering in their cramped apartments. The island had imported most of its fuel from the Soviet Union, and with the oil spigot shut off, Cuba's power plants and transportation networks sputtered.

Today power outages are rare. And with help from foreign companies, Cuba now produces roughly 50,000 barrels per day of domestic crude to run its power plants. The island receives some 100,000 barrels from Venezuela as well, some of which is processed on the island and re-exported to other countries in the region through the Petrocaribe agreement.

Cuba's most profitable service agreement continues to be with top ally Venezuela, where about 40,000 Cuban professionals are running health clinics, training athletes and working inside the Chavez government. While Cuban doctors and social workers have helped shore up political support for Chavez among Venezuela's poor, Venezuelan hydrocarbons have helped pull the Castro government back from the brink of financial ruin.

The service arrangements have strained Cuban families and the island's own health system, but Cuban workers typically welcome the chance to go abroad, even to faraway places like Qatar or Angola, since they can earn far more than the $20-a-month average salary they would get at home.

The island's economic fortunes will be even more entwined with world energy prices in the coming years, as Cuba has signed more than a dozen deals with foreign companies to develop its offshore reserves.

A sophisticated Chinese-built deepwater drilling rig is due to arrive into Cuban waters this summer, where a foreign consortium led by Spanish energy giant Repsol will try to tap undersea deposits that geologists believe hold billions of barrels of oil. A large discovery will accelerate Cuba's transformation from fuel-deficient importer to significant regional energy player.

The Venezuelan government has also invested more than $6 billion to upgrade Cuba's Cienfuegos refinery, turning the southern port city into one of the region's largest petrochemical centers. A similar expansion is also underway along Cuba's north coast in Matanzas, and the two projects will more than double the island's refining capacity.

Even with those projects years away from completion, economist Ricardo Torres said there's no longer a sense of alarm in Cuba now when oil prices increase. But he cautioned that it's difficult to calculate the exact benefit to Cuba, because the terms of its service contracts with foreign oil producers like Venezuela have never been disclosed.

There are other risks as well, he noted. "Those agreements were negotiated based on strong ties with those countries. But if you think of a situation in which one of those governments changes, Cuba will have to negotiate a new agreement. So it's still vulnerable to political developments in those countries."

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