By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cash-short Cuba on Thursday said imports and exports fell a total of $4.2 billion in 2015 and the trade surplus fell $1.6 billion as low commodity prices and the crisis in Venezuela took their toll, shedding some light on recent austerity measures.
Cuba has restructured most of its foreign debt in recent years and has been meeting its payments, but suppliers and joint venture partners said it was having problems paying them on time.
The report by the National Statistics Office said exports of goods and services were $14.9 billion and imports $12.6 billion last year, compared with $17.8 billion and $13.9 billion respectively in 2014. (http://www.one.cu/aec2015/05%20Cuentas%20Nacionales.pdf)
Goods exports were down $1.5 billion and service exports $1.3 billion, despite an increase in tourism and telecommunications revenues included in the category along with receipts from the services of healthcare and other professional workers sent overseas.
President Raul Castro said in June that lower commodities prices were battering Cuban exports of nickel, refined oil products and sugar, while revenue from the sale of professional services to countries such as Venezuela and Angola had suffered.
Castro, speaking to the National Assembly, said oil shipments from Venezuela were also down. The government then announced imports would be slashed by $2.5 billion for the remainder of the year and that state-run companies’ allocations of fuel and electricity would be cut.
The Cuban economy was now expected to grow just 1 percent in 2016, compared with 4 percent the previous year, the government said.
Some Cuban economists believe there will be no growth.
"The situation grows worse by the day," one economist said, requesting anonymity due to a ban on speaking with journalists without authorization.
"The Venezuelan crisis is deepening and production of nickel, refined oil products and sugar are all down this year," he said.
The collapse of oil prices punishes Cuba under the terms of its oil deal with Venezuela. Cuba receives oil as part of an exchange that sends Cuban professionals to Venezuela. Some 30,000 doctors and nurses, plus another 10,000 professionals, are posted in Venezuela.
Economists and oil market experts believe the price of Cuban services is tied to oil prices, meaning Venezuela would pay less when prices are down.
Thursday’s report said trade of goods with the South American oil producer was $4.2 billion in 2015, down from $7.3 billion the previous year.
Cuba does not publish details of the export of professional services.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by James Dalgleish)