Using Land Value to Promote Development in Cuba

Ricardo Nuñez, H. James Brown, and Martim Smolka, March 1, 2000

Researchers from the Lincoln Institute are working with the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital (GDIC) in Havana to better understand how land and increments in land value can be utilized to facilitate the physical rehabilitation and economic development of Cuba.

During the Soviet era, Cuba’s economic environment was characterized by a top-down model in which state agencies were the principal economic and development actors. Planning was autocratic and inflexible; trade depended primarily on the socialist bloc countries; financial capacity was centralized in the national budget; and there was no tax system. Legal, financial and economic reforms implemented since 1990 have helped to create an institutional environment more conducive to economic efficiency and to allow Cuba’s participation in the global market (see Figure 1).

However, the Cuban economy still faces tremendous difficulties that have seriously affected the country’s capacity to maintain living standards, the quality of social and public services, and economic development programs in general. For example, Cuba’s GDP in 1995 was only one-half its 1989 level and its import capacity has fallen from roughly 8 billion to 2 billion US$ annually.

Figure 1: Summary of Key Reforms

1990 Opening of the economy to foreign investors

1991 Reinstatement of Cuban international trade

1992 Introduction of modifications to the 1976 Constitution

Introduction of new forms of non-state property Elimination of the state monopoly on international trade Expansion of foreign-owned private market enterprises 1993 Transfer of formerly state-owned rural land to workers

1994 Restructuring of the central state administration Opening of agricultural markets based on supply and demand mechanisms

1995 Reestablishment of indicative planning and introduction of financial indicators Beginning of state business restructuring Regularization of the circulation of hard currency in the banking system Enactment of new laws on foreign investments Gradual introduction of components of a tax system Enactment of the law restructuring the banking system

1997 Enactment of the law on free trade zones

The Cuban government has tried to promote tourism as its primary means to generate much-needed hard currency quickly. As a Caribbean island, Cuba offers substantial tourist attractions, ranging from magnificent beaches to the architectural heritage of Old Havana, which has been recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as other natural, historical and cultural sites around the country. However, stimulation of the tourist industry requires international partners to undertake the development of hotels, shops, restaurants and airport expansion. The fact that the state owns most of the land available for development is a critical element in Cuba’s strategy to attract foreign developers and tourists.

The government’s plan to build its tourist industry has shown some success. In 1967 there were about 2,000 tourists to the island annually, whereas in 1998 over 1.4 million visitors traveled to Cuba. During the last five years alone, foreign investors have increased their operations in Cuba in several economic sectors, particularly in tourism. As a result 2,000 new hotel rooms have been added in Havana, with a total capacity now surpassing 10,700 rooms. Nationwide there are 31,600 hotel rooms, and the target is to increase capacity to 40,000 over the next two years. About 80 percent of recent construction activity in Cuba is related, directly or indirectly, to the tourist sector. Some estimates indicate that state-owned land and buildings already committed to these new projects represent around 500 million US$. Significantly, this development has been achieved without the existence of a formal land market.

Land-based Policies to Stimulate Development

Land has been used in various ways to help stimulate development and to generate public revenues. First, the Cuban government has used land as its capital contribution in joint ventures with international developers. For example, VanCuba Holdings, S.A., a Canadian company, is a 50-percent partner with the Cuban government in a project to build 11 hotels. Cuba contributed the land as its 50-percent share and the Canadian company is expected to invest 400 million US$. Many such joint venture arrangements, particularly real estate and tourism projects, have been made with development companies from Canada, Spain, Italy and Israel.

Since land is Cuba’s principal contribution to these international ventures, a key issue is to assure that the financial value of the land represents 50 percent of the project’s social capital. In cases where the monetary value of the contributed land is less than 50 percent, the foreign partner has often been instrumental in helping its Cuban counterpart apply for credit from international banks or financial institutions to make up the difference. More recently, the credit to assure 50-percent Cuban participation is obtained at low interest rates directly from the Central Bank of Cuba rather than from international entities.

A second mechanism to stimulate development is the increased use of land leasing agreements for commercial and office projects. Leasing is preferred since the direct sale of state-owned land is possible only in very special situations. The leasing terms are negotiated on the basis of the specific land value, and if accepted by all parties are established for 25 years. The lease may be reviewed and extended for an additional 25 years if the parties involved in the renegotiations agree upon the new criteria. In Havana, several projects with foreign investors are currently operating under such an agreement, and the estimated area under development in the city surpasses 100 hectares.

Third, the Cuban government has entered into direct rental agreements for state-owned land in free trade zones, which in some cases generate significant revenues. About 120 foreign private and public-private enterprises have been established already in two trade zones in Havana.

Both the leasing and direct rental agreements for state-owned land provide important new funds to the national budget. These resources are then used to improve the standard of living in local communities by providing social services (education and health), developing economic projects, upgrading and enlarging major infrastructure and other amenities, and generating jobs. Some examples of city and community benefits that have been supported largely by these revenues are the new Havana International Airport, the creation and improvement of a digital telephone system, and the metropolitan park projects in the Almendares River area.

A different but very interesting set of instruments to mobilize land value increments resulting from public investment has been developed by the Office of the Historian, the public agency responsible for promoting, financing and developing the revitalization program in Old Havana. This Office has begun to collect both indirect and direct taxes totaling 35 percent of revenues from private enterprises not related to the Office, such as hotels, commercial businesses and restaurants that have benefited from the Office’s efforts to rehabilitate the historic district. These external revenues, as well as revenues generated by projects initiated by the Office itself, are used in a kind of revolving fund to support further investments in the built environment. They also fund a variety of social programs, including housing, nursing homes, and educational and cultural activities in Old Havana. The Office’s total revenues surpassed 40 million US$ in 1998 and 50 million US$ in 1999. The government is also negotiating other kinds of revenue-generating programs to capture land value increments to support the rehabilitation of the Paseo del Prado and the Rampa areas of Havana, as well as the Boca de la Chorrera redevelopment project at the mouth of the Almendares River.

Difficulties with Implementation

Cuba’s implementation of these various tools for capturing land value increments has not occurred without problems. In the case of the indirect and direct taxes on revenues introduced in Old Havana, several businesses have claimed that their revenue sources are not a result of the efforts by the Office of the Historian to improve the district, and therefore should be exempt from the tax. For example, the headquarters of the Cuban Fuel Distribution Company (CUPET) is located in a valuable area in the heart of the historic center but does not pay the tax. The company argues that its revenue sources (i.e., its facilities and distribution networks) are located outside the center and therefore do not benefit from the rehabilitation process.

The 25-year leasing agreements illustrate a different problem arising from the implicit dilemma between short-run vs. long-run goals, because the agreements do not include a periodic updating of lease payments. On one hand, if the payments are set on the basis of existing use and value, the public authorities may lose significant financial resources that could accrue from the impacts of these investments and other changes in land value over the 25-year lease. However, if the authorities attempt to capture the anticipated higher value immediately, they will have more difficulty making such expensive deals with wary investors.

The lack of an adequate legal system for real estate development and mortgage lending in Cuba is a major obstacle to implementation of all these instruments. Proposed new real estate laws have been drafted but legislation expected to be introduced last year has not yet been adopted. This uncertain and unpredictable legal situation can prevent the formation of serious business partnerships, which normally require long-term vision, stability and transparency. Furthermore, this lack of legal protection may scare away the highest quality developers who would be most able to carry out sophisticated larger projects. As a result, the Cuban government has had fewer strong proposals to evaluate and has been accepting smaller projects with less established international developers.

These smaller projects are sometimes problematic for several reasons. First, they are often located in the most desirable parts of Havana, although such developments are not necessarily appropriate for those neighborhoods. Second, they must rely on existing infrastructure since they are not large enough to provide that additional investment. Third, the aesthetic quality and even the basic service standards of these new hotels or apartments are sometimes questionable. Since these buildings affect the overall image of the city, they may even have a negative impact and contribute to the devaluation of their neighborhood.

A related problem is the uncertainty that developers experience in having to deal with new institutions and policy tools that are being negotiated within the Cuban government at the same time they are being implemented in the field. While these policies are under review, the government has introduced a moratorium on new development in certain areas of Havana and has slowed the real estate negotiation process in general. Without stability and trust in the relevant government agencies and policies, private investors for commercial or residential projects are discouraged by the risks inherent in making long-term development decisions. This has an obvious effect on the costs of development and the expected internal rates of return.

Finally, there are the difficulties of assessing land values in the absence of formal markets, let alone transparent land transactions. Government agencies involved in development have two choices. One is to use administrative prices in determining the value of leases or contributions, even though the basis for these prices may not reflect the actual value of land attributes. Alternatively, the agencies must negotiate the price with foreign developers based on the dynamics of the particular site. Both options are limited by the lack of ongoing independent land market transactions on which to evaluate actual prices.

Land Policy Dilemmas

Although Cuba has made substantial progress, it faces many challenges and dilemmas in using land efficiently to stimulate development and generate revenues. For example, the smaller, more expedient projects may result in faster development and revenue flows, but they are not able to create a broader vision for future land uses, and they frequently cause damage to the historic fabric and natural environment. The larger, better-financed projects can create such a vision and enhance the environment, but are much more difficult to negotiate and take longer to build.

Furthermore, the larger projects may require a substantial investment in basic infrastructure because of the poor quality of existing conditions. The government has not had the resources to make these investments, thus threatening the economic sustainability of new urban interventions. Small projects cannot support such investment burdens. While the large projects may be able to finance infrastructure investment, they run the risk of becoming exclusive enclaves separated from the surrounding community when they provide infrastructure only as part of their own project. The question, then, is how to finance the infrastructure in a non-exclusionary manner to encourage other small-scale development. Three alternatives are being pursued simultaneously, but are subject to continuing debate:

  • small, individualized interventions using leases to occupy infill areas in the city that are already well-endowed with infrastructure;
  • enclaves of large resorts and gated communities that can support infrastructure through exactions and development fees, with other controls built into the negotiation to prevent exclusionary access; or
  • broader value capture policies to use real estate as an asset to generate revenues in a way that preserves the historical heritage and community solidarity, and prevents social segregation, sprawl and other negative implications.

Another aspect of the debate among Cuban planning and development experts concerns the pros and cons of introducing open land markets with a strong tax system vs. maintaining the existing public management of state-owned land. Those who advocate for introducing open land markets feel it is a necessary step to encourage development so that Cuba can benefit from linkages with the global economy and different types of foreign investments. These experts also argue that Cuba must continue to develop mechanisms for capturing publicly created land value.

Those who argue for continuing the current system point to Cuba’s success in reducing spatial segregation, promoting balance in social and urban services, preserving historic and other patrimony values in the city, and reserving enough land for future development projects. These advocates point to the recent Latin American experience with free markets, which has resulted in increased segregation between rich and poor areas, a lack of social services in poorer areas, increases in urban violence, speculation, and growing environmental problems.

In summary, some of the priority issues on Cuba’s land development agenda are the establishment of a legal system with clear parameters and the introduction of more rigorous and transparent mechanisms for valuing land and buildings. In addition, diversification of the types of Cuba-based partners available to participate in international development projects will help establish criteria for a longer-term planning perspective that will encourage large-scale infrastructure projects and support the continuing provision of benefits to the community. These concerns are not so different from land policy challenges in other developing countries. The continued study of land value as an instrument for development in Cuba offers important lessons for researchers and public officials throughout Latin America.

Ricardo Núñez is researcher at the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital (GDIC) in Havana, Cuba. H. James Brown is president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute, and Martim Smolka is senior fellow and director of the Institute’s Latin American and Caribbean Program. Laura Mullahy, research assistant for the Latin American and Caribbean Program, also contributed to this article.