By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s state-run media has created a stir among economists, diplomats and creditors by publishing an estimate of the Communist-run island’s international reserves, an elusive data long considered a "state secret" there.
Buried deep in a two-part, 2,000-word analysis of the economy earlier this month in Cubadebate, the country´s top digital media platform, insider and former economy minister Jose Luis Rodriguez listed the country’s international reserves as $11.528 billion in 2019 and estimated they had declined by $2.5 billion, or 22%, through 2021.
Reuters also recently viewed an unpublished presentation by another senior and well-connected economist, who did not authorize use of his name, that put reserves at $8 billion in 2022, broadly in line with the data published in CubaDebate.
The Cuban government did not respond to a request to confirm the figure.
Cuba does not publish reserve data and releases very limited current account and debt figures with a three-year lag, saying the delay is necessary to avoid further economic persecution by long-time foe the United States.
“This data shows international reserves have declined a lot and that is very serious,” Cuban economist Omar Everleny said, who like others interviewed for this story could not independently confirm the figures.
Rodriguez, in CubaDebate, said reserves took a hit following the coronavirus pandemic and stiff new sanctions on Cuba under former U.S. president Donald Trump.
Cuba, whose economic activity remains 8% below 2019 levels, is using its precious reserves to import food, fuel, spare parts and industrial and agricultural inputs from abroad.
The last time any reserve figures surfaced in Cuba was in 2014 when what appeared to be an official document was slipped to diplomats. Back then the data put them at $10 billion.
The reserves data is also important because it indicates the Cuban government's ability to pay back its creditors.
Cuba stopped debt payments to groups, such as the Paris Club of rich creditor nations in 2020, and has said it has fallen behind on payments to many joint venture partners and suppliers.
Last week, at the monthly meeting of economic attaches for European Union members in Havana, the data published in CubaDebate was on the agenda, according to a participant, who said they were still unsure why the numbers were released and how they were calculated.
"None of my colleagues had information to back up this statement of Rodriguez," he said, requesting anonymity.
Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist now based in Colombia, said he expected reserves to be much lower, and believed the released figures may have combined central bank reserves with other hard-currency holdings.
“If they are talking about money saved by the State, that would be a very broad definition ... because companies, commercial banks and non-bank financial institutions may be included and many things can be added," he said.
"But what the data does show is that reserves are shrinking, a bad sign for any country."
(Reporting by Marc Frank, Editing by Dave Sherwood and Tomasz Janowski)