Thursday, 7 May 2009


Beijing and Havana: Political Fraternity and Economic Patronage

Jamestown China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 9
By Yinghong Cheng

"History has proved that we [China and Cuba] are worthy of
the name of fast friends, good comrades and intimate
brothers,” commented Chinese President Hu Jintao on the
state of Sino-Cuban bilateral relations during a visit with
Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana on November 16-19,
2008 (China News Net, November 20, 2008). Hu's comments
echoed Chairman Mao's incendiary rhetoric during a time of
world revolution, and accentuated the notion that both
China and Cuba still claim to be “communist.” Yet, since
the late Patriarch Deng Xiaoping's economic policy of
opening-up China, Beijing has departed from its Maoist
socio-economic model and even further according to party
stalwarts still loyal to Mao's teachings. Following Hu’s
remarks, Raul chanted “The East Is Red,” a Chinese song
popular during Mao’s time comparing the Chairman to the
sun. Raul’s impromptu charade was widely reported in China
and deeply touched the cords of various old and new Maoists
and leftists.

Unlike North Korea or Vietnam, Cuba has neither entangled
China in a dangerous nuclear security complication nor
contested its territorial claims for oil-rich border zones,
respectively. In this context, Hu’s comments carry a lot of
weight and Raul’s singing is by no means a solo. After all,
Hu has been known for his reputation as the party’s “good
boy” since the 1950-1960s and there is no evidence to
suggest that he would allow Mao's legacy to be more
critically reexamined in public. While Hu visited Cuba
twice before (1997 and 2004), the timing of his third visit
was more auspicious, as the Chinese media emphasized: Raul
Castro has replaced Fidel as being on top of the Cuban
leadership (with an implication of more reform-oriented
policies following the “Chinese lesson”) at the same time
that China has issued “China's Policy Paper on Latin
America and the Caribbean.” The Chinese White Paper, which
was released two weeks before Hu’s visit, is the third such
Chinese policy paper, following a Chinese White Paper
released on the European Union in October 2003 and another
paper released by Beijing on Africa in January 2006. These
three White Papers articulate China’s dynamic and evolving
national interests in an increasingly globalized world.

Political Relations: A Duet on the International Stage

Sino-Cuban relations have been strategic in nature since
the two governments established an alliance in the early
1990s in an effort to defy international isolation against
the backdrop of the Soviet's collapse, China’s 1989
Tiananmen massacre, and the Soviet/Russian jettison of
Cuba. Debates on human rights issues, the “unilateralism”
of U.S. foreign policy and the “unfair international
economic order” were some of the issues that they
collaborated on. In a region where China and Taiwan have
fought for diplomatic recognition, Cuba has been a “staunch
supporter” of the PRC's interpretation of “One China” and
has used its influence to convince several smaller Central
American and Caribbean countries to switch their
recognition from Taiwan to China. In 2008 when China’s
moral qualification as the host of the Olympics was being
challenged, Cuba proved to be quite vocal in its support
for Chinese efforts to host the Beijing Olympic Games. The
ailing Fidel Castro even published an article entitled “The
Chinese Victory,” which was highlighted in the Cuban media
and hailed by the Chinese [1]. Cuba has also loudly
condemned Tibetan exiles and their Western supporters.
Another important aspect in the bilateral political
relationship that has evolved over time is Beijing’s
attempt to introduce Chinese style market-oriented reforms
and a private entrepreneurship-driven economy to the Cuban
leadership. These efforts were received sympathetically
among some Cuban leaders, particularly Raul Castro [2].
Indeed, the “Chinese model” has proven applicable to some
extent in Cuba’s limited economic reforms in small-scale
private businesses such as restaurants, taxis, and barber
shops and has provided some incentives to stimulate
production, attracting foreign investments. In addition,
Cuba has been hailed as the most undaunted anti-American
hero by the Chinese Maoists, old and new leftists and
nationalists. At the same time, China has served Castro’s
purpose for domestic consumption of the vitality of
“socialism” in the contemporary world [3].

Economic Patronage: China’s “Blood Transfusion” to Cuba

This high-pitch political duet has been accompanied by the
rapid development of economic relations and technology
transfers. Since the early 1990s China has risen to become
one of Cuba’s top foreign trade partners—second only to
Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela—particularly in energy-related
areas. According to Zhao Rongxian, the Chinese ambassador
in Havana in an interview before Hu’s recent visit, “made
in China” merchandise has “quietly changed the way of the
Cuban daily life,” presumably referring to a change from
outdated Russian/Eastern European technologies. For
example, Haier refrigerators have replaced previously
energy-inefficient ones; incandescent bulbs have given
their way to compact fluorescents; and more than 1000
Yutong buses have replaced truck-drawn carriages to become
the major public transportation tools, making the brand
“Yutong” synonymous with “bus” in Cuba (Xinhua News Agency,
November 17, 2008). According to a spokesperson of the
Chinese Foreign Ministry, in 2007, the bilateral trade
volume amounted to $2.28 billion, up 27 percent from the
previous year (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s
Republic of China, November 6, 2008).

Much of the burgeoning Sino-Cuban trade relationship has
been made possible by Chinese loans, which have resembled
an economic blood transfusion to Cuba’s meager foreign
currency reserve. China has granted Cuba numerous
long-term, low or interest-free loans. The largest of these
loans was a $400 million long-term interest-free loan that
was granted by former President Jiang Zemin during his
visit to Havana in 2001. During Hu’s 2004 visit, sixteen
documents were signed including a loan for the improvement
of Cuba’s education system, an agreement to defer the
repayments of four interest-free loans, a Chinese loan for
Sino-Cuban telecommunication cooperation and the Cuba’s
purchase of one million Chinese TVs [4]. This grandiose
display of Chinese generosity was perhaps what prompted
Fidel Castro—who was in crutches—to stand instead of
sitting in a wheelchair at a public welcoming rally for Hu,
while raising his arm and shouting “Long live China!”
(Xinhua News Agency, November 29, 2004). During Hu’s 2008
visit, he attended five document-signing ceremonies, in
which China gave Cuba a gift credit of $8 million, deferred
the repayment of an $8 million government debt by five
years, and offered a $70 million loan for upgrades to Cuban
hospital (Beijing Review, December 2, 2008). China has
become a major consumer of Cuban sugar, nickel (20,000 tons
between 2005 and 2009), tobacco, bio-technology products
and some medical instruments. China also signed a tourism
agreement in 2003 with Cuba, which was the first of such
agreements in Latin America and has contributed to a
portion of Cuba’s foreign currency revenue.

The Sino-Cuban political fraternity and economic patronage
have made bilateral relations a special case in China’s
strategy toward Latin America. For example, “China's Policy
Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean” stated that:

“The Chinese Government views its relations with Latin
America and the Caribbean from a strategic plane and seeks
to build and develop a comprehensive and cooperative
partnership featuring equality, mutual benefit and common
development with Latin American and Caribbean countries”

Yet, in Hu’s most recent visit to Cuba, he
suggested—directly to Raul Castro—that they should further
strengthen Sino-Cuban relations in four key areas, which to
some extent superseded the scope of the White Paper in
political implications as well as the extent of partnership
in other dimensions: “First, the two sides should continue
high-level exchanges and enhance political ties to cement
the political foundation for bilateral relations. Second,
China and Cuba should further develop trade and economic
cooperation. Third, the two countries should increase
exchanges in fields such as culture, education, health,
sports and tourism. Fourth, the two sides should work
together to protect the interests of developing countries
and build lasting peace and common prosperity in a
harmonious world” (Beijing Review [English], December 1,

Cuban Chinese under Castro

One particular aspect of the Sino-Cuban relationship that
may not seem immediately significant from a diplomatic
perspective but has long-term ideological and cultural
consequences for bilateral relations is the historical
experience and treatment of the Chinese Cubans. Ethnic
Chinese began to migrate to Cuba in the 1840s, initially as
indentured laborers to replace the black slaves who were
about to be emancipated. By the time Castro came to power,
the Chinese community in Cuba had become the largest one in
Latin America. With a vibrant economy, the Chinese
community had a population of more than 50,000 and Havana’s
Chinatown was one of the most bustling business districts
in the capital. Many Chinese Cubans participated in the
country’s 19th century nationalist revolution and Fidel
Castro’s July 26th movement. Yet, shortly after taking
power, the Chinese community became a major target in
Fidel’s socialist nationalization campaign. By 1968, when
Fidel launched the Revolutionary Offensive (a parallel to
the combination of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the
Cultural Revolution), even street vendors—many of whom were
Chinese Cubans—were appropriated. The majority of Chinese
Cubans—particularly those in the upper and middle
classes—chose to leave the country while those who remained
suffered from political discrimination. In a matter of just
a decade, the once flourishing Chinese Cuban community
disappeared. By the 1990s, there were only about 1,000
first-generation Chinese Cubans and 20,000 second
generation ones; most of the former were very poor and
almost none of the latter spoke any Chinese [6].

After Cuba resumed its relations with China, marked by
Castro’s high-profile endorsement of Beijing’s crackdown on
the pro-democracy movement in 1989, the Cuban government
came to realize the potential of the Cuban Chinese
community in its relations with China. Castro made an
inspection tour of Havana’s Chinatown as early as 1989.
Later the government supported several projects to
revitalize Chinatown in the 1990s, especially in the second
half of the decade. These projects included allowing the
Chinese to run private restaurants, a preferential policy
not entitled to ordinary Cubans, and endorsed a Chinese
association by placing it under the guidance of a member of
a Cuban party Politburo and offered its staff government
salaries. Despite these efforts, the damages inflicted upon
the Chinese community still seem beyond repair, and
Havana’s Chinatown is nowhere near a complete restoration
of its old prosperity and dynamism. Many Chinese
visitors—often party and government officials—can not help
but lament the deplorable conditions of the Chinatown and
the near complete oblivion of the “Chinese-ness” among the
remaining Chinese Cubans.

This history in Sino-Cuban relations casts a shadow on the
Chinese popular perception of the Cuban Revolution and
Fidel Castro, and to some extent raises skepticism about
the official bravado for Sino-Cuban camaraderie, which had
been sapped by Chinese liberal discussion on world
communism at large and its criticism of Chinese aid to Cuba
in particular. In 2006, a book entitled Family Letters from
a Cuban Chinese was published describing the miserable life
experiences of the Cuban Chinese under Castro during the
1960s and 1970s [7]. The book was widely circulated and
provoked online discussions about Sino-Cuban relations, in
the context of the similar treatments of overseas Chinese
by communist Vietnam and Cambodia during the mid-1970s [8].

In 2005, Pathfinder, a leftwing and pro-Castro press source
in the United States, published Our History Is Still Being
Written—The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the
Cuban Revolution. The book is a collection of the life
stories of three Chinese who joined Castro’s guerrilla war
and rose to senior positions to convince the reader of the
myth of “racial equality” brought about by the revolution.
The book’s Chinese version was published in 2009 and its
release became a public relations issue; the Chinese
People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries
held an official ceremony with the attendance of the Cuban
ambassador (The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship
with Foreign Countries, March 13). Discussion about the
different versions and political implications of “life
stories” of the Chinese Cubans are still ongoing. There are
about 30,000 Cuban Chinese who still live in Cuba and a
small portion of them have improved their economic standing
by taking advantage of the Cuban government’s favorable
policies toward small-scale private businesses, but the
majority are as poor as other ethnic groups. Currently,
other than appearing at ceremonials to welcome visiting
Chinese delegations, the Cuban Chinese community is not
playing any noticeable role in the relationship between the
two countries.

Sino-Cuban engagement in the 21st century is best described
as a political duet with a massive economic blood
transfusion. It will keep on this track in the foreseeable
future until improvement in Cuba’s international
circumstances enables the island to broaden its ranks of
foreign trade partners and aid providers. On the Chinese
side, Cuba’s strategic importance outweighs its economic
value. The CCP will continue to pay for Cuba’s support, but
while Chinese public opinion of Cuba and its government
policies have changed, it will not likely have any
immediate impact on official relations.


1. Castro’s article was published on April 1st by Granma,
the Cuban government mouthpiece and was appreciated by the
Chinese. For an English version of the article, see

2. For a recent discussion on the topic, see Yinghong
Cheng, “Fidel Castro and ‘China's Lesson for Cuba’: A
Chinese Perspective,” The China Quarterly, 189, March 2007,
pp, 24-42.

3. The most recent examples of Castro’s popularity in China
were the wide read article by Kong Hanbin, titled “Ka s te
luo zen yang zou shang fan mei zhi lu?” (How Did Castro
Choose Anti-American Position?”,
originally published in Shi Jie Zhi Shi (World Knowledge,
March 2008) but has appeared on many websites; and the
release of Castro’s autobiography in Chinese (March 2008).

4. Jiang Shixue, “Sino-Cuban Relations Enter New Phase of
Comprehensive Development,” (Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, November 2008),

5. Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China,
“China's Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean,”

6. Zhou Li, “Gu ba hua she lu ying” (A Glimpse of the
Chinese Community in Cuba), Hai Wai Zhong Heng, 2004, No.
5. Zhou was a high-ranking officer in China’s international
cultural exchange administration and the article was
written to introduce the conditions of the Chinese Cubans
by 2004.

7. Huang Zhuocai, Gu ba hua qiao jia shu gu shi (Guangzhou:
Jinan University Press, 2006). The book is an annotated
collection of a Cuban Chinese sent from Cuba at the time.

8. For example, see Yinghong Cheng’s article “Hua yi gu bar
en: zai ge min de hong liu li” (“Cuban Chinese: In the
Midstream of the Revolution”), Southern Weekend March 17,

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