China And Cuba: Skip the Ideology, Let's Talk About Money
By Patricia Rey Mallén
on April 24 2014 3:28 PM
MEXICO CITY -- China's foreign minister arrived in Cuba on April 22, on
an official visit to an island where Beijing is increasing its
investment, including in oil exploration. China has been a constant
asset to the Castro regime through the decades, but has largely been a
discreet presence until now. The Chinese community in Cuba, in fact,
dates back 150 years, and played a fundamental role in the success of
Castro's revolution -- but few people know about it.
Armando Choy does. The son of a humble Chinese shopkeeper, Choy grew up
in Havana in the 1950s, experiencing racism and wretched living
conditions. In 1957, he joined the uprising that toppled dictator
Fulgencio Batista's U.S.-backed regime, and he was made a general in
Fidel Castro's Revolutionary Armed Forces.
"I acted in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting the
planet earth, not on behalf of narrow individual interests," he wrote in
"Our History is Still Being Written," a memoir he co-wrote with two
other Chinese-Cuban revolutionaries.
Deeply Marxist and convinced that communism would never thrive without a
global uprising, Choy embodies the ties that China and Cuba shared
throughout much of the 20th century.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and China has become an economic
superpower, with expanding trade partnerships around the world. Cuba, on
the other hand, is still at odds with most of the world, and its economy
is ailing, still under an American embargo dating back to 1962.
Since its rise to the position of world's second-largest economy,
China's interest in the region has expanded to other countries, but Cuba
still plays an important role in Beijing's Latin America strategy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi chose Havana for his first stop in his
tour of the region, which will take him to Venezuela, Argentina and
Brazil as well, in the last week of April.
"China and Cuba have common goals in their international agendas," Bruno
Rodríguez, Cuba's Foreign Minister, said after his meeting with Wang on
China historically backs many of Cuba's positions, such as the rejection
of the embargo and embracing the principle of nonintervention in
international disputes. However, Wang's tour of Latin America is more
about economics than geopolitics.
China's interest in Latin America is growing steadily, for economic
reasons. Over the past decade, China has largely had a relationship with
the region based on importing natural resources and exporting
manufactured goods. This balance, though, has started to shift: For the
past five years, China has focused increasingly on direct investment in
projects in the region, and Latin America is happily welcoming it as a
China is Cuba's second largest trading partner after Venezuela. In
addition, Cuba is China's largest partner in the Caribbean, with
bilateral trade now standing at a little over $2 billion annually,
according to Chinese government data.
Beijing has been pushing Havana to open its market through reforms,
drawing upon its own experience in the last three decades, when China
allowed its private sector and entrepreneurship to flourish, stimulated
foreign investment, and promoted internal consumption.
To this end, China agreed in 2004 to give Cuba $400 million in the form
of long-term loans to support development, on top of the $1.3 billion it
had already invested in the island since the 1990s. China has also
undertaken several large-scale projects in the country, such as
developing onshore and offshore oil exploration, as well as the
expansion of Cuba's largest refinery in Cienfuegos; the development of
the recently opened deep-water port in the town of Mariel; and building
Foreign entrepreneurship is now encouraged in Cuba, and Cuban exiles and
expats are allowed into the country for short periods of time, for both
family and business reasons. The country has also focused its efforts on
renovating its ailing industry, starting with sugar, the island's main
export. Cuba has begun receiving foreign investment -- mainly from
Brazil and the UK -- to modernize equipment and upgrade its sugarcane
plantations. China imports about 400,000 tons of sugar a year, making it
the largest buyer of Cuban sugar, according to state sugar monopoly AZCUBA.
But China is being driven to more involvement in Cuba by pragmatism, not
a shared Communist ideology.
"Beijing has demonstrated that it will conduct business with
left-leaning governments like Venezuela and Ecuador as readily as with
right-leaning governments like Colombia," Paul Nash, a China commentator
for the Diplomatic Courier, wrote in a column.
Nash argued that the partnership between Cuba and China represents
Cuba's ticket to international trade.
"If China can help Cuba's economy reform such that [the island], like
Vietnam, no longer justifies the embargo on the basis that Cuba's
economy is controlled by international communism, that might be the path
to normalized relations [with the U.S.]," he added.
This pragmatism about international economic relations has also defined
China's approach to Venezuela, its largest trading partner in Latin
America. Venezuela has been depending on China for investment and loans
since the country severed its ties with the International Monetary Fund
and the World Bank in 2007.
"Venezuela has a policy goal of trying to limit its exposure to the
international debt market," Mark Jones, a Latin America expert at the
Baker Institute, told Al Jazeera. "For China, ideology has very little
to do with it. They are investing for strategic reasons."
China has made it clear that its interest in Latin America is not
limited to those countries with which it may ally politically. In his
first visit to the region in an official capacity last year, China's
President Xi Jingping visited Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa
Rica, all countries whose allegiance is with the U.S.
Xi is expected to stop over in Cuba in July, on his way to Fortaleza,
Brazil, to take part in a BRICS summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China,
"Cuba and China's relationship is as strong as ever," said Wang at the
end of his visit to Havana. "Now, we need to work to bring it to the
As Wang said, China and Cuba's relationship has entered a new stage: it
is no longer defined by ideology -- as it was in Choy's days -- but by
trade. As the Asian giant steps further into Latin America, though,
Havana will remain one of the first stops in its itinerary.
Source: China And Cuba: Skip the Ideology, Let's Talk About Money -