The world’s largest and smallest communist states, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Cuba became close friends on September 28th, 1960.
After anti-communist Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) fled into exile on December 31st, 1958, the new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro (1926-2016) didn’t waste much time to show his preferences.
As the story goes, Castro proclaimed at a rally in Havana that “The Revolutionary Government of Cuba would like to ask the Cuban people if Cuba should establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.” The crowd roared, chanting “Yes, yes!”
Castro then reportedly approached the chief of the Xinhua News Agency and said: “Here is the Chinese representative. From now on, I declare that Cuba has cut its ties with the puppet regime of Chiang Kai-shek.
On the other hand, it took Fidel Castro 35 years to actually go to China. In November/December 1995 he finally visited Peking, Xi’an, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Canton and the Great Wall.
His Argentinian brother in arms Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) couldn’t wait and met the Red Mandarins in November 1960 and again in February 1965.
The Sugar Island was the first nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and therefore in the Western hemisphere, to recognize Peking and break with Taipei.
Initially, during the Cold War, Communist Cuba was economically dependent on the Soviet Union until its disintegration in 1991. Venezuela gained more and more relevance, especially since Hugo Chávez (1954- 2013) came to power in 1999.
Due to the Venezuelan crisis that began in January 2019, bilateral trade dropped significantly and Havana quickly received less than half the oil per day it used to get from Caracas, resulting in a drastic shortage. So the old alliance with China had to be revitalized.
Miguel Díaz-Canel (born 1960), elected President of Cuba on October 10th, 2019, visited the PRC the following month and joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an extensive network of maritime and land infrastructure as well as communications projects aimed at facilitating global trade and increase Chinese influence around the world. Trinidad and Tobago had taken the lead in the region in May 2018.
Raúl Castro (born 1931), who still holds the country’s most senior position, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), is the actual counterpart of Xi Jinping (born 1953), General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In that sense, the election of Díaz-Canel was more symbolic and didn’t imply a substantial change to one-party rule.
China, the main trading partner since 2017, has become the principal export destination for Cuban goods, as well as the driving force in the agriculture, banking, biopharmaceutics, biotechnology, civil aviation, defense, industry, investment, renewable energy and transport sectors.
A couple of Chinese companies have begun settling in the Mariel Special Development Zone, a budding investment hub and the first of its type in Cuba.
Led by telecommunications giant Huawei, several joint projects which are already underway include the transition from analogue to digital television and the expansion of mobile broadband as well as the creation of an artificial intelligence center.
Greatwall Drilling Company, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), is providing Cuba Oil Union (Unión Cuba-Petróleo, CUPET) the technology and expertise to explore possible deposits in shallow waters, a task that before proved impossible.
In July 2019, a Chinese-made train donated to Cuba made its maiden voyage from the capital to the southeastern port of Guantánamo, where the United States operate a military prison located within a naval base.
China wrote off US$6 billion of Cuba’s debt after Xi visited in June 2011 as vice president. This noble gesture had more weight than even the totalitarian ideology they share, as only a handful of countries outside Sub-Saharan Africa have been relieved of their debt by the Chinese.
Then President Hu Jintao (born 1942) had previously paid Cuba a visit in November 2004 and in November 2008. As a result, the Confucius Institute of Havana opened its doors in November 2009. Thousands of students have enrolled due to the many job opportunities that fluency in Mandarin offers these days.
His successor Xi briefly stopped in Cuba on his way to the BRICS (the acronym coined to associate five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza in July 2014.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang in September 2015 met with the Castro brothers and signed some 20 agreements in mutual benefit: China tries to help Cuba out of its chronic economic crisis and Cuba provides China with a strategic command post in the Americas.
Considering the strong relationship between both autocratic systems, it’s tragic that one of Latin America’s oldest Chinatowns, Havana’s Barrio Chino, must be considered a victim of Communism.
After the first immigrants settled there in 1858, it took off in 1874. Although the Lunar New Year is still marked with a dragon dance, nowadays the formerly bustling area, barely a shadow of its former self, doesn’t even attract the rapidly growing number of Chinese tourists.
Most of the 250.000 inhabitants fled after Fidel Castro nationalized or confiscated their businesses without any compensation soon after the revolution.
The few that remain have long since scattered into other districts or settled elsewhere. Then again, recent trends in the West clearly indicate that it doesn’t take long to build a large Chinese overseas community. Maybe Havana’s Barrio Chino gets a second chance?