A show of ideological solidarity from China
HAVANA · In his first visit to Latin America, Chinese President Hu Jintao came bearing billions of dollars worth of potential trade and investment agreements that prompted regional leaders to herald a new era of closer ties with the emerging economic power.
Visits to Brazil and Argentina last week helped solidify China's entry into a market that could supply its voracious appetite for raw materials. Hu spent the weekend in Chile at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum hoping to further his interests in the region.
But if the first part of Hu's Latin American tour reflected the needs of a pragmatic new China that has thrown open its doors to dynamic entrepreneurs -- even inviting capitalists to join the Chinese Communist Party -- his last stop, a visit to Havana on Monday, is a nod to China's ideological alliances and a show of solidarity with his communist brethren.
China "is holding two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time. It's a market economy but also retaining what I would call historical links to the old Cold War alliances," said Kenneth Maxwell, a senior fellow at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
China has preserved its one party system while transforming its economy with aggressive reforms and a flood of foreign investment.
Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited China this year. Hu, 61, reciprocated, leading a delegation of more than 150 officials and business people on his Latin American tour.
In Brazil, da Silva officially recognized China as a "market economy," a technical but nonetheless significant designation that makes it easier for the two countries to do business. China, meanwhile, agreed to buy 10 Brazilian-made airplanes worth $200 million.
In Argentina, China announced it would consider investing billions of dollars over the next decade to expand Argentina's railway system and increase oil exploration.
Cuba offers far fewer possibilities for trade, and many analysts saw it as a symbolic stop for Hu. However, for Cuba, China has become a significant post-Soviet lifeline. As Cuba's fourth-largest trading partner, China provides credits for rice, television sets, electronic components and other products, according to the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Chinese diplomats in Havana would not say what accords might be signed during Hu's visit, but analysts predicted they could include investments to boost Cuba's nickel production and exchanges in the biotechnology sector.
While China has managed to straddle two worlds, capitalist and communist, Cuba is unlikely to do the same, analysts say.
"China is doing everything [Fidel] Castro refuses to do," said Harvey Nelsen, professor of international studies at the University of South Florida and a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst specializing in China. "There is no way [Hu] would bother visiting an island like Cuba except for the fact it is a Leninist system and they share that ideology."
China's connections with Cuba date to the 1840s, when Chinese laborers arrived on the island to work on sugar cane plantations. They helped fight the Spaniards in Cuba's war of independence and established a bustling commercial center near Havana's capitol building. By the early 1900s, Havana's Chinatown, or Barrio Chino, was the largest Chinese outpost in Latin America.
Today, fewer than 400 Chinese immigrants remain in the Barrio Chino. Most are in their 70s and have seldom journeyed back to their homeland -- a country they now barely recognize for its economic boom.
In Havana's Chinatown, many knew little about Hu, his policies or his impending visit, but they hoped the trip would produce closer ties between two of the last remaining communist states.
"Cuba and China have had a relationship for 100 years," said Rolando Chiong, 71, who moved to Cuba in 1950 and has only once returned to China. "They have history. Now this increases the friendly relations."
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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