Cuba Seeks Closer Ties With Beijing
Cuban President Raúl Castro is looking to strengthen the country's economic ties to Beijing as it moves to liberalize its economy somewhat and limit its energy dependence on Venezuela, whose leader is battling cancer and faces a tough election at home.
Mr. Castro landed in Beijing on Wednesday to meet with China's top leaders before heading out to Vietnam on Saturday, touring onetime Communist fellow travelers that have revamped their economies. On Thursday, Cuban representatives signed economic, technology and agricultural agreements with Chinese officials, though few specifics were disclosed.
"Currently relations are maturing with each passing day," Mr. Castro said Thursday in an appearance with China President Hu Jintao. "The relationship has passed the test of time."
Since 2011, Cuba has begun encouraging the formation of private enterprises, permitting property and automobile sales, and reducing the role of the state in agriculture. Still, the Cuban economy grew less than 3% in 2011, nowhere near the pace of Asian nations.
Chinese technocrats and academics are working on a dozen projects to help remake the Cuban economy, including infrastructure, transportation and energy, said Xu Shicheng, a Cuba expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. While Cuba has made progress, "most importantly, there is a need to update the people's mentality," he said. "Many people in Cuba think that updating the private sector means adopting capitalism. It will take Cuba a long time to accomplish what China did."
Mr. Castro's visit comes as China tries to be a major player in Latin American affairs. Already, China is a major destination for commodities from Brazil and Argentina, and is boosting investment in the region, especially in energy projects.
Beijing also has long been involved in a tug of war with Taiwan over diplomatic recognition by Central American and Caribbean countries, which play off Taipei against Beijing.
Cuba is a nation of just 11 million people but it has long been a foreign-affairs flash point because of the charismatic leadership of former President Fidel Castro and its struggles against the U.S. There are about 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, many of whom live in Florida and other politically important states.
Havana has relied on exports of oil from its closest ally, Venezuela, headed by President Hugo Chávez, who also had pledged in 2007 to help Cuba build or expand its refining capacity. But Venezuela didn't follow through, and after the global financial crisis, China stepped in. State-controlled China National Petroleum Corp. signed a $4.5 billion deal last year to upgrade Cuba's Cienfuegos refinery.
Havana also needs help in exploring for oil offshore, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that drilling in the area thus far has been "quite limited."
"Cuba needs to try to manage what happens if there is a change in government in Caracas tomorrow, either by the death of Chávez or by Chávez losing the election," said Jorge Piñon, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. "I personally believe that China would make an important long-term strategic partner for Cuba, particularly after a possible economic and political vacuum left by a change of administration in Caracas and even after a post-embargo scenario."
Cuba and China have had a complicated relationship since China started to open its economy to outside investment in 1978, to veer sharply from communist orthodoxy and to increasingly court the U.S.
Fidel Castro stridently opposed reform that smacked of capitalism, and continued to see the U.S. as an enemy—a view that was largely reciprocated in Washington. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and cut off subsidized oil shipments to Cuba, Mr. Castro resented China, say Cuba watchers, because China did little to fill the void.
Fidel Castro's brother Raúl, who was then defense minister, was seen as more open to market-oriented changes. In 2003, he invited China's then-premier, Zhu Rongji, who played a leading role in opening up China to foreign trade and investment, to give a series of lectures in Cuba. Fidel Castro was a no-show, said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer.
But Raúl Castro was hardly a closet capitalist. In 2008, when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited China, according to news reports, Raúl serenaded him with a rendition of the Chinese standard "The East Is Red," a Chinese favorite during the Mao era.
Under Fidel Castro, Cuba grew more reliant on oil-rich Venezuela. But after Mr. Castro became seriously ill in 2006, he temporarily ceded power to his brother, who then formally became president in 2008. When the Cuban government formally approved economic reforms last year, Fidel Castro was in attendance, which was seen as giving his blessing to the changes. Fidel Castro, now 85 years old, writes newspaper columns, but avoids domestic economic issues, said Mr. Xu, the Chinese analyst.
For his part, Mr. Chávez is struggling with cancer and faces a tough presidential election in October.
The 81-year-old Raúl Castro has further cemented ties to China. In June 2011, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take China's top positions in the government and Communist Party by next year, visited Havana. The two countries have been working on projects in oil exploration, hotel construction, biotechnology and infrastructure.
"The big picture is that Cuba is still trying to get used to the idea of the 'new China,' which Fidel has long detested and Raúl finds, well, intriguing," says Harvard University professor Jorge Domínguez, a Cuba expert.
This is Raúl Castro's third trip to China since 1997, said Mr. Xu, the Chinese expert. "What's different this time is his status. He is visiting as the No. 1 leader."