Beijing and Havana: Political Fraternity and Economic Patronage

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 9

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and Cuban leader Fidel Castro (R)

"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” [5].

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, 2008).

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, 2008.