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 Tuesday.
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 partner.
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 two hospitals.
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, South Africa).
“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 next level.”
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.