Cuba-China relations develop

Campaign News | Wednesday, 12 November 2003

Article from FT

Havana cooks up schemes to boost Beijing relations

By Marc Frank

Published: November 12 2003 4:00

A Chinese gate and wall, the largest in Latin America, now looms over the entrance to Havana's tiny Chinatown, a gift from the Asian giant. Along the one-block strip of restaurants, cooks are busy studying a new government-issued guide on how to prepare traditional fare.

"Politics is one thing and practice quite another," says Roberto Vargas Lee, one of the restaurant owners, of China's recent designation of Cuba as a tourism destination."The Chinese are very tough. They like to shop. There is little shopping here. They like their own food, not fried chicken and spaghetti. We have a lot of work to do to get ready."China's presence in Cuba is increasing as relations between the two Communist nations warm up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the previous bitter Sino-Soviet dispute, when Cuba sided with its former benefactor.SunCuba, a joint venture between Cuba's state-run Cubanacan Corporation and Suntine International Economic-Trading, plans to build Havana's biggest hotel as a symbol of the new-found camaraderie. The venture is currently building a 700-room hotel in the Pudong business district of Shanghai.Cuba has imported 500,000 Panda-brand televisions and is assembling a similar number at the rate of 1,000 per day to replace burned out Soviet-era sets. Plans call for other household appliances to follow.China's Liaoning MECX Group signed a contract this year to supply Cuba's food processing industry with packing machinery and materials. A similar agreement to supply light industry was signed in 2002.As part of an effort to right the trade balance, China's National Minerals and Metals Nonferrous Company agreed this year to increase imports of unrefined nickel and cobalt. Cuba was also designated China's first official tourist destination in the Latin American region, a move the local leisure industry hopes will bring 20,000 Chinese to the island next year.Mr Qi, manager of what Asian diplomats in Havana consider the country's best Chinese restaurant, the Tien-Tan, was sitting outside his establishment in Chinatown, a bustling one-block strip of restaurants, surrounded by desolation.There were Cubans, Canadians, Europeans and Americans, but not an Asian in sight. Most of the island's business-minded Chinese left after the 1959 revolution. Most of the restaurants serve a mix of Cuban food and a few local versions of Chinese dishes such as fried rice and chop suey.Mr Qi said the state had prepared the cook book of traditional Chinese food. "The plan is for each of us to specialise in a few dishes," he said.Cuban government sources said a dramatic change in bilateral relations began soon after President Fidel Castro visited China for the first time in 1995.China appeared reluctant to help Cuba during most of the 1990s after the Soviet collapse, when the island's gross domestic product plunged 35 per cent and industrial production 75 per cent. Technicians were dispatched to increase food production; rice shipped on credit; bicycles sent to help Cubans get around and a fan factory started to cool them off, but little more.Over the last five years, however, as the economy has recovered, China's state-run Import-Export Bank has granted some $500m (€435m, £299m) in soft credits to jumpstart Chinese and Cuban state company ventures in telecommunications, electronics, tourism, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and light industry, as well as providing hundreds of millions in short-term and medium-term trade cover.China was eager to expand its political and commercial influence in the Caribbean and Central America, particularly in competition with Taiwan, which it viewed as a breakaway province supported by the US, Asian diplomats said.Ambassador Wang Zhiquan recently told Cuban media that political and economic relations were at their highest level ever. "The Cuban government and people give unconditional support to China and the problems of Taiwan and Tibet, human rights and other issues, while China gives its support against the blockade imposed by the US and other just rights of the Cuban people," Mr Wangh told Opciones, the state-run business weekly.Yet both governments remain cautious as rapprochement proceeds. Mr Castro toured China and Vietnam earlier this year but quickly quashed expectations among some of his followers that Cuba might adopt their capitalist-oriented reforms.For their part, Chinese diplomats and businessmen complain about inefficient Cuban trade and production systems, and have voiced increasing concern over delayed debt payments."Late last year the Chinese got together with a group of western commercial attachés to compare notes on payment problems," said a European diplomat, who was present at the meeting. "They sounded like the rest of us. For them business is business." This article continues our series on the impact of China's rapid economic growth on Latin America

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