Urgently In Need of a New Lifeline, Raúl Castro Visits China and Vietnam / Yoani Sánchez

Raúl Castro arrived in China this week as part of a four day trip and today, Saturday, he will visit Vietnam. This is the first official visit to both nations since the younger Castro officially assumed the presidency of the Island in February 2008. After meeting in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao, both leaders signed a total of eight documents, including accords and memoranda of understanding.

Significant among these are a loan from the China Development Bank focused on improving medical facilities in Cuba, and an agreement on agricultural cooperation. The details have not been made public and we do not know the amount nor the terms of the loan that was signed by Juliana Maritza Martínez director of the National Bank of Cuba and Chen Yuan, president of the Development Bank of China.

For their part, Cuban Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas and Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming endorsed two agreements of economic and technical cooperation, which include interest-free loans and grants. The amounts of these agreements also have not been made public. Also notable among the documents signed was a memorandum on customs cooperation which will be in effect from 2013 to 2015. According to the Chinese president himself, this official visit of President Raul Castro “will be a great boost to exchanges and cooperation between the two countries to take these bonds of friendship to higher levels.”

The Cuban president’s trip has been surrounded by speculation about the urgency of attracting investment from China and Vietnam. This is happening at the exact moment when the situation of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has caused Havana to rethink its dependence on Caracas. Since taking power, Fidel Castro’s younger brother has pushed through a series of openings focused on the economy. Among the main pillars of the so-called “Raul reforms” is the development of the small private business, known euphemistically in the largest of the Antilles as “self-employment.”

The former Minister of the Armed Forces has said on several occasions that he wants to implement a copy of the Chinese model in Cuba, one that combines flexibility in the productive sphere with strong political control. Thus, his journey through these Asian countries is one way to see with his own eyes the scope and limits of such a system. Analysts agree that strong financial imperatives are weighing on the inhabitant of the Plaza of the Revolution, and have compelled him to undertake this journey.

Raúl Castro met Friday with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. This meeting could have been intended to establish links with the future leaders of China, as Xi will be promoted in October to General Secretary of the Communist Party. In March 2013, he will also assume the presidency of the Asian giant, replacing Hu Jintao in both positions. Highlights of the tour have also included talks between the Cuban president and Wen Jiabao, Chinese Prime Minister and Vice Premier Li Kegiang. During the exchange Li himself said that “China attaches great importance to developing Sino-Cuban relations and always addressed them from a strategic and long term point of view.”

On Thursday night Caribbean visitors were entertained with a banquet at the Great Hall of the People, near Tiananmen Square. At dinner Raul Castro sang a song in praise of Mao Zedong called “The East is Red,” in Chinese. The Cuban leader justified this vocal effort that left him hoarse by saying that he had “at least the satisfaction that it was done with a noble purpose.” Today, Saturday, he leaves for Vietnam, Cuba’s main supplier of rice. His visit to that nation is also expected to entail the signing of several trade and economic agreements.

7 July 2012