After restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, the Obama Administration has been striving to cultivate normalization between the two countries. The president visited the island nation in March – the first sitting U.S. President to do so in 88 years. A year earlier, a high-level U.S. delegation also visited to discuss telecommunication and Internet infrastructure and equipment, with hopes of playing a major role and profitable contracts in the Cuban wireless market.
Gallant efforts, but no cigars! The Chinese are already a few steps ahead.
Cuba turned to China for its Internet connectivity and equipment, at least in the short foreseeable future. U.S. telecommunications companies also may have been given the cold shoulder because the U.S. had historically tried to undermine the Castro regime in that area. China’s President Xi Jinping visited in July 2014 and signed 29 bilateral agreements in areas of finance, agriculture, industry, telecommunications, oil and energy.
Besides, China and Cuba have much in common: both are communist countries; both are at a critical point in terms of reform and development. The two countries have witnessed rapid growth of economic and trade ties in recent years. In fact, Cuba had increasingly courted Chinese trade and investments to shore up its fragile economy. China has been Cuba’s second-largest trading partner since the 1990s. (The number one spot belongs to Venezuela.)
In 1847, after the first Opium War, 140,000 Chinese were sold to Cuba as coolies to replace the slaves from Africa. Then more Chinese arrived in Cuba en masse in the 1850s. Changes in the Chinese farming system, political discontent and ethnic strife -- especially in southern China -- led many farmers and peasants to look for work overseas. On July 3, 1857, 200 Chinese laborers arrived by ship. They had signed eight-year contracts, crossed the oceans blue to work in Cuba’s sugarcane fields. However, many of these Chinese were severely abused and committed suicides. Most died before they completed their contracts. The Chinese government sent investigators to Cuba in 1873 to look into the high suicide rates of its laborers. As a result, 1874 saw the last ship carrying Chinese laborers to Cuba.
Many Chinese laborers married Cubans. By the 1870s, the Chinese Cuban community had grown to about 40,000. Havana had a Chinatown, el Barrio Chino that covered a 44-block square and was one of the biggest Chinese communities in Latin America in its heyday. The enterprising Chinese also started operating laundries, restaurants and small retail shops as well as working in local factories. Some even fought along Cubans that toppled the regime of Fulgencio Batista (whose father was part Chinese).
By the 1950s, many Chinese had left Cuba for New York City and Miami because conditions in Cuba for those of Chinese descent improved little under Fidel Castro. Many established Chinese-Cuban restaurants in their new home cities.
When Castro came to power in 1959, Chinese Cubans still had their own ethnic community with private businesses centered in Havana’s Chinatown. However, by 1968, they became one of Castro’s Revolutionary Offensive’s targets – Castro’s campaign to jump-start economic growth and curb individualism. Ironically, this “offensive” was often described as a parallel to China’s Great Leap Forward under Chairman Mao and its Cultural Revolution combined, and with equally disastrous results. Chinese Cubans’ businesses were confiscated and they came under renewed racial and political discrimination.
When the 1990s came along, only some 20,000 second-generation Chinese Cubans remained, most were poor and no longer identified with their Chinese cultural roots. Louie Kin-sheun, a Hong Kong researcher of Chinese diaspora in Cuba, whose father and grandfather had lived and worked in Cuba, wrote a book, “So Far Away in Cuba.” “None of the stories of the first-generation Chinese Cubans were happy ones and all regretted going to Cuba,” said Louie.
Relations between Cuba and China went hot and cold for about two decades and did not stabilize until the late 1980s during China’s economic reforms when Chinese leaders visited the island several times to solidify economic and technological deals.
Cuba lost 75 percent of its foreign trade in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Castro quickly turned to China for help and started to revitalize Havana’s Chinatown by allowing Chinese Cubans to run small, private businesses again. But those efforts came too little, too late, and Chinatown remained in dreadful disrepair. There was an effort in 1995 by the Chinatown Promotion Group to preserve and resurrect Cuba's Chinese culture. Its brochure states "rescue our forefathers' beautiful traditions from oblivion and bring Havana's Chinatown back to life for good.” The CIA’s World Factbook estimated there were only 300 Chinese of non-mixed descent living in Cuba by 2008.
In 2004, China granted Cuba $400 million in the form of long-term loans to support development; this in addition to the $1.3 billion it had already invested in the island since the 1990s.
These days, Chinese-made cars, buses, locomotives, ships and household appliances are increasingly prevalent in Cuba. The majority of its milled rice is imported from China. The China Development Bank financed a $500 million nickel processing facility. The Chinese flag flies from leased oil rigs along the northwest coast. A modern container port boasts Chinese equipment. And Chinese investment in the Cuban tourist industry, though small, is seen in construction of hotels and other recreational facilities. In June 2015, Cuba and China signed a joint venture agreement to construct an 18-hole golf course-resort complex at a cost of $462 million.
According to Beijing trade between China and Cuba increased by 57 percent to a whopping $1.6 billion in 2015. Direct flights from Beijing to Havana began last December. Chinese companies have a stronghold in building Cuban infrastructure: financed and constructed the ALBA-1 undersea cable, which connects Cuba to Venezuela and Jamaica; Huawei Technology installed dozens of Wi-Fi hot spots across Cuba; Huawei also led the pilot project in providing broadband home Internet access in Old Havana. In addition, Chinese companies were involved in the development of the recently opened deep-water port in the town of Mariel and building two hospitals.
A more tangible benefit of China-Cuba relations for China is in people-to-people exchanges and education: Cuba helped train 100 Chinese in Spanish. Also, thousands of Chinese students have studied in Cuba, making it the largest host of Chinese students studying in Latin America.
Another initiative by Raul Castro to boost direct foreign investments was to allow investors to bring in their own nationals for construction projects and, also, allow the remittance of money by these workers back to their home countries. This issue is of particular importance for Chinese companies.
Cuba will continue to play an important role in China’s Latin America strategy though it will not invest in Cuba if there isn't a profit or resource to be gained immediately. For now, both countries deem the Chinese-Cuban ventures beneficial.