Wednesday, November 19, 2008

China, Cuba hold landmark summit

Hu Jintao (C) accompanied by Raul Castro (L)
receives military honours

11-19-2008 5:00 a.m.

HAVANA (AFP) — China's President Hu Jintao on Wednesday was to wrap up a landmark visit to Cuba where he brought millions of dollars in aid and promises of closer trade ties.

The Chinese leader brought 4.5 tonnes of humanitarian aid for victims of three hurricanes that battered Cuba this year, which was handed over late Monday after Hu's arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport.

Receiving the gift, Cuba's Minister of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation Rodrigo Malmierca said Cuba "deeply appreciates the visit of President Hu Jintao, at the exact moment the country is struggling to recover and continue its development."

It was China's third donation to assist Cuba in its recovery from hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which caused 10 billion dollars worth of damages in the space of two months. Hurricane aid from the Chinese government and businesses has totalled more than 2.5 million dollars.

China also extended Cuba a 70-million-dollar loan to repair damaged hospitals and another 10 million for social projects, as part of the second tranche of a 350-million-dollar line of credit approved in 2004.

On Tuesday Hu accompanied President Raul Castro on a visit to a school for Chinese students, where the Cuban leader sang a refrain from a Chinese song praising late Communist Party Leader Mao Zedong.

"I learned to be a student like you, young like you and will remain so all my life," Castro told Hu and 300 Chinese students in the town of Tarara, east of Havana.

During his 36-hour visit -- his first to Cuba since 2004 -- Hu planned to oversee the signing of various cooperation deals.

Hu also visited convalescing former president Fidel Castro, 82.

The Chinese leader held a "long conversation" with the former Cuban leader and described finding Castro "very recovered," according to the Chinese official Xinhua news agency. The two appeared in a picture published on the website.

Fidel Castro has met with several foreign leaders in recent months, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Hu arrived in Havana late Monday after attending the world economic crisis summit in Washington and making a stopover in Costa Rica, where he launched free-trade talks and a string of cooperation deals.

His Latin America tour also includes an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru. It comes as China expands its diplomacy and investment around the world, eyeing natural resources and developing markets for manufactured goods and even weapons.

Chinese exports to Latin America grew 52 percent in the first nine months of 2008 to 111.5 billion dollars, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

China was Cuba's second business partner, after Venezuela, in 2007 with 2.7 billion dollars of combined trade, and one of its main creditors.

The two countries have remained close for decades, their Marxist Socialist past a driving force in relations, and they have increased ties since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

China offered key support to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro when Cuba fell into dire economic straits after the former Soviet Union collapse, forging a divide which Russia has recently sought to reduce.

Current deals include Chinese oil prospecting and extraction in Cuba -- onshore and offshore -- and two Cuban eye hospitals in China and a third under construction.

Since Raul Castro officially assumed power in February, taking over from his ailing older brother Fidel, analysts have suggested he is moving toward China's market economy model.

The authorities however still underline support for Cuba's state controlled economy.

Raul Castro recently sought foreign investment for the prospecting and exploitation of gold, silver, zinc and copper deposits.

China already invests in nickel, Cuba's main export, and hydrocarbons on the island, which produces the equivalent of 80,000 barrels of oil and gas per day.

The two countries both have Communist-led governments, but vastly different styles of governments.

China embraced market reforms to become a world economic powerhouse, while Cuba's economy remains under state control.

Hu's visit comes less than two weeks before the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in another Russian bid to fortify relations with outspoken US adversaries in Latin America on the back of a trip to Venezuela.

Xinhua Backgrounder: The Republic of Cuba

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