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China's Hu puts off Cuba debt payments

HAVANA (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to put off some of Cuba’s debt payments and gave the island $80 million for hospital modernization and other projects during a visit on Tuesday to strengthen ties between the Communist-run countries.

His two-day stopover, which included a meeting with former leader Fidel Castro, deepened China’s already-substantial involvement in Cuba and provided aid for the island’s economy, battered by three hurricanes and the effects of the global economic crisis.

The two countries signed accords on Tuesday that put off for 10 years payments for an unspecified trade debt Cuba ran up through 1995, and for five years a $7.2 million credit China granted in 1998.

The two countries have not disclosed the full amount Cuba owes the Asian giant, but loans are starting to come due at a time when Cuba, which suffered $10 million from hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma this year, could ill afford it.

The two countries had signed a dozen accords on Monday calling for, among other things, China to continue buying Cuban sugar and nickel and to provide agricultural products.

China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela at $2.3 billion in 2007. It buys 400,000 tons of sugar from the Caribbean country each year and close to half its annual output of 75,000 tons of nickel, which is Cuba’s top export.

President Raul Castro was in such good spirits on Tuesday that he led 200 Chinese students learning Spanish at a Cuban school in an impromptu sing-along of a Chinese song about late China leader Mao Zedong.

He said he learned the song from a Chinese delegate at a youth rights conference in Austria in 1953.

“I don’t have the memory that Fidel has, but I remember that song,” he said.

Hu and Fidel Castro held what China’s Xinhua news agency described as “a long conversation in a sincere and friendly atmosphere.”

“I see in person that you have recovered and have been energetic so I feel very pleased,” Hu was quoted as telling the 82-year-old Castro.

“Your thoughts and experience will surely guide the Cuban people to continue their march on the road of socialist construction,” Hu said.

Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years until Raul Castro formally replaced him as president in February, has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006. He writes newspaper columns and occasionally meets visiting foreign leaders.

Photos from the meeting, shown on Cuban television and with the Xinhua story on the Internet, pictured a thin, bearded Castro, dressed in a track suit, shaking hands with Hu.

Even though the two countries are run by Communists, China has adopted market economics, while Cuba still runs a Soviet-style command system where more than 90 percent of the economy is in state hands.

Hu, who attended the G20 global economy summit in Washington on Saturday and stopped in Costa Rica to thank the Central American country for cutting its diplomatic ties with Taiwan, was to leave Cuba on Wednesday en route to an Asian-Pacific Economic cooperation summit in Peru.

Additional reporting by Esteban Israel in Havana