HAVANA (Reuters) - China’s President Hu Jintao travels to Cuba on Monday for a close-up look at the government of new President Raul Castro, a fellow communist struggling to lead his island nation through the devastating effects of three hurricanes and the international financial crisis.
Hu visited Cuba in 2004 to oversee the signing of 16 cooperation agreements and was expected to sign more on the economy, trade, education and other areas during his two-day stop, the Chinese government said.
Hu, who attended Saturday’s Group of 20 global economy summit in Washington, was to stop in Costa Rica on Sunday before starting his two-day visit to Cuba. He will go to Peru later in the week for the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, then on to Greece.
Cuba’s economy was still suffering from the demise of the Soviet Union during Hu’s last visit but has rebounded largely due to integration with oil-rich Venezuela and Chinese loans.
China is now Cuba’s largest trading partner after Venezuela at $2.3 billion in 2007 — four times what it was in 2004 — despite stark differences in their economic policies and little direct Chinese investment.
China adopted market economics long ago while Cuba still has a Soviet-style command system where more than 90 percent of the economy is in state hands.
The Chinese loans are starting to come due at a time when Cuba has suffered $10 billion in damage from the three recent storms, prices of nickel, its main export, have dropped sharply and oil prices, which sustain ally Venezuela, have declined.
Restructuring those debts and future credits will certainly be on Hu’s agenda, western diplomats said.
The two countries’ ruling parties have worked hard since the collapse of European communism to align their foreign policies and overcome a bitter heritage resulting from Cuba’s backing of the Soviet Union against China during the Cold War.
Cuba has supported China’s claim to Taiwan and Tibet.
“President Hu Jintao is signaling that Beijing plans to remain a long-term player in the Cuban transition and seeks to further bolster relations with the Raul Castro government,” said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue policy group in Washington.
Fidel Castro, Cuba’s founding president, visited China twice before undergoing intestinal surgery in 2006 from which he never fully recovered.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, also visited China before taking over as president in February, while the last three Chinese presidents have come to Cuba.
“Cuba is indispensable for China in its bid to strengthen links with Latin American and the Caribbean countries,” the Chinese ambassador to Cuba, Zhao Rongxian Zhao, said of Hu’s visit in an interview with China’s Xinhua news agency.
China published a White Book on Latin America and Caribbean policy earlier this month, signaling the region’s importance.
Chinese trade with the region topped $100 billion in 2007 and there is growing Chinese investment in energy and other resources.
Hundreds of future Chinese diplomats, translators and functionaries study Spanish at a special school on the outskirts of Havana.
Since 2004, Cuba has become a huge showroom for Chinese products bought on credit. Thousands of Chinese buses and trucks now ply Cuba’s roads and Chinese locomotives ride its rails, while Chinese power-saving light bulbs and electric appliances adorn most homes.
Editing by Jeff Franks and John O'Callaghan