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Cuba and China: similarities and differences.

As we approach the end of Fidel Castro's era, especially after his failing health, much has been discussed about the kind of changes or reforms that Raul Castro and the younger leadership might make.

It has been a common assumption--for the sake of simplicity--to assert the thesis that such changes or reforms would follow in the footsteps of the Chinese experience.

Obviously, there is some truth in that assumption, but there are also numerous differences and conditions that should be considered in comparing China and Cuba.

The works of Edward Gonzalez, William Ratliff, Frank Mora and more recently Cuban dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe (Miami Herald, Aug. 11, 2006) have highlighted some relevant issues when comparing both countries.

Still, there are several areas of disagreement and others issues that have not been explored. The purpose of this essay is to examine various reasons for the current alliance between both nations and to discuss their similarities and differences.

What can China find in the island of Cuba that makes it so interesting for members of China's Military Commission and Politburo to visit the Caribbean nation and to persuade President Hu to declare China's support of Cuba's stand in unusually strong terms?

First, there is what can be described as the "mirror effect." In the eyes of Chinese foreign policymakers, Cuba is to the United States what Taiwan is to China.


As the issue of Taiwan has become more tense and aggravating for Chinese policies, Beijing has increased its relations with Cuba. This has been a dominant trend since the early 1990s, but especially in recent years following Taiwan's increased hostility toward China backed by the Bush administration.

A second important dimension in Beijing's current alliance with Cuba is that Cuba is located in the heart of the Caribbean where Taiwan has been able to retain diplomatic recognition from a considerable number of the region's states.

Cuba's political influence throughout the region is extremely valuable to China's long-term policy of eroding Taiwan's standing.

First, Cuba is an important political actor with strong ties to influential political forces and governments from which China benefits; second, Cuba has throughout the region a positive and constructive image derived from its alliance with China, an image aimed at undermining Taiwan's fading regional leverage.

These two factors today are increasingly reinforced by the alliance between Venezuela and Cuba, which is a third factor that has augmented China's interest in Cuba.

Economic considerations are no less important. Nickel, cobalt and oil are vital to China's economy. Because Cuba is a source for all three commodities, China is willing to grant Cuba exceptional privileges in terms of financial arrangements, insurance backing, rescheduling of debt and long-term investments in mining, oil, biotechnology, and tourism.

China is also prepared to engage in an undisclosed range of military cooperation that has included scores of high-level military delegations visiting their respective nations.

There is also another special advantage to China: to prove how great their experience is in saving a collapsing socialist economy as was the case with Cuba in the early '90s. This is not only relevant to the past, present, and future of socialist economies but also in sending a clear message to Third World economies, where Beijing exerts considerable influence. If China's "recipe" works in the Cuban case, then its relevance will be even greater.


However, there are very explicit limits in both areas as to what Cuba may get from its Chinese ally. But there is a much more sophisticated reasoning behind Cuba's alliance with China and that is the value to Cuba of China's position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

There is also China's role as one of the most advanced world powers. An alliance with such a power is valuable beyond what the former Soviet Union had to offer Cuba.

The Soviet alliance was fruitless in terms of financing and investments and technologically speaking it was largely a disaster. The old USSR could not be compared to the United States and it was a collapsing economy. China is precisely the opposite and offers Cuba a host of opportunities that were never there in its relationship with Moscow.

The USSR was a losing horse. According to every prediction, China is the fastest-growing power in the world, and the Cuban leadership is ready to make the most of it. The two countries represent radical revolutions based on the peasantry but with overwhelming support among a wider range of social groupings (working class, lower middle class, intellectuals), with strong leaders experimenting with programs ranging from Flourishing 100 Flowers to Palabras a Los Intelectuales.

More recently, we could draw some parallels between the Four Modernizations from the late '70s in China to perfeccionamiento empresarial in Cuba since the early 1980s, opening different avenues to what the Chinese have called a "market socialist economy."

The Chinese Revolution exerted a significant influence throughout the world and the Cuban Revolution has also had a similar influence. Indeed, many will agree that in some ways Cuba has had the greater influence. The two countries were also allies of the former Soviet Union and at times openly defied and clashed with Moscow's leaders.

But the list of differences between China and Cuba is enormous:

1. China is an economy of unprecedented scale with an ever-growing market. Cuba is a small island economy of very limited scale.

2. China lies thousands of miles away from the United States while Cuba is just 90 miles away from U.S. shores.

3. Chinese society, values, traditions, demographics, and its ethnic and religious minorities, is very different from that of the more homogenous Cuban society with its own values and traditions.

4. The levels of interdependence and conflict between China and the United States are entirely different from those existing between Cuba and the U.S. China is a big power on the path to become a superpower. Cuba is not.

5. Chinese overseas are closely intertwined with their motherland. Levels of conflict and hostility are minimal while cooperation is enormous, even among many Taiwanese. The Chinese KMT in Taiwan is no longer a dominant force. Its influence on overseas Chinese is minimal compared to that of Beijing.


The amount of capital, markets, and technologies in the hands of overseas Chinese is huge and highly connected with that of China and plays a very big role in its extraordinary economic development. Chinese in the U.S. are not a belligerent lobby against relations and cooperation with the People's Republic.

None of the characteristics stated above can be found among the Cuban political and economic elites who control the Cuban exile community with a disproportionate overrepresentation in Congress (two senators and three representatives), in the State of Florida, and within the Republican Party.

Although the Cuban community has been changing in its composition and attitudes since the 1980s and 1990s due to the changing nature of recent Cuban immigrants, one can still find a majority who are absolutely hostile. In fact, close to 50% of Cubans in Miami would welcome an American military invasion of Cuba as the ideal outcome. Policymakers in Havana pay careful attention to the conflict with the U.S. and its Cuban allies in Miami.

Nevertheless, the Chinese experience, together with the current alliance between the two countries, will be the most inspiring source for redesigning the Cuban system for the simple reason that it is the best way to avoid a Tiananmen Square.

Upon this assumption lies much of the cohesiveness and consensus of the Cuban leadership. For Cuba, taking the Chinese path to market socialism will be different than the Chinese experience and will proceed at a different pace--a very much adjusted version in Cuban terms. It will not take place overnight, before or after Castro passes away.
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Title Annotation:economic development and international trade
Author:Amuchastegui, Domingo
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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