Havana Chinatown

How the Chinese are Helping to Transform Cuba, Again

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Written by Paul Nash, Contributor

In 1958 a young Chinese Cuban named Armando Choy posed for the camera in front of a drab brick farmhouse in Fomento, a town close to the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba. Choy stiffened almost to attention, his shirt buttoned to the collar, his hands clasping an old rifle by the muzzle. His seven comrades in crumpled fatigues, stranding alongside or squatting before him, smiled through bushy black beards that would become emblematic of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution.

For Choy, growing up in Cuba had not been easy. The son of a humble Chinese shopkeeper, he suffered from the racism and wretched living conditions that plagued Havana under Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Batista’s brutal social indifference to poorer Cubans was, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, “an open invitation to revolution.”

After being jailed for taking part in student protests in 1957, Choy joined the uprising that toppled Batista’s dictatorship. He became one of three Chinese Cubans who were made generals in Castro’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). Later, in 1981, Choy went to Africa to fight with Cuban troops supporting Angola’s leftist government against a U.S.-backed invasion by South Africa’s apartheid regime. All along he was motivated, he says in Our History is Still Being Written, by a deep personal commitment to “to act in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting the planet earth—not on behalf of narrow individual interests, or simply Cuba’s national interests.”

Choy’s outlook was classically Marxist, steeped in the belief that communism can never be achieved in a single country alone because capitalism is an integrated worldwide system that can only be overturned by a global uprising of the proletariat. It was a tune echoed in his ancestral homeland, but one that quickly fizzled out in China as the catastrophes of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution threw the country back into the misery that other Chinese, a century earlier, had tried to escape by coming to Cuba in former slave ships.

Between 1847 and 1889, more than 125,000 semi-indentured Chinese peasants, mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, sailed to Cuba as coolies to work on Spanish sugar and tobacco plantations. Recruited in China by brokers for plantation owners looking for low-cost alternatives to the dwindling supply of African slaves, Chinese peasants were enticed by offers of 20-30 cents a day. Many more arrived from the United States where they had been building (and dying on) the most dangerous stretches of the transcontinental railroad.

Conditions on Cuba’s sugar plantations, however, proved worse than in the United States or in China in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. Sweating and breaking their backs alongside African slaves, many never receiving the wages they had been promised, thousands deserted to join in Cuba’s war of independence from Spanish colonial rule.

Choy was not descended from these early workers. His father had migrated freely to Cuba much later and set up a small shop. There he met his Cuban wife, a “fanatical supporter” of Orthodox Party leader Eduardo Chibás whose radio broadcasts in the 1940’s railed against the rampant political corruption destroying the nation. Chibás warned that Batista might try to pre-empt the 1952 presidential election with a military coup, then shot himself during his weekly broadcast, never becoming Cuba’s next president as Choy’s mother had hoped. Batista, whose own father was part-Chinese, took control of the government and suspended the 1940 Constitution, aligning himself with wealthy plantation owners and American mobsters who controlled Havana’s gambling, drug, and prostitution rackets. The gap between Cuba’s wealthy and poor steadily widened, encouraging communist agitation, which Batista tried to suppress using his secret police to carry out assassinations, tortures and public executions.

Conditions in Cuba, especially for those of Chinese descent, improved little under Fidel Castro. When Castro came to power, Chinese Cubans, who numbered more than 50,000, at least still had their own ethnic community with private businesses centred in Havana’s Barrio Chinoc. But in 1968 they became one of the targets of Castro’s Revolutionary Offensive, a socialist campaign launched in March to jump-start economic growth and curb individualism—the Cuban counterpart of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution combined, and equally disastrous. Chinese Cubans saw their businesses confiscated and fell under renewed racial and political discrimination. Many finally left Cuba. By the 1990s, only some 20,000 second-generation Chinese Cubans remained, most poor and no longer identifying with their Chinese cultural roots.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost more than three-quarters of its foreign trade and lapsed into another economic crisis. For support, Castro naturally looked to China, the largest remaining socialist state espousing communism. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Cuba’s Chinese, he quickly set about to revitalize Havana’s Chinatown, granting Chinese Cubans special privileges that allowed them to run small private businesses such as restaurants. But the effort was too little and too late. Havana’s Chinatown, as visiting Chinese officials observed, remained mired in deplorable conditions.

Since the medical emergency that forced Fidel to cede power to a provisional government headed by his brother Raúl in 2006, China, like the United States, has grown hopeful that a new chapter may be about to open in Cuba’s history. For its part, Beijing would like to see a strategic economic alliance that will bolster its trading position in the Caribbean and Latin America, one that Beijing’s policymakers feel should be “comprehensive and cooperative.”

Former Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Cuba in November 2008 while touring Latin America. Meeting with Fidel and Raúl, he proclaimed, “History has proved that [China and Cuba] are worthy of the name of fast friends, good comrades, and intimate brothers.” Raúl bounded onto stage before the Chinese delegation and sang “The East is Red,” a popular song during Mao’s Cultural Revolution evoking sentiments of world revolution. In faltering Mandarin he crooned: “The East is red, the sun has risen; China has produced a Mao Zedong. He creates fortune for the people; he’s the saviour of them all!”

Whether Raúl mistakenly thought this was the best way to pander to Hu, who had just deferred a large trade loan for ten years and donated $10 million toward hospital improvements, or was simply trying to pacify an ailing brother who still holds fast to an ideology that has failed Cuba, it was an awkward moment for the Chinese. Since China embarked on Deng Xiaoping’s program of market opening and integration with world capitalism, its Communist Party has struggled to distance itself from its Maoist past.

Hu invited Raúl to China several months later to give him a first-hand look at China’s idea of modern “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and to sign agreements that would strengthen economic and trade relations.

China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela, and Cuba is China’s largest trading partner in the Caribbean, with bilateral trade now standing at around $2 billion. Beijing wants to help Cuba push through market-oriented economic reforms, knowing from its own experience over the past three decades that private sector entrepreneurial activity can stimulate foreign investment, build national capital and promote domestic consumption. To this end, China has granted Cuba numerous long-term low or interest-free loans to support development and maintain financial and social stability through the reform process. It has also undertaken significant technology transfers and entered into joint ventures in farming, light industry, and tourism.

Cuba has started the reform process focussed on its biggest export industries. It has, for example, begun restructuring its ailing sugar industry by abolishing the sugar ministry and creating Azcuba, a state holding company consisting of 13 provincial sugar companies that operate 56 sugar mills and 850 sugarcane farms. Azcuba signed foreign investment agreements with companies from Brazil and Britain in 2012 to modernize harvesting equipment and build biomass energy plants. Cuba exports about 400,000 tonnes of sugar annually to China, more than half the amount it produces for domestic consumption.

China’s interest in Cuba is, of course, inseparable from the Caribbean’s natural resources and those of Latin America more broadly. The Sino-Cuban economic fraternity, from Beijing’s viewpoint, is largely pragmatic rather than idealistic. Beijing has demonstrated that it will conduct business with left-leaning governments like Venezuela and Ecuador as readily as with right-leaning governments like Chile and Colombia. The Sino-Cuban partnership may represent a lost opportunity for the United States in promoting liberal democracy in the Western Hemisphere. But it may also represent a path to normalized relations if China can help Cuba’s economy reform such that it, like Vietnam’s, no longer justifies the continuation of a decades-old U.S. trade embargo on the basis that Cuba’s economy is “dominated or controlled by international communism.”

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s May/June 2013 print edition.

Photo of Havana’s Chinatown by Wilder Mendez (public domain).