- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

HAVANA - Chinese President Hu Jintao headed to Havana yesterday for talks with his Cuban counterpart, Fidel Castro, that were expected to bring sorely needed investments to the financially strapped island.

The visit was to wrap up Mr. Hu’s first tour of Latin America, which also took him to Brazil and Argentina and to the summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Santiago, Chile.

Both sides hailed the importance of his 24-hour visit to Havana, as reformist China enjoys a booming economy while Cuba, the only communist state in the Western Hemisphere, remains in dire economic shape.

Mr. Castro has made clear that he expects the visit to bring significant investments in the Caribbean island nation, whose economy has declined steadily since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

China’s ambassador to Cuba, Li Lianfu, said the presidential talks will be “of the utmost importance as both leaders will review bilateral relations to further deepen them.”

Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Guerra Menchero insisted the two countries are on the same political wavelength. “Our political ties are excellent. We have no differences whatsoever,” he said during the weekend.

But the encounter is likely to be somewhat tense because Mr. Castro has rejected the path of reform that China’s leaders have followed for the past 25 years. But despite the differences on economic policies, the two sides are expected to sign crucial investment deals.

On the sidelines of the presidential summit, representatives of 37 Chinese and about 60 Cuban companies met yesterday to explore bilateral trade opportunities.

“China today is an important partner for Cuba and represents almost 10 percent of our island’s foreign trade,” Cuban Government Minister Ricardo Cabrisas said in his opening address at the first Sino-Cuban investment and trade forum, held at a Havana hotel.

He said bilateral trade reached $600 million between January and October, and that there is great potential for investments in the biotechnology, tourism, telecommunications and electronics sectors.

Mr. Castro said last week that agreements signed during Mr. Hu’s visit should, among other things, allow Cuba to double nickel production, which is at 75,000 tons a year. He said Cuba would retain 51 percent ownership of companies created with Chinese capital.

Mr. Castro, 78, maintains the iron grip he has held over Cuba for the past 45 years, despite a recent fall in which he broke his left knee and which confined him to a wheelchair.

Mr. Hu, China’s president since March 2003, appeared comfortably in command at the APEC summit, months after his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, resigned from his last official position, as commander in chief.

Mr. Hu’s trip to Havana is the third by a Chinese president, after 1993 and 2001 visits by Mr. Jiang.

Mr. Hu is expected to reiterate Beijing’s rejection of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which President Bush further tightened in June.

But Mr. Hu and Mr. Castro’s discussions on the development of socialism are likely to remain private, as has been the case in past discussions between leaders of the two countries.

Agence France-Presse

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