- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

HAVANA | Chinese President Hu Jintao was on a triumphant tour through Havana Tuesday as his country expanded its already extensive economic relationship with the communist-run island.

Mr. Hu laid a wreath at a monument to Cuban independence hero Jose Marti a day after his country agreed to buy Cuban nickel and sugar and to send Cuba food in the wake of three devastating hurricanes.

The Chinese president arrived late Monday as part of a Latin American tour to build China’s political and investment ties in the resource-rich region. Mr. Hu earlier announced that free-trade talks with Costa Rica would start in January.

State television announced the signing of the first set of trade accords, offering much-needed investment just weeks after Cuba’s farm sector and overall economy were rocked by Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which did more than $10 billion in combined damage.

The island’s state-run news agency AIN reported that the two countries had reached “almost a dozen” agreements, including plans to rehabilitate the island’s aging ports and earthquake-detection systems. China will also provide roofing and other home-building materials for areas affected by flooding and heavy winds in Guantanamo province.

Mr. Hu, who was accompanied by a large delegation of Chinese businessmen, was met at the airport by Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and a throng of chanting Chinese residents who waved tiny Cuba and Chinese flags. A Cuban youth troupe performed a traditional dragon dance on the tarmac.

Mr. Hu also visited Cuba in 2004, when he met with former leader Fidel Castro, who retired early this year due to ill health and was succeeded by his younger brother Raul.

China has transformed its economy by embracing market reforms even as its Communist Party has maintained strict control over politics.

Raul Castro is said to be an admirer of the Chinese economic reform model, though top Cuban officials have said they have no interest in implementing such policies in this country.

China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner, with the two sides generating $2.7 billion annually. Only Venezuela trades more with Cuba — about $7 billion.

Cuba-China relations were cool for decades because of Havana’s close ties to the Soviet Union, China’s rival within the communist bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 crippled Cuba’s economy and erased old political tensions. Chinese aid, credit and trade have helped the island’s economy rebound.

Mr. Hu’s trip to Costa Rica was his first to Central America, and he plans to make his first visit to Peru on Wednesday, arriving ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. China’s trade with Latin America as a whole has jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $102.6 billion last year.

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