The intensification of China’s presence in the insular Caribbean: The case of Cuba

Eric Dubesset


Since the beginning of the new millennium, the PRC’s presence in the Caribbean has grown significantly and diversified. This Chinese surge can be measured in almost all the states of the region, in terms of trade, foreign direct investment flows and development aid, including the Dominican Republic, which, like 22 other countries around the world, had recognized Taiwan in international forums for nearly 70 years. The Dominican Republic established diplomatic relations with the PRC in July 2018, marking a decisive turning point in the dynamics of the Asian giant’s implantation in the backyard of Europe and, even more so, the United States. Cuba, too, is not immune to this strong trend. However, the factors and forms of the Chinese emergence in this socialist country, located a few miles from the United States’ coast, have their own characteristics that need to be analysed here, in diachrony and synchrony, in order to understand the main political and strategic issues.1

1 Ancient cultural links

The first Chinese settled in Cuba in the 19th century. The Chinese diaspora on the island began in June 1847, with the arrival of about 200 coolies2 in the port of Havana. These contract workers, employed as farmers or craftsmen, were joined in February 1853 by 678 compatriots, most of whom were recruited in Guangdong province. Five years later, the first homes and businesses am by this cheap labour force hatched in Havana, gradually forming the barrio chino} As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 by the United States government, thousands of Chinese nationals from California4 came to Cuba to escape racial persecution. There, they found a business environment conducive to investment. In 1878, the foundation of the first Asian impoi-t house by bankers Lay Weng, Yong Shan and Lam Tong in Havana marked the beginning of the expansion of Chinese trade and clandestine activities such as gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking.5 In total, more than 150,000 Chinese people flowed into the country throughout the 19th century to work in agriculture, the building industry or commerce.6

In 1915, Cuba experienced a new wave of migration. In a context of expanding sugar production, some twenty-five thousand migrants, mostly men, settled on the island, including about 10,000 in Havana's barrio chino. They specialized primarily in horticultural production, aquaculture, small businesses (bazaars) and restaurants. From 1959 onwards, migration flows dried up, so that in 1970, the Chinese community had only 5,692 members. However, despite the geographical distance, links with the country of origin were maintained. Through the regular organization of folk events, the Cuba-China Friendship Society has worked to preserve their customs and traditions and to spread them among the Cuban population. Although mixed unions with black, mulatto or white women have produced mixed race descent, elements of their original culture (music, beliefs) have been preserved and remain alive today in several cities such as Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba or Havana.7 The last influx of Chinese immigrants to Cuba dates back to the early 2000s. It corresponds to the phase of increased Chinese investment in the island. Mainly from northeast China, these “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao f are mainly students, businessmen or workers who came to participate in the building of infrastructure (roads, ports, etc.) financed by Beijing. This new diaspora is seen as an effective vehicle for China’s cultural influence in the country, notably through the Confucius Institute in Havana, and for promoting bilateral trade.

2 Formalization and evolution of diplomatic relations

Sino-Cuban diplomatic relations were gradually established at the beginning of the 20th century. From its foundation on 20 May 1902, the Republic of Cuba established official ties with the Chinese Empire, then with the Republic of China when the latter was created in 1912. The rapprochement of revolutionary Cuba with the PRC came a few decades later, in a climate of political tensions between Beijing and Taipei. In its tussle with the PRC, the Taiwanese regime recognized the new Cuban government on 6 January 1959. It then worked throughout the year to prevent any attempt by Beijing to get closer to Havana. However, despite Taiwan’s efforts and Fidel Castro's critical statements to the UN on 22 April 1959 denouncing China’s military intervention in Tibet, Cuba gradually moved closer to the PRC with whom it shares the values of independence and national sovereignty. In October 1959, the participation of the intellectual Nicolas Guillen in the tenth anniversary of the triumph of the Chinese revolution paved the way for dialogue with the PRC.9 In the context of rising diplomatic and economic tensions between the United States and Cuba, which led Fidel Castro to turn to other political and commercial partners, Che Guevara's ideological affinities with Maoist China catalysed this rapprochement.10

On 2 September 1960, the Lider Maximo publicly announced his intention to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, and consequently to sever ties with Taiwan. As a result, the two countries began negotiations that led to the establishment of official relations on 28 September I960.11 In the Americas, Cuba thus became the first state to recognize the PRC. Although the Beijing regime was not ready yet to consider its new ally as a socialist country, their cooperation was immediately of a political-ideological nature. Quite naturally, Che Guevara who had been made the leader of the Cuban Revolution headed the first Cuban delegation to China in November 1960. The Cubans want to conclude agreements with the Chinese to secure trade opportunities for their sugar production and obtain credits. Cooperation rapidly expanded to the military, educational and economic sectors. The PRC provided weapons equipment (guns, bazookas, batteries, etc.) and participated in the training of Cuban Air force officers. Cuba, for its part, sent technicians, engineers and teachers.12 The golden age of Chinese solidarity was reached in the aftermath of the October 1962 missile crisis, when Mao Zedong openly criticized the negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy to end the crisis.13 As a token of his support for the Cuban regime and people, the Chinese leader decided to intensify economic exchanges, making his country the island’s third-largest trading partner.14

The honeymoon was short lived, however. Tensions quickly arose between the two nations. Within the context of the Sino-Soviet ideological split, Mao perceived Cuba’s economic subjugation to the USSR as a capitulation. He considered Eider Maximo’s visits to the Soviet Union in June 1963 and again in December 1964 as unfriendly acts. Considering that the meeting of the Latin American communist parties in Havana in December 1964 calling for the unity of the world socialist movement played into the hands of the Soviets,15 he reproached Cuba its pusillanimity in the face of imperialism. Shortly afterwards, he refused to welcome Ernesto Che Guevara, leader of the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC, which became the Partido Comu- nista de Cuba on 3 October 1965), on his second official visit to Beijing in 1965.16 Despite the importance of the trade flows that reached their climax that same year, the diplomatic relations deteriorated sharply when Cuba condemned Chinese attempts to infiltrate the Party and its armed forces. In 1966, the gap between the two countries widened even further. Beijing waived its support for the creation of the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (abbreviated as OSPAAAL) and suspended the exchange sugar for rice}1 In reaction, Fidel Castro denounced the policy of the Chinese leader whom he accused of being a traitor.18 The rupture was then complete, but their respective embassies continued to operate.

After about 15 years of distended relations, the two States entered a phase of easing tensions. The doctrinal changes, particularly with regard to the deside- ologization of Chinese foreign policy adopted in 1982 at the XII Congress of the Communist Party, helped warming up the PRC’s relations with the countries of the socialist bloc, including Cuba. In 1983, the visit to Beijing of Cuban Minister of Commerce, Ricardo Cabrisas, put an end to diplomatic tensions and announced the beginning of the process of rebuilding bilateral ties, with negotiations taking precedence over the tense face-to-face meetings of previous years. As a result, trade flows were on the rise again and cooperation was encouraged in the areas of public health, agriculture, science and technology and transport. In 1988, Havana and Beijing founded the China-Cuba Intergovernmental Commission for Economic and Trade Relations (CICChREC). The following year, the Intergovernmental Commission for Scientific and Technical Cooperation (CICCT) was created.19

3 Deepening political relations

The full restoration of the Sino-Cuban political dialogue only became effective in the 1990s. Two major international events contributed to this development. On the one hand, the events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the spring of 1989 provided Havana with an opportunity to express its support for the Chinese regime. On the other hand, the collapse of the USSR had an important impact on the Cuban economy, pushing its leaders to seek new allies. To manage serious food and drug shortages, Fidel Castro announced in March 1990 a “Special Period in Peacetime” marked by the adoption of a series of internal measures and the implementation of a policy of partnerships diversification, particularly with the Caribbean and Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico. Aggravated by the strengthening of the US embargo in 1992 (Torricelli law) and again in 1996 (Helms-Burton law), this recessive phase required the government to accelerate economic reforms and strengthen diplomatic activity at a more global level.20 In this context, the relaunching of relations with the PRC was part of this multi-directional diplomatic offensive based on the country’s economic needs and the search for the survival of the Castro regime.

As a result, meetings at the highest level of the political apparatus multiplied, with Cuba becoming one of the Latin American countries most visited by Chinese delegations. By visiting the island’s capital in 1993 (and again in 2001), the new President of the PRC, Jiang Zemin, sent a strong signal to the rest of the world. He intended to support Cuba’s socialist revolution and strengthen his country’s presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, historically under the influence of Europe, and even more so, of the United States. Two years later, the Cuban Head of State made his first official trip to China with the aim of permanently sealing their political reconciliation. In order to move forward towards the consolidation of cooperation ties, his brother Raul Castro, in his capacity as second secretary of the Party and Minister of the Armed Forces, went there in 1997. The reciprocal visits of members of the Standing Coimnittee and the Political Bureau of the Chinese and Cuban Communist Parties helped to affirm the fundamentally political namre of their relations.

These meetings were also an opportunity to establish the terms of the new economic and trade agreements. Cuban expectations were of several kinds: supply of equipment; implementation of priority programmes in the fields of energy, transport, telecommunications, education and health; obtaining credit on favourable terms and access to the largest emerging market in the world. For its part, the PRC provided its Caribbean partner with financing to support reciprocal trade and ensure the delivery of its exports. It also provided it with payment facilities fox- debt repayment, as well as financial advantages: a ten-year interest-free deferral of the payment of appropriations allocated during the period 1990-1994; and a new low-interest loan in 1995 to cover its long-term trade balance deficit. The bilateral agreements concluded at the turn of the 1990s-2000 led to an unprecedented intensification of economic exchanges and the creation of Sino-Cuban cooperation agencies, to which the new Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, gave a strong boost from 2003 onwards.21

A new stage in the Sino-Cuban rapprochement process began following the smooth transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Raul in July 2006. As part of the so-called “model update” policy aimed at correcting institutional blockages and budgetary imbalances, after his official election in February 2008, the new President of the Councils of State and Ministers launched a policy of openness - more pragmatic than ever - at the regional and global level.22 In this strategy of partnerships diversification in all directions, the PRC occupies a prominent place as it appears to be one of the most promising allies in meeting the new economic challenges facing the island. In less than a decade, Beijing had thus managed to move up to the second rank, and even to the first rank, after Venezuela, from 2016 onwards, for Cuban exports and impoxts. The island mainly impoi-ted rice, mechanical equipment (buses, cars, agricultural and construction equipment), electrical, household and computer equipment, chemicals, as well as furniture and clothing products (shoes, fabrics). In return, it mainly expoited nickel, food (sugar, seafood), tobacco, rum, biotechnology products and medicines.23

On the political level, the senior leaders of both nations shared common values that regular official meetings did not fail to recall. The trips of the Heads of the General Secretariats of their leading parties, or of the members of the Standing Coimnittee of the Political Bureau of their respective Central Committees, were always oppoi-tunities to celebrate their political affinities and aspirations. When President Hu Jintao visited Havana in November 2008, he spoke of strengthening political and partisan ties with a “brother” country.24 As a factor of cohesion and guarantors of political autonomy, the Partido Comunista de Cuba and the CCP played a key role in strengthening the ties of solidarity, if not fraternal, at least friendly, between the two States, based on respect for the orientations of each other. Members of the high hierarchy of both parties recognized the plurality and autonomy of Chinese and Cuban political and economic experiences as a necessity to achieve the construction of “genuine models”, away from the socialism applied by the countries of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. From 2008, Salvador Valdes Mesa, member of the Political Bureau of the Partido Comunista de Cuba Central Coimnittee, has had control over relations with China and Vietnam. For ten years, he made several visits to Asia to meet with his counterparts.

4 Strategic issues

Although not systematic, the positions of the communist parties of both countries often agree on the main international issues. The Partido Comunista de Cuba and the CCP share the vision of a multipolar world governed by the force of international law and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Strongly committed to national sovereignty and the principle of non-interference, they denounce US unilateralism aud agree on the need to reform multilateral institutions. On the environmental front, they support the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” which implies, for developed countries, a greater effort in the fight against global warming. Finally, on the sensitive issue of human rights, the Partido Coniunista de Cuba considers Cuba to be a crucial comparative advantage, and a faithful ally of Beijing’s claims concerning Tibet and Taiwan, with Havana supporting the principle of “one China”. For its part, the CCP believes that China is a powerful partner, guaranteeing the continuity of the socialist project, and valuable support in condemning Washington’s policy towards Cuba, as Beijing has always denounced the economic sanctions to which the island has been subjected for nearly 60 years.

Following President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cuba in July 2014, the close political ties between the two communist parties have continued and diversified. The two ruling parties regularly exchange views on their respective processes for building a prosperous and sustainable socialism. Their mutual trust opens up new areas of political cooperation in strategic sectors. Although discretion in this matter is required, the Cuban and Chinese authorities do not hesitate to mention their links in the military and security fields: intelligence, professional training of army personnel, acquisition of military equipment and technology. Between 2015 and 2018, several visits by high military delegations were organized, under the leadership of the Communist Party, to intensify bilateral cooperation and the exchange of experience and information.25 China would like to learn from Cuba how it has been able to resist the hostility of its US neighbour for almost six decades and benefit from its network of contacts in Latin America and the rest of the world. During his meeting in November 2018 with Leopoldo Cintra Frias, Cuban Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, China’s State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, Wei Fenghe, said that his country is ready to work with Cuba to continue building mutual strategic trust between the armies and pragmatic cooperation, in order to contribute to building a community of destiny for humanity, as well as peacekeeping.26

During his first international tour, in Europe and Asia (Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos) in November 2018, the new Cuban President who took office in April 2018, Miguel Diaz Canel, met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing. This presidential trip, in a context of weakening of its Venezuelan partner, is eminently political in nature. It is an opportunity to indicate that while relations between the two countries have reached full maturity, they need to be further strengthened, on the one hand, through high-level exchanges and political dialogue, and on the other hand, through increased communication and coordination in international affairs.27 For his part, Xi Jinping said that the two socialist countries, whose relations have stood the test of time and with the passing of international changes, must succeed in strengthening their mutual political trust and support, and in stimulating beneficial cooperation on a win-win basis. He called on both sides to continue to support each other on issues related to their core interests and major concerns, adding that China strongly supports Cuba in safeguarding its national sovereignty and in the socialist path adapted to its situation. After their meeting, the two Heads of State signed a series of cooperation documents aimed at strengthening interactions in the educational, cultural, commercial and economic fields, including Cuba’s participation in the “Belt and Road Initiative”28 projects, and the provision of Chinese credit lines: USS124 million for the development of the tourism sector; US$40 million for the energy sector, as well as a grant of US$ 129 million to finance cybersecurity projects.29 Mutual exchanges are also envisaged in the areas of biotechnology, renewable energy sources, human resources training and anti-corruption.


Since its accession to the WTO in 2001, the PRC has continued to increase its presence in the world. However, it is not present everywhere in the same way or with the same intensity. In the insular Caribbean, its long-standing presence is consolidating and diversifying, particularly in the Caricom group countries close to the United States (Bahamas, Jamaica) or rich in natural resources such as Trinidad and Tobago. Since July 2018, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Dominican Republic has also fostered the development of economic exchanges. At the regional level, the case of Cuba is special. A six-decade review of its foreign policy reveals that, since 1959, Sino-Cuban relations have been clearly marked by highly political considerations that distinguish them significantly from the priority links based on the economic and commercial development that most other Caribbean territories have had with the PRC. The Cuban and Chinese communist parties play a key role in intensifying these bonds of solidarity. Their mutual trust opens up new areas of cooperation in strategic sectors. Beijing’s growing interest in Havana, in turn, offers interesting opportunities for the Asian giant, which is now more than ever in a race for global economic leadership. Although its growing presence in the island located a stone’s throw from the United States, is obviously not to the liking of Donald Trump’s administration, China may also provide Europe, LAC with an opportunity to establish, on a new basis, a mutually beneficial triangular relationship.


  • 1 This chapter is a translated, expanded and updated version of our article “La Chine dans la politique exterieure de Cuba” in La Carai'be face a un ordre international emergent, Eric Dubesset et Carlos Quenan (coord.), Dossier special, Etudes caribeennes, No 48, avril 2019.
  • 2 Term used to refer to Asians who enlisted as workers in a colony.
  • 3 Eng Menendez (2013:510).
  • 4 The Chinese of California had settled in the San Francisco area during the “California Gold Rush” (1848-1855).
  • 5 In 1878, the Han Tay Lon Co. opened at 116 Galiano Street in Havana. It specialized in the importation of opium and the accessories used for its consumption.
  • 6 Perez de La Riva (1975:479). This represents about half of all Chinese entries into Latin America in this period.
  • 7 Baltar Rodriguez (1996). According to data from the Centro Principal de la Comuni- dad China in Cuba (Casino Chung Wah), the Chinese community had only 258 members in 2004.
  • 8 Beijing distinguishes three categories of populations that are part of the Chinese identity: “mainlanders” (daluren) are citizens of mainland China; “compatriots” (tongbao) are Chinese from Hong Kong and Macao, as well as those from Taiwan; overseas Chinese (huaqiao) are Chinese communities living abroad, whose ancestors may have migrated centuries ago.
  • 9 In I960, a delegation from the Cuban Confederation of Workers led by Juan Jose Pellon and a military delegation led by Major William Galvez were received by Mao in Beijing. That same year, Raul Castro and Vilma Espln offered a lunch to members of the Beijing Opera on tour in Cuba.
  • 10 Pereira Hernandez (2013:388).
  • 11 Fidel Castro’s coimnents are contained in a document known as the “First Havana Declaration”.
  • 12 Pereira Hernandez (2013:392).
  • 13 See Fardella (2015).
  • 14 The PRC will amount to 20% of Cuban imports and 12% of its exports.
  • 15 For the Chinese authorities, the USSR was seeking to launch an International Conference of Communist Parties for its own benefit.
  • 16 However, Che Guevara met with Deng Xiaoping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party on this occasion.
  • 17 China and Cuba had signed a trade treaty in December 1959. Subsequently, both sides signed a five-year trade agreement and some trade contracts in July 1960.
  • 18 Speech delivered on 13 March 1966 by Fidel Castro on the occasion of the commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the assault on the presidential palace (available at
  • 19 Dubesset (2014).
  • 20 Dubesset (2017:62).
  • 21 Dubesset (2014).
  • 22 Dubesset (2017:65).
  • 23 For more details on the economic results of this cooperation, see our study published by the Agence Fran9aise de Developpement in partnership with the Institut des Amer- iques, Dubesset et al. (2015).
  • 24 AFP (2008).
  • 25 Peraza (2017).
  • 26 (2018).
  • 27 Dubesset (2019a, 2019b).
  • 28 According to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on 19 October 2017, this gigantic Chinese project represents much more than the construction of railway lines through Europe and Asia or the establishment of maritime links. It also gives China the opportunity to build alliances with the 68 countries in which it invests so that by 2050 it will be at the forefront of the world in terms of global power and international influence.
  • 29 Ambassade de France a Cuba (2018).


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