HAVANA TIMES — President Raul Castro traveled a long way to meet with his closest ideological allies. Like Cuba, China and Vietnam are survivors of the shipwreck of “real socialism,” but the latter two have already left their lifeboats and are sailing in their own ships.
Despite economic ties with Venezuela and its close political relations with Chavez, Cuba is patterning itself on the Asian socialist model. The island’s leaders speak of “adjustments” to avoid using the word “reform,” but they’re moving slowly in the same direction as their Vietnamese partners.
No one knows exactly what issues will be raised by the general-president with his Asian counterparts. It’s difficult to read between the lines, but Cuba’s key concern is finding a model that will allow it to move beyond the survival phase.
The trip by President Raul Castro is part of an intense series of contacts between the three nations. It was preceded by the visit of Vietnamese leaders, China’s vice president Xi Jinping (that nation’s future top leader) and most recently by the trip taken by the architect of the Cuban reforms, Marino Murillo.
Official information about the trip took up just two paragraphs in Cuba’s official newspaper. It reported only that Castro would visit China and Vietnam, and that he would be accompanied by Ricardo Cabrisas, the vice president of the Council of Ministers; and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
Such an economy of words is keeping people on the margin concerning the trip. However, most Cubans speculate in the same direction. “It’s about searching for a vision of how to implement a market economy in Cuba,” says Deyanira Rodriguez.
Abelardo Mena, the curator of Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts, told BBC News that he doesn’t know what issues the president will touch on in Asia, but he believes “it could be a fact finding mission to examine firsthand the possible application in Cuba of the model of those countries.”
Both China and Vietnam are parts of Cuba’s life preserver. Beijing is the second largest trading partner with the island [after Venezuela], with $1.9 billion (USD) in annual commerce. In the meantime, the Vietnamese are searching for oil in Cuban waters and their country is the main supplier of rice, which is essential to the national diet.
Transportation in Cuba is based mainly on Chinese buses, cars and locomotives. What also come from that country are low-energy consuming refrigerators and millions of other appliances that have been distributed to all Cuban families.
Despite the ideological identification, however, bilateral relations are not the same as what existed with the Soviet Union. Beijing supports Cuba but also protects its loans, guaranteeing them with part of Cuba’s nickel reserves.
The good relations between Cuba and Latin America make it an ideal bridge to invest in a region not affected by the global crisis. In fact, an “army” of youths are being trained on the island as thousands of Chinese are studying Spanish on the outskirts of Havana.
An old friend
The relations with Vietnam, which date back to the war against US invasion, are much closer and have a strong ideological character. Cuba supported the Vietnamese guerrillas morally and practically and also assisted with that county’s reconstruction.
In the middle of the war, Fidel Castro visited the liberated territories of South Vietnam, and Cuba maintained an ambassador in that area. Teams of Cuban doctors treated the wounded in Hanoi, while workers and engineers from the island cooperated on the construction of secret roadways.
After the war, Havana sent hundreds of technicians, including advisors specializing in tilapia fish farming and coffee production. Paradoxically, today Vietnam exports $2 billion USD worth of tilapia and also sells coffee, while Cuba has to import it, explained Raul Castro.
But the Vietnamese were not ungrateful. They are the leading seller of rice to Cuba, and on more than one occasion they have sent boatloads of free rice. Currently they are exploring for oil in Caribbean waters and their agricultural technicians are now advising Cuban farmers.
The Cuban Perspective
More than in the “21st Century Socialism” proclaimed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba is looking for its model in Asia. Several delegations of Cuban economists and businesspeople were sent to China and Vietnam to study their socio-economic situations and systems.
Most Cuban experts agree that Vietnam is much closer to Cuba than China – given the country’s physical size, population, social characteristics, political structure and its conflict with the US.
Friendship and ideological identification has not been an obstacle to each Vietnamese leader reminding the Cubans that if they really want to push through reforms, the first and most important is a change of mentality.
To advance a “Doi Moi” (renovation), as was done in Vietnam to allow it to “take off” economically, Cuban authorities need to take much stronger steps to break with the model that has already demonstrated its economic inefficiency.