HAVANA TIMES — A few months ago, a Chinese man approached my wife and I with a proposal that had me laughing for two straight weeks (and even at bedtime). As I laid my head on the pillow, I would delight myself recalling the unusual offer: “If you can find me a middle-aged Cuban woman who wants to marry me, I’ll give you a house,” the sixty-year-old man said to us without much preamble, revealing, in one fell swoop, that his pockets were no strangers to material plenty but that his romantic life was not exactly plentiful.
The unusual request immediately took me back to Havana’s olden days, when more than one Cuban would repeat the phrase: “find yourself a Chinaman who’ll get you a room.” At the time, there was no shortage of Chinese men on the island, arriving there by the thousands and without partners. Need forced them to mingle with Cuban women. In today’s China, the gender misbalance – in good measure produced by the country’s one-child policy – compels many to look for partners through less-than-orthodox ways (including explicitly commercial transactions).
Though I would love to move to a slightly more spacious house, I am not made for matchmaking and I ignored the urgent petition of the bachelor in question. I couldn’t picture myself finding a Cuban woman willing to move so far away from home. With his insistence, however, the elderly gentleman confirmed my impression that, increasingly, Chinese men are willing to look around the world and, wielding their thick pocketbooks, secure whatever pleases them from the global bazaar.
My legion of cousins-in-law similarly and frequently help to consolidate this impression, availing themselves of any family banquet to interrogate me and ask me for tips as to how to conduct all manner of transactions in Cuba. Thus, I get questions along the lines of: “When will Cuba open up to the world?”, “What can we sell Cubans?”, “What’s the new investment law all about?” “Would they let me open up a hostel in Cuba?”, “Do Cubans like tea?”, “Can you take back a million SD memories and sell them there?”, and so on and so forth.
With every mouthful of sea cucumber or sip of white barley liquor comes a barrage of questions for which I almost never have a satisfactory answer. As a run-of-the-mill Cuban, I am forced to admit before them that there’s very little I can say about investment possibilities in my country, that, as far as nationals as are concerned, we are for the moment entitled to open up a cafeteria, rent out a house or set-up a small-scale establishment. Most of the time, my answers leave them with a look of frustration on their faces (which, luckily, lasts only until the next toast).
Now that President Xi is looking to enter into negotiations with Cuban authorities, no few people in China are burning incense sticks and praying Havana will finally open its doors to them (including my hopeful cousins). Those who believe Cuba’s alliance with the Chinese government entails privileges for Chinese businesspeople would do well to think otherwise, as these must go through the same, slim door that is gradually being opened to their Western and other counterparts. That, at least, is how things have been to this day.
Doing Like Chan Lipo: “Patience, a Lot of Patience”
“If Cuba does not open its doors to China, it will again become the United States’ backyard,” categorically affirms Chen Xiuezhen, a Chinese businesswoman who prides herself on knowing Cuban society like the palm of her hand and does business both in and from the island, conducting transactions around Central America as well.
Like others in China, Xiuzhen feels that Cuba’s liberalization process is advancing extremely slowly. Like them, she also fears that things will run into obstacles and the country will take steps back, as it did in recent years (2004, to be more specific), when Cuba’s Wajay and Berroa business zones saw the investors who had set up camp there leave with their tails between their legs.
What is becoming increasingly clear at the moment is that the big opportunities at the Mariel port and other areas will be enjoyed by the Chinese conglomerates that have been doing business in Cuba for at least two decades, such as Yutong and Gran Dragon. The first will have its operations revalued with a view to collecting old debts, and the company will likely make an effort to offer a product that lasts a bit longer on Cuban streets. The island’s drivers and mechanics blame vehicle breakdowns on poor manufacturing, while Chinese manufacturers hold Cuba’s impoverished roads system accountable for the damage. Everyone has their own version of events.
Everything also seems to indicate that a good slice of Cuba’s market will be taken up by Chinese biotechnology, renewable energy, food industry, tourism, real estate, packaging and container, telecommunications and computer firms. All of these are sectors prioritized by the Cuban government, according to Chinese expert on Latin American issues Xu Shicheng. At the beginning of the year, Shicheng called on his fellow countrymen to shift their attention to Cuba’s Mariel Development Zone.
For other Chinese nationals with lesser capitals, accessing the Cuban market will prove more difficult, though we’re already seeing cases in which people have enough guts and vision to invest moderate sums of money in businesses seemingly operated by Cubans, to trust these individuals and remain in the shadows awaiting an eventual and true opening of the market that would transform them into legitimate partners.
Not all Chinese people who want to invest in Cuba will be able to, even if the island opens up the market completely. That is the opinion of Geovani Gonzalez, a Cuban who has lived in Peking for more than 10 years who works on his own in businesses linked to culture, entertainment and restoration.
“China is also very careful about who it grants licenses to,” Gonzalez says, “for every time a local businessperson moves to a different country it means a loss of capital, and that is not always profitable for China.”
As long as things remain as they are, the future of Cuba’s Chinese community, currently evincing the most rapidly growing void in our ethnic makeup, will remain a question.
Large companies will have the elbow room they need at Mariel, but regaining the former splendor of Havana’s dilapidated Chinatown will require passionate Chinese people who are capable of re-staging the heartfelt journey to the tropics, so as to again put up four walls and love those who can help them perpetuate the lineage of the Heavenly Kingdom among us.