The Chinese Dream Looks for a Cuban Bed

Isidro Estrada

The Maliandao district in Beijing.

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.

China in Havana.

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.

The cousin who sells tea.

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.

Marianao, Havana

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.

17 thoughts on “The Chinese Dream Looks for a Cuban Bed

  • Ha,ha, Pebble…may I share your laugh? Of course I could hardly be a racist or bigot… To begin with, I am a mestizo, whose great grandmother was a black slave still in the late 19th century in Cuba…My family has been ethnically mingling for decades, Chinese included. And that’s one of the reasons that help me use any terms to talk about race without feeling any remorse or guilt …I just need to take a look at my siblings and ancestors to feel proud of the island’s melting pot.

    Now, answering your question why China has been reluctant to invest on Cuba, opposite to its endevors in the rest of Latin America in the last three decades.

    To begin with, don’t forget Beijing and Havana were on opposite sides during the Cold War. From 1966 to 1983 there were hardly any political exchanges between them. This played an impact on the development of relations. At least four things were to happen before both countries fully normalized the situation:

    1) The Chinese Old Guard (Mao, Chu De, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and particularly Deng Xiaoping) passed away. They all had lived through the years of mutual recriminations, when Cuba, in their eyes, was the “Viet Nam of the Caribbean Sea”…

    2) The Soviet Union collapsed. The great benefactor for the tiny Island left an economic and ideological vaccum that no other country was willing to fill. China was the closest chance. And to Beijing, No USSR, no problem…

    3) Cuba was among the few countries that refused to stigmatize China after de 1989 bloody events at TiananMen Square in Beijing, an attitude highly appreciated among the Chinese powers that be.

    4) In recent times, Chinese entrepeneurs had been as suspicious as any others about the safety of Cuban invesment environment. Especially after 2004, when so many busines people left the island without any gains or even after incurring big losses. Now, the new Cuban Investment Law is bringing back some respite…finally.

  • Haha, you make me laugh. Chinese wife? Beijing 18 years? So, you know what I am talking about, right? As the chinese saying goes, the more you cover up, the darker it gets. It just got darker. I am not calling you a racist. To me the only racists are the white slave owners, who by the way, have local wives. Warts?
    Your article has the distinct flavor of talking to “your own kind”. Does that make you a racist? No.

    Anyway, your article was about chinese, investment in Cuba, etc. I was always wondering why China invest so little in Cuba. I heard that China is bigger than the old Soviet Union ever was, (relative to the size of US economy), and in the past couple of years, China has invested in Latin America over 100 billions, and its old friend, Cuba, got a just a tiny bit. Why?

    I heard that this time Cuba made changes to foreign investment rules, allowing foreign companies to bring their own employees, and that was specifically beneficial to China. So, this time around, Chinamen do not have to offer rooms to Cuban ladies. Yeah, history is to be told, but not repeated.

  • Pebble:

    Just one more thing. Part of this story is about my Chinese wife, and in-laws, all of them Chinese. So, it is not in the least of my interest to be offensive to them, their culture or their country.

    My dear friend Daisy has never set feet on China (I have been in Beijing for over 18 years now), and because of her age she did not live through those years of yore, when Chinese roamed Havana’s streets peddling their fare. I was a little boy at the time, but I still have the memories.

    History – my reckon -, is to be told. Warts and all.

  • This phrase should be very very old, because I’ve never, ever heard it, non from my parents or my grandparents.
    I’m sorry about this man if it’s true. Money still cannot buy happiness.

  • So, old habit die hard? I am less concerned about racial prejudice here, though I thought I had a glance of fox tail somewhere. I am just a bit annoyed.
    I have faith in young Cubans. I don’t read HT often, but just a couple of days ago, I read a piece by Daisy Valera on the Fading Splendor of Havana’s Chinatown, I did not sense even a tiny bit of racial prejudice. Mouth”full of sea cucumber” or not, I guess she does not have to make the hard choice “between political correctness and respect for truth”. Your “class and ethnic prejudice would walk hand in hand” is just so masterful. remind me of those wonderful days of Chinese cultural revolution.
    But thanks for the history lessons, really.

  • I take it that fifty five years is temporary? Cubacar rented ouit the Geely which I repeat was JUNK!

  • George! I recorded reality. My home is in Cuba and I am married to a Cuban. We have experienced being stopped by the police in the street in Havana on three occasions because my wife is black and I am white. We have been stopped by the police when in a Cuba taxi travelling to the airport in Havana. I am grateful that I am not an American – that is probably your problem! Don’t bother trying to defend Cuba’s racism -it is rampant. Instead ask yourself why the Cuba census asked the question? “What is the colour of your skin?” It may well be that in your country – I assume you are American, that racism is even worse. My knowledge of that commenced with listening to Paul Robeson in 1948. He you should know, asked Truman in 1950 to bring in an Act prohibiting lynching following the lynching of four blacks in Alabama. Truman refused saying that it was too early. In 1950 Robeson spoke at the United Nations charging the USA with genocide. Apart from that background of the USA and having visited 32 countries the only one where the racist attitude equals that of Cuba is South Africa. You are correct in saying that racism is also about power. In Cuba “el poder” the power is in the possession of one family – Castro Ruz. Manipulation of statistics enable them to claim that less than 10% of Cubans are black and thus justify appointing whites (they say 66%) to positions of authority. I can assure you that Cuban blacks are as enthusiastic as apparently American blacks are, to have people recognized as equal. Despite your poo-pooing my views about racism in Cuba, I will continue to oppose it and I hope you will act similarly in your USA!

  • If capitalism and its “survival of the fittest” characteristics continue to emerge in a post-Castro Cuba as it appears headed for, then Cuba is very likely to follow the “US trajectory”. As white Cubans continue disproportionately benefit from the Castro economic reforms while black Cubans are left behind to survive on State wages and through ‘resolving’ the differences in classes will manifest more clearly along racial lines. Latent racial biases will rise to the surface being justified by economic realities. Whites will see themselves as more prosperous because they are smarter and work harder and see black Cubans as lazy and waiting for government handouts. Exactly like the mindset in the US.

  • Interestingly, we never seem to create any problems or even give it a second thought when we invoke, quite affectionately I might add, the trademark “Frenchman”, “Irishman”, “Scotsman”, etc. To me, referring to a Chinese man as a “Chinaman” is in the same vein, and really…I see it as a big to-do about nothing.

  • Thank you Moses for qualifying my comment, I am well aware that racism persists in Cuba and perhaps should have been more careful. With Cuba’s trajectory on race I see it very similar to the Soviet Union’s economic trajectory; there was an initial period where the economy was growing much faster than the U.S. to such an extent that the U.S. seriously considered that they could lose the Cold War, then when industrial production peaked and needed to be succeeded by consumer production the failings of the Soviet system kicked in and we all know what happened after that. Cuba is now dealing with the second period with regards to race. It remains to be seen whether any new ideas will emerge that allow them to move forward or whether they are doomed to follow the U.S. trajectory after all.

  • Hi, Pebble:
    You are right on every count. And so are we in using this derogatory word with every intention. When this very vernacular phrase became popular in Cuba – particularly in Havana and the surrounding areas of the city’s Chinatown, in the early-mid 20th century – Chinese who had settled down on the Island were usually looked on with disdain, not to say scorn, by many Cubans, specially rich whites, but not only. So, the woman who would resort to marrying a Chinese in those years was not usually a member of the upper class. So, class and ethnic prejudice would walk hand in hand.
    When writing this piece, myself, the editor and the translator had to choose between political correctness and respect for truth. Hope this helps.
    Tks for ur comments…

  • George, you should be careful so as not to imply that Cuba has resolved it’s problem with racism. I have personally experienced Cuban-style racism on many occasions. While I agree that it is at its worst a pale comparison to the vicious kind of racism that persists in the US, racism in Cuba is still very much alive and well. White Cubans exercise their “power” over non-white Cubans in every way possible. Check in to any tourist hotel in Havana and check out who is at the front desk and who is cleaning the rooms. It’s like ‘day and night’.

  • Cubans of Spanish decent are “white”. Unlike Hispanics of Central and South America, there is almost no Amerindian genetic heritage in Cuba. The Taínos became extinct long ago, although some people in Dominican and Puerto Rico claim to be “Taínos”, this claim is controversial.

    So if there is prejudice toward Hispanic Cubans in America, it is based upon ethnic, national or linguistic prejudices, not racial.

  • I’m sick and tired of middle class white Americans lecturing Cuba on race. They think it’s some kind of word game and that if only everyone obeys the rules no one will take offence, as if taking offence is the problem. Racism is not about taking offence or even prejudice, it is about power. Cuba has done much more to equalize power around the world and at home than the U.S., much more. Working class Cubans of Spanish descent occupy a completely different strata of society to “Whites” in the U.S. Indeed in the case of their relationship with Chinese businessmen it is clear who has the most power.

  • Never being in a Geely, wouldn’t want to. But apparently, Geely owns Volvo, so you can buy a good Geely if you want to.
    As for not directly hiring Cubans by multinationals, it was the same in China, way back when. I’d say, if I remembered correctly, some twenty years ago, when China just opened up. If you want to hire a Chinese local, you have to hire from a government personnel company, you pay high salary to that company and that company pays the Chinese employee. There were obvious reasons for that, if you think about it. Not just right or wrong.
    Anyway, my understanding is that you can hire anyone you want in China nowadays. So, I’d say it would be just temp measures.

  • I don’t know what to feel about this article. Quote: “…more than one Cuban would repeat the phrase: “find yourself a Chinaman who’ll get you a room.” That maybe a historical fact, but, recently a US fox tv host, used the word “Chinaman”, caused some anger among the Chinese. Here is how Wall Street Journal reported: I quote: ” Pressure is growing for U.S. cable network Fox News to fire host Bob Beckel for controversial comments he recently made about Chinese people, including his use of the word “Chinaman”….Mr. Beckel’s comments have prompted a growing list of U.S. officials to call for his resignation, including several state representatives from California, which is home to a sizable Chinese population. Now, the clamor for Mr. Beckel to be held accountable has also reached China. On Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, Mr. Beckel’s comments sparked a furious reaction. A few microbloggers were downright vitriolic in their commentary, writing posts peppered with swear words…“Of course it’s understandable that a swine in a pig sty would say swine words,” read one sarcastic post. “Even a number of Americans see this as pathetic… I think there’s always a stupid group in any society. Not worth of respect or attention,” said the same tweeter.Another Weibo user called Mr. Beckel’s comment “rude” and “offensive,” adding, “I can foresee that his computer will be hacked forever from now on.”
    There you go, now that Mr. Xi is coming to Cuba, you’d think Cuban paper should be just a little bit more sensitive.

  • Cuba’s ethnic make-up is limited by the census to belonging to one of three groups listed by Question number 6 of the census to:
    Castro’s Socialismo is of it’s nature racist.
    Regarding the quality of Chinese means of transportation, many years ago Chinese boats were described as “Junks”. Thus “junk” entered the English language as a description of rubbish (basura). My own impression of the Yutung buses used by Viazul, was that they were not too bad. But when I made the mistake of hiring a car – described on the web site as: “Volkswagon or similar” I was presented at Jose Marti Airport with a Chinese car named Geely. This one which had only done 42,000 km, could properly be described as JUNK! With holes in the seats due to poor quality cloth and apparently lacxking springs in the drivers seat, it stalled on a steep hill when in FIRST gear.
    No doubt the reason for Cubacar (a government company) purchasing Geelys is that they obtain them on credit. When eventually totally whacked out they can then endeavor to sell them for a mere $30,000 each. Junk earns its way!
    Perhaps Mariel which so far has failed to increase commercial traffic on the Autopista, will be converted into a Russian Naval base and re-named Putin Port and adding lustre to the phrase: “We put in to port.”
    There is that one outstanding problem for businesses considering investing in Cuba – jail for “corruption” awaits. “Corruption” in Cuba is paying additional money to good employees to add to the pittance paid by theIr government. As a Cuban explained to me, companies have signed an agreement with the Government of Cuba to accept Cuban employees and to not pay them any money directly. If they do so then clearly that is corruption. Corruption does not involve appointing your son-in-law to manage the commercial affairs of the military!

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