China and the World

A rum affair

China’s suspicions about America’s softer approach towards Havana

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech to the Cuban people in the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso in Havana

Honey-coated: Fidel Castro accused Obama of sweet-talking the Cubans

When President Coolidge travelled to Cuba in 1928, it was his first state visit. At the time America was enduring its Prohibition thirst, and a loaded topic for US media was whether the president would imbibe Cuba’s national drink: rum. Coolidge avoided the issue by deftly dodging a circulating tray of cocktails. Just 32 years later – after the Cuban revolution – relations between the two nations went into deep freeze as the US imposed travel and trade sanctions on the newly Communist country. Coolidge’s booze-free trip became America’s last presidential visit to Cuba. That is until last week, when the current commander-in-chief Barack Obama arrived in Havana.

With the Prohibition Act long buried and Obama’s visit marking the latest step towards removing the Cuban embargo – formed by American sanctions nearly 60 years ago – the visit was an attempt to restore relations to more cordial levels.

But what did Obama’s initiative mean for China, whose current president sipped Mojitos in ‘red’ Cuba in 2014?

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying appeared rather blasé about the rapprochement. Speaking at a regular press conference in Beijing she said, “We have noticed President Obama’s visit to Cuba. We believe that it is a good thing that the US and Cuba are normalising bilateral relations, and we are happy to see its result.” But she added: “We also call on the US to completely lift its blockade policy on Cuba as soon as possible.”

During his tenure, Obama has relaxed some of the restrictions on US dealings with Cuba. American citizens can now travel to Cuba as individuals, rather than as part of organisations, and Cuba is no longer included on the list of countries America suspects of sponsoring terrorism. Many see his recent efforts at mending relations as part of his bid to bolster his legacy.

But one of the key bills that the US passed to prevent trade with Cuba still stands. It is the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which advocates for “a peaceful transition to democracy through the careful application of sanctions”. Some analysts say this law will be a real obstacle to dismantling the embargo, and an ideological point of contention for China too.

China has always opposed a universal definition of democracy, contending that it is developing its own unique form of the political system – i.e. democracy “with Chinese characteristics”. Beijing resents America’s attempts to promote its own version of the democratic ideal (and is quick to point out where such experiments abroad have produced failed states). A piece by Xinhua written in response to Obama’s Cuba visit and his repeated advocacy of democracy reads: “Seeing itself as the beacon of the so-called free world, Washington has long gruffly and habitually forced its ideas on other countries with different cultures and conditions”.

(Xinhua more pointedly blames America’s global strategies for “a war-torn Middle East, a nuclear Korean Peninsula, and the radicalism hurting Europe, to name just a few.”)

In this respect, the current direction of US-Cuba relations interests the Chinese mostly for the precedent being set – i.e. the White House’s willingness to come to terms with a country that doesn’t share its political values or its attitude towards human rights (two issues which frequently trigger friction between China and the US).

The China Daily’s US edition agrees, commenting that the true significance of Obama’s visit is that it displays “a change in the US approach to the country, from containment to engagement, demonstrating once again, after the negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear issue, that engagement can work a miracle where confrontation cannot.”

Whether intended or not, this would also seem to reflect Chinese officialdom’s current thinking on North Korea. In recent weeks Beijing has stepped up its criticism of American policies towards its (notional) ally saying that Washington’s solutions continue to favour acts of “containment” such as economic sanctions and shows of military strength. If the US is willing to “engage” with Cuba, might not a similar strategy be tried with the regime in Pyongyang?

But if there are elements of optimism in the Chinese media that a rekindled relationship between Cuba and the US could mark a turning point in America’s approach to foreign policy, there is also scepticism that many of the promises made by Obama will be fulfilled. Xinhua refers to President Obama as a “lame-duck” and thinks the renewal of US-Cuba relations will face significant challenges, “if the United States chooses not to renounce its arrogance”.

Here the “United States” appears to refer to Congress, which Obama has blamed for thwarting his electoral promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay – another sore topic for US-Cuba relations. The Republican-led body may thwart pledges to improve relations, either out of principle or to spite the overtures made by the Democrat occupant of the Oval Office.

The Global Times is particularly suspicious of Congress. It contends: “In America, there are still political cliques trying to overturn the Cuban government. If the White House turns a blind eye or even submits to them, Obama’s legacy will be abandoned by his successor, and Washington will resume its hawkish attitude toward Havana.”

Not everyone in Cuba is convinced either, including the father of the revolution itself. After Obama’s visit Fidel Castro – who didn’t meet the American leader during his stay – penned an article for the national newspaper La Granma, criticising the US President for his “honey-coated” rhetoric.

Reflecting some of the same suspicions as the Chinese media, Castro wrote: “We don’t need the empire to give us anything”.

What will be interesting to watch is who succeeds Castro’s brother Raul in the coming years. The dynastic route favoured by communist North Korea has proven an economic disaster. But if Cuba follows the models of meritocratic succession that fellow one-party ‘red’ states China and Vietnam have employed the hope is that a greater integration into the global economy may follow.

Analysts think the current favourite to take the helm in Cuba in 2018 is Miguel Diaz-Canel, who the New York Times describes as a “technocrat”.

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