The death of Fidel Castro prompted an outpouring of affection in the Chinese media last weekend, after Xi Jinping lamented the loss of a “dear comrade and true friend” and praised his “immortal contributions to the development of world socialism”.
Xinhua struck a similar tone in celebrating a man “who resisted the American superpower for half a century” and there were warm recollections that Castro’s Cuba was the first country in Latin America to recognise Mao Zedong’s China diplomatically.
The Chinese returned that diplomatic favour (in a manner of sorts) more than 50 years later by awarding Castro the Confucius Peace Prize – their own version of the Nobel Peace Prize – for “choosing to deal with disputes peacefully”, especially after relations with Washington turned famously hostile.
And indeed, there was more than an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the media coverage of Castro’s death with another story of how Havana gifted China’s leaders an American gun seized as spoils from the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The Cubans had even engraved Mao’s name on the pistol, in what was deemed a great honour – and was perhaps an indirect reference to the Great Helmsman’s own aphorism that power derives from the barrel of a gun.
Xi himself visited Castro twice in Cuba, once as president in 2014 and as vice-premier three years earlier. Other senior leaders in the current government have made the same journey, including Premier Li Keqiang this September. But Castro was more reluctant to fly to China himself and waited until 1995 for his maiden trip, when he was photographed saluting a Mao memorial. In the early days of his regime he had chosen to go to Moscow for regular visits, which apparently infuriated the then Chinese leader, who had fallen out with the Soviets in the struggle for leadership of the international communist movement.
Cuba was caught in the middle, trying to maintain effective ties with both countries until Castro finally picked the Soviets, because they were providing crucial financial and military support. First he tried to mediate between the two heavyweights but Mao ignored his overtures. Angered by Chinese efforts to champion their cause with propaganda in Cuba, Castro finally broke with Beijing in 1966, calling Mao a “senile idiot” in a televised address, and vowing that Cuba’s own leaders wouldn’t stay in office beyond 60 years of age (an easier promise to make then, when Mao was 73 and Castro was 38).
Those strained words seem to have been airbrushed out of the historical record by China’s state television channel this week. CCTV instead aired a documentary immediately after Castro’s death saying that the Cuban admired Mao and “regretted not being able to get to know him”. No mention was made in the same programme of Castro’s long-running critique that Mao ruled through a cult of personality, an accusation that he repeated in an interview with Barbara Walters in 1977. “I also acquired that power, but I never abused it, nor did I retain it in my hands,” he told the American journalist.
“I believe he was a great revolutionary leader. But I believe that Mao destroyed with his feet what he did with his head for many years. I’m convinced of that,” Castro further reflected. “Some day the Chinese people, the Communist Party of China, will have to recognise that. It is a question of time. That is my humble opinion.”
After the rupture there was little contact between Beijing and Havana for years, apart from an annual arrangement to trade rice for sugar. But by the early 1990s Castro was forced to change direction when Russian financial support dried up.
Despite plaudits among Chinese netizens for his longevity, there was a more nuanced view of Castro’s achievements online. “Lenin, Stalin, Kim il-Sung, Ceausescu and Castro, who led socialist countries, all fought the evil of capitalism for a lifetime,” one netizen remarked in a weibo post. “Yet there were famines and massacres in each of their countries. Again and again, they proved their greatness. But they also proved that their way is wrong.”
In fact, there was enough of a backlash for the ever-spiky Global Times to caution against comments “attacking and disparaging” Cuba’s former leader. The newspaper also wondered whether Castro’s critics were betraying their true colours. “A few people holding such views have a poor sense of history and low levels of knowledge,” it complained (blithely ignoring the fact that the period between 1949 and 1999 is something of a black hole in China’s own history books, given the reluctance of the Party to admit how many millions died at the hands of Mao’s purges and famines, as well as other incidents). The Global Times then added that the Cuban’s online critics in China are guilty of a pro-Washington bias: “Of course, some are driven by the ideology that surmises Castro cannot be a good man since he held an anti-American stance for so long.”
That said, the reality of Sino-Cuban ties was that even as they were warming up in the 1990s, Castro was cautious in his dealings with China after it embarked on economic reforms and plugged into the global economy. He correctly saw that rather than exporting revolution, the Chinese became mostly focused on exporting goods.
Castro kept Cuba on the Marxist path, and faced American sanctions. Today its economy remains desperate for industrial technology after years of neglect. Hence Li Keqiang promised a round of investment during his trip in September under the banner of “knowledge cooperation”, one of the new buzzwords in the Chinese diplomatic lexicon. This would be a role reversal – in the past, it was China calling for technology transfer from overseas (initially from Japan in the late seventies) – but it could be a positive trend for relations with Latin America at large, where the Chinese have been criticised for hollowing out the local manufacturing sector with their exports of cheap goods.
Right on cue, Xi Jinping has just returned from visits to Chile, Ecuador and Peru on a tour promoting Chinese-backed trade pacts. And after the trip, the State Council published a policy document promising a new style of relations for such nations that will create jobs and provide economic assistance “without attaching any political conditions”.
Earlier Xi had grabbed the moment to offer an alternative vision to President-elect Trump’s trashing of trade treaties during his campaign and his threat to demand new terms from Washington’s partners in the region. “The big, strong and rich must not bully the small, weak and poor,” he told Peru’s parliament in one of his speeches, calling for a renewed focus on global trade and an end to protectionism.
In the meantime perhaps the most tangible short term boost Cuba’s economy can expect from China is if more of its newly rich start puffing on the country’s famed luxury export: cigars.
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