China's Hu in Cuba, bearing gifts

China's President Hu Jintao brought tonnes of humanitarian aid and promised billions of dollars more in a landmark visit to Cuba. China is Cuba's second largest trading partner after Venezuela.


China's President Hu Jintao traveled to Cuba on Monday to boost ties with the government of President Raul Castro, as the slowly-opening communist island also reaches out to Russia.

Hu's visit to Havana for a two-day visit follows a G-20 summit in Washington and a 24-hour stopover in Costa Rica, where he launched free trade talks and a string of cooperation deals.

Hu's Latin America tour, which also includes an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru, comes as China expands its diplomacy and investment on the whole continent, eyeing natural resources and developing markets for manufactured goods and even weapons.

Chinese exports to Latin America grew 52 percent in the first nine months of 2008 to 111.5 billion dollars, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

China was Cuba's second business partner, after Venezuela, in 2007 with 2.7 billion dollars of combined trade, and one of its main creditors.

The two communist countries have increased ties since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"This visit is an expression of the excellent existing links between both parties and governments," said an official statement published in Cuba's official government paper Granma on Monday.

Hu's visit comes less than two weeks before the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in another Russian bid to fortify relations with outspoken US adversaries in Latin America on the back of a trip to Venezuela.

China offered key support to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro when Cuba fell into dire economic straits after the former Soviet Union collapse, forging a divide which Russia has recently sought to reduce.

Hu first visited Cuba in 2004 -- again shortly after a US election -- to oversee the signing of 16 cooperation agreements, which he was expected to build on this time.

Current deals include Chinese oil prospecting and extraction in Cuba -- onshore and offshore -- and two Cuban eye hospitals in China and a third under construction.

Since Raul Castro officially assumed power in February, taking over from his ailing brother Fidel, analysts suggest he is moving toward China's market economy model, although authorities still underline support for Cuba's state controlled economy.

Raul Castro recently sought foreign investment for prospection and exploitation of gold, silver, zinc and copper deposits.

China already invests in nickel, Cuba'a main export, and hydrocarbons on the island which produces the equivalent of 80,000 barrels of oil and gas per day.

Granma on Monday lauded the Chinese model but underlined "an unequal distribution of wealth in the country, marked difference between city and countryside and the erosion of the environment."

Fidel Castro, who still influences the island's politics from his sickbed, ruled out a transition to capitalism in an article published Saturday, and on Monday criticized leaders at a recent G20 summit for accepting US "demands."

It was unclear whether Hu would meet with Fidel, who has met with several foreign leaders in recent months including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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