Image: China's President Hu Jintao
Javier Galeano  /  AP
China's President Hu Jintao, front, listens to his national anthem during a ceremony at the Jose Marti monument in Havana, on Tuesday during a two-day official visit to Cuba.
updated 11/18/2008 7:51:15 PM ET 2008-11-19T00:51:15

China's president was signing dozens of trade and investment deals with communist ally Cuba on Tuesday, part of a Latin America trip on which Chinese businessmen have been snapping up all manner of raw materials.

Sources told NBC News that Chinese president Hu Jintau met in the morning with former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

Taking the long view at a time of financial crisis, China is investing heavily in commodity-producing countries, and Cuba is no exception. The deals agreed to by Hu included purchases of Cuban nickel and sugar, along with pledges to send food and building materials to help the Caribbean nation recover from three major hurricanes.

Other deals promise stronger ties in the future, such as a Chinese commitment to help renovate Cuba's aging ports, which are vital since Cuba receives virtually all its imports by sea.

Medical and tourist ties
Hu also thanked Cuba for sending doctors to China after last year's devastating earthquake, and for educational programs on the island attended by about 2,000 Chinese citizens, including medical and tourism students.

Accompanying Hu on a visit to a school for Chinese students on Tuesday, Cuban President Raul Castro sang snippets of a song about China and Mao he said he learned as a young man. At first, the hundreds of students gathered in an auditorium seemed confused, but they soon sang along, clapping in time.

"Even though the physical distance that separates China and Cuba is great, friendship between both people goes back a long way," Hu said.

Cuba depended heavily on Soviet largesse and turned a cold shoulder to China during the Cold War's Sino-Soviet split. But ties warmed after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Cuba now has no problem dealing with both Beijing and Moscow.

With bilateral trade topping $2.6 billion a year, China is Cuba's No. 2 trading partner after Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez provides nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island at favorable prices

The ties have brought a tangible benefit to residents of the Cuban capital, where more than 3,000 shiny new Yutong buses replaced the infamous, smoke-belching 18-wheeled "camellos" of the Soviet era.

Ideological challenge
But Hu's visit poses something of an ideological challenge, since some Cubans speculated that Raul Castro might follow a Chinese model of reform after becoming president in February. China transformed its economy three decades ago by embracing market reforms even as its Communist Party maintained strict political control.

Cuba's communist government, however, still controls well over 90 percent of the economy and shows no sign of easing its grip on political or economic matters, even as Raul Castro has expanded foreign trade 39 percent since becoming president and signed a major offshore oil exploration deal with Brazil.

On the eve of Hu's visit, the Communist Party newspaper Granma praised China's reforms as having "sparked a gigantic investment process that brought quick results." But it also criticized "the evils of such an accelerated spiral: unequal distribution of the country's income, a marked difference between city and country, and the erosion of the environment."

Hu brought a large delegation of Chinese businessmen who have busily pursued deals despite the global financial crisis, continuing a trend that has seen China's trade with Latin America to jump from $10 billion in 2000 to $103 billion last year.

Visit is about business
Kirby Jones, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, said Hu's stop in Cuba is more about business than ideology. Jones, whose organization opposes the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, said Cuba is eagerly pursuing deals with other countries.

Noting that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits next week, he said Russia and China are "perfect examples of the rest of the world jumping in to fill the void left by the U.S."

Cuba says China also is investing in Cuba's well-respected biotechnology industry, and promises agricultural products, roofing and other home-building materials for a countryside that suffered more than $10 billion in damage from Gustav, Ike and Paloma this hurricane season.

How much the initial Chinese agreements are worth was not disclosed and it was unclear whether Tuesday's accords will require cash from Cuba or simply the extension of more Chinese credit. Cuba has already borrowed heavily from Beijing, loans it might have trouble repaying during its hurricane recovery.

NBC News reported that sources said Hu met Tuesday morning with Fidel Castro. When Hu last came to Cuba in 2004, when he also met with Fidel Castro. But the ailing 82-year-old has not been seen in public since July 2006.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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