Page last updated at 21:54 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Cuba's special ties with China

As China's President Hu Jintao heads to Cuba as part of a Latin American tour, the BBC's Emilio San Pedro looks at the history of ties between the two countries.

Hu Jintao in Costa Rica before heading to Cuba
Hu Jintao's Latin American trip included Costa Rica

Cuba's ties with China began to expand in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union as the island's communist government found itself submerged in the deepest of economic crises.

Soviet subsidies had dried up. The US embargo was in full force and, very much like today, those in the US who wanted to see the collapse of Fidel Castro's communist revolution saw it as the beginning of the end.

While several European countries and Canada provided Cuba with the financial backing to get through that difficult time - known in Cuba officially as the periodo especial - the "special period" - it was China that provided the moral and political backbone of sorts.

Cuba was able to look to China for basic support, such as the tens of thousands of Chinese-made bicycles that replaced cars on most of the island as a key form of transport. But China served an even greater purpose.

It stood as living proof that there could be room for communism - albeit in a watered-down form - in a post-Soviet world.

Fidel Castro, a communist ideologue and hardliner, viewed China's economic transformation with great concern.

But his more pragmatic younger brother Raul saw things differently.

He saw China and its ability to juggle communist ideals with a robust approach to capitalism that has spawned such an impressive level of economic growth in China as a potential model for Cuba to follow.

Fast-forward to the present and Chinese products from buses to locomotives to lightbulbs are helping to keep the financially strapped communist government in Cuba going.

As for China, a modern-day economic powerhouse in a world of financial uncertainty, it sees Cuba with its need for investment and political support as an important ally in its long-range plans to strengthen and expand its ties with the rest of Latin America.

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