Though Mr. Castro has for a long time resisted Chinese methods and been leery of Chinese entanglements, age and necessity appear to have produced an acquiescence of sorts. Aid from China has increased dramatically in recent years. There is hardly a month when high level officials from the People's Liberation Army of China are not visiting their counterparts in Cuba. Material aid has also been arriving from China, now better able to provide Cuba with the goods it needs. None of these visits have been secret. None of this aid has been hidden. All of these events have been well publicized by the Communist Party organs of both Cuba and China. As recently as this past May, Mr. Castro acknowledged the critical aid that had been flowing from China. See Fidel Castro Ruz, Discurso pronunciado por el Presidente de la República de Cuba, Fidel Castro Ruz, en la entrega de 101 vehículos a la Unión Eléctrica, efectuado en la Unión Eléctrica Nacional, el 5 de mayo de 2006.
And China has been increasingly willing to protect what it considers its spheres of influence, as well as its client states--from North Korea to the Sudan. China has been projecting its power in ways deliberately orchestrated to catch the attention of the Western media. The recent trip of the Chinese President through Africa was a case in point. For the Chinese, for whom symbolism is important, these emblematic markers were meant as a declaration (or warning) of sorts to the West that China means to be taken seriously on the world stage. Cuba provides a dramatic and relatively low cost way of driving this point home to the United States in a way that might bring it some substantial benefit.
Why China, and why Cuba? The Chinese have something Cuba desperately needs--a protector with the strength, will and material goods to keep the government and its system protected against the interests of the United States. The embargo imposed by the Americans have served the Cuban state well. It has been insulated from the turbulence of the last fifty years and may now be in a position, under the careful tutlege of a Marxist Leninist state that has made the transition from isolation to engagement with world economic markets, to come out of its own isolation without jeopardizing the fundamental norms of its political system. Cuba has something the Chinese want as well--a client state ninety miles from the borders of the United States itself. Cuba provides the Chinese with a base form which it can project power along the borders of the United States. For the Chinese this may be tit for tat. The United States has long used South Korea, Thailand, and especially Taiwan for thos every purposes. The substance and symbolism of a Chinese "mandate" in Cuba may be too tempting to resist.
As usual, the United States, as well as the diaspora Cubans, have paid little attention to this great change in the methods and approach of the Cuban revolutionary government. They have failed to assign much significance to the actions of the Chinese state in Cuba. They have let this go to their detriment. Only now, when it appears that Fidel Castro's health may appear to be failing, has the American (and Cuban-American elites) woken up top a new reality in Cuba. An early (though likely too late) sign of this new consciousness comes from a speech recently made by a Cuban-American Administration official, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, at (of all places) the Cato Institute. In addition to the usual statements one would expect in a speech of this type to this audience, Secretary Gutierrez included an interesting statement, meant, I believe, for an audience in Beijing and La Habana, rather than in Washington, D.C. He seemed to warn (no one in particular) that "we pledge to discourage third parties from obstructing the will of the Cuban people."
While the Administration has sometimes mentioned third party obstruction, my sense is that, as planning for transitions start kicking into high gear, the Administration has finally come to terms with the reality that the United States may not be the only one planning for a transition in Cuba. The United States has never been afraid of any interference from the usual other suspects--Venezuela, Mexico, Russia. These states are better understood as competitors in exploitation than substitute patrons. But China has become another matter.
Why the potential credibility of a Chinese threat to U.S. plans for Cuba? Cuba provides China with a benefit that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba represents a territory that the United States has long viewed as connected in some way to the United States. The Cuban Diaspora in the United States in a state (Florida) critical to any closely divided presidential election, views the return of Cuba to American oversight as fundamental to its political agenda. None of this is particularly relevant to the Chinese except for a rough parallelism that has escaped most observers--the parallelism with China's connection to Taiwan. The Americans control and protect Taiwan. The Chinese want it. Cuba is looking for a protector other than the United States. It has been China's for the buying. A Chinese influenced (and defended) Cuba might be enough of a temptation for the American Administration (because of the perceived needs of its own internal politics and the dynamics of elections) to be willing to cut a deal. In exchange for Taiwan, the Chinese might be induced to abandon Cuba to the Americans. A brilliant strategy, really. China, through Cuba, acquires an enormous leverage it might not otherwise ever have with respect to inducing the Americans to abandon or at least reduce their support of an independent (or quasi independent) Taiwan. Acquiring a privileged position in Cuba for the purpose of trading that position for a greater control of Taiwan is certainly high on China's radar.
Much about this potential strategy depends on luck and planning. Fidel Castro must live long enough to provide adequate time for the relationship with China to mature in a way credible and unavoidable to Washington,. Raul Castro and the FAR must be successful in changing bureaucratic habits that are a generation old. The changes in the China Cuba relationship, and Cuban economic structures must be accepted by critical third players (and particularly the E.U. through Spain, and Latin America through Brazil and Mexico). The greater the investment of these third countries in the new Cuba, the more difficult it will be for the United States to intervene. Indeed, American strategy relies critically on an absence of substantial investment by its global allies. But all of this is now in the works, as the E.U. increases its presence in Cuba and Latin America seeks to assert its authority there to prevent an American sponsored putsch.
Thus the United States has again boxed itself into a set of unpalatable choices through bad planning. Cuba was available to the United States for the asking. A long drawn out process of lifting the blockage, combined with indirect aid and a deal on Cuban diaspora claims (to be settled with U.S. grants, for example), would have made it harder for Raul Castro and the FAR to convince Fidel to abandon his Stalinism in favor of the free enterprise Maoism of China. But a variety of factors made that kind of thinking incomprehensible in Washington. Too bad. The Administration will now face a series of increasingly bad choices as Fidel Castro comes closer to joining the pantheon of deceased leaders of Cuba. And a grudging congratulations to Chinese leaders for a well thought through and executed strategy on Taiwan/Cuba. We should hire some of their planners. They might come cheap.