China's Xi ends Latin American tour at Cuba barracks

Chinese President Xi Jinping ends his Latin American tour on Wednesday with a symbolic visit to the barracks from which Fidel Castro launched the first armed assault of his communist revolution in 1953. As part of his regional charm offensive, Xi extended a hand to his Cuban communist ally with the signing of 29 bilateral agreements ranging from a credit line to modernize the port of Santiago de Cuba to the development of golf courses on the Caribbean island. He also signed agreements in finance, agriculture, industry, health, biotechnology, oil, energy, environment, education, telecommunications, use of cyberspace and digital television. "China and Cuba, as fellow socialist countries, are closely linked by the same visions, ideals and goals," Xi said Tuesday after receiving the Jose Marti awarded from President Raul Castro. "China is full of confidence about the future development of relations between our country and Cuba, and that we will forever be good friends, comrades and brothers of Cuba," he added after private talks with Castro. Cuba, the only one-party communist state in the Americas, began opening up its economy in 2008, but has not grown as much as hoped and could desperately use more Chinese investment. Xi for his part has made a point during his tour of reaching out to countries often shunned by US and European investors, including Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela. The opening of the Cuban economy -- which some analysts see as an effort to follow in China's footsteps -- has created new opportunities to tighten bilateral ties, said Xi, who arrived Monday night in Havana. China is already the Caribbean island's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela and its primary source of credit, filling the gap left by the US embargo on Cuba and its long-time exclusion from institutions such as the World Bank. Coinciding with Xi's trip, about 50 Chinese entrepreneurs traveled to Havana to explore business opportunities, attracted by foreign investment incentives and the future Mariel free trade zone outside the capital. "We want Chinese businessmen to invest in Cuba and partner with Cuban companies," said Cuba's director general for foreign investment, Deborah Rivas. Chinese and Cuban officials inaugurated a factory Tuesday that will use Chinese technology to make "biosensors" to monitor diabetics' blood sugar. On Wednesday Xi is due to travel to Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, where he is expected to announce Chinese cooperation deals, perhaps in rebuilding housing destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. He will also visit the city's barracks from which retired revolutionary leader Fidel Castro launched 61 years ago the first armed action of a rebellion that brought him to power several years later. - Growing trade ties - The Chinese president paid a visit to Castro, 87, who led Cuba for five decades until failing health prompted him to hand power to his 83-year-old brother. The Chinese president gave Castro a bronze bust of the Cuban leader as a young man. The visit echoed one by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who kicked off his own Latin America tour in Cuba 10 days ago by meeting with Castro. The Chinese and Russian leaders' tours have underlined their growing ties with a region considered the backyard of the United States, and bookended a summit of the BRICS group of emerging powers where calls for less US and European dominance of international affairs featured prominently. The group -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- launched a new $50 billion development bank and $100 billion reserve fund designed to provide an alternative to the Western-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The Cuban president hailed the move as contributing to "a new international order." Chinese trade with Latin America has grown rapidly in recent years, reaching $261.6 billion in 2013. China is now the second-largest trading partner of many countries, including Argentina and Cuba, and has been Brazil's largest since 2009. That is a dramatic change from 1990, when China ranked just 17th on the list of Latin American export destinations.