CUBA

Raul Castro’s long trip to China raises questions about a secret stopover

 

A trip that takes one day on commercial jetliners took more than two, raising questions about a secret stopover

jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro’s peculiarly long flight to China — at least two days, compared to commercial flights that take about one day — has unleashed speculation about a secret stop en route.

Chinese and Cuban officials signed eight agreements after a meeting Thursday between Castro and Chinese President Hu Jintao, including two memoranda that call for donations and interest-free Beijing loans to Havana.

But neither side commented on why the Cuban visitor took so long to arrive in China or made any mention of any stopovers on his way from Havana to Beijing.

The newspaper Granma, official voice of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba, reported Monday that Castro took off from Havana Sunday for a state visit to China and Vietnam, but did not give the exact time of his departure.

China’s news media reported that he landed in Beijing on Wednesday, indicating that he spent at least two days en route. U.S. commercial flights from Miami to Beijing, with one stopover, take a little more than 24 hours.

“Where was he,” Havana dissident Martha Beatriz Roque asked in a column. If he did make a stopover somewhere en route, she added, it must have been, like so many other things in Cuba, “a state secret.”

Senior Cuban government officials usually try to keep their activities under tight wraps. Former ruler Fidel Castro, for instance, has never revealed the exact nature of the medical emergency that forced him to surrender power to brother Raúl in 2006.

Neither the Cuban, Chinese nor Vietnamese news media, all largely state controlled, have published precise dates for Castro’s swing through the two countries — his first visit to them as head of the island’s government.

Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper reported in 2007 that Castro had just made a private visit to the Argentario golf resort in Tuscany, apparently as part of a visit to the Sicilian family of his daughter Mariela’s husband, Paulo Titolo.

“Almost every year, Raul arrives incognito in Italy to spend several days with his Italian relatives and three grandchildren, and later departs. The trips are private, cloaked in secrecy and seldom communicated to the authorities,” the newspaper added.

The report detailed his one-hour visit to the Argentario resort, “looking impeccable in a civilian tropical suit” and accompanied by four Cuban bodyguards and two Italian pilots of his helicopter.

“This is a charming place,” Castro was quoted as telling the resort’s owners after his chopper landed on the 11th hole. “You have done wonders. This is astounding. The greens have been designed in an extraordinary manner.”

The report did not cite any resort official flatly confirming that Castro had visited Argentario, but quoted one club spokesman as saying, “It’s a visit that any truly passionate golfer would make” because the resort “is considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful courses.”

Cuban and Chinese officials meanwhile signed eight accords, according to news media reports from Beijing, after Castro and Hu met Thursday in the Grand Palace of the People, a 1.85 million square foot building where the country’s legislature meets.

Two accords for economic and technical cooperation call for Chinese donations and interest-free loans to Havana and a third covered a Chinese Development Bank loan to improve sanitary installations on the island, according to the reports. They provided no further details.

Another agreement covers cooperation in customs matters that will take effect next year and last until 2015, according to the reports, and yet another covers agricultural cooperation.

China is Cuba’s second- or third-largest trade partner, after Venezuela and neck-and-neck with Canada, with bilateral trade totaling $1.8 billion in 2010. Beijing’s interests in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean have been growing in recent years.

Castro was quoted as saying that his government wants to increase cooperation with China at all levels and that for Cuba “it is a source of pride to maintain relations with all the institutions of the Chinese People’s Republic and its people.”

Hu, who has visited Cuba three times since 1997, declared that the historically friendly Cuba-China relations “developed greatly” since Castro succeeded Fidel and that he was certain the Castro visit “will elevate our cooperation to even higher levels.”

Castro’s economic reforms are often compared to those in China and Vietnam, where the ruling Communist parties have moved toward a market economy but retained tight political control.

The Cuban ruler is scheduled to meet Friday with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as well as the two younger officials scheduled to replace Hu and Wen next year, Vice President Xi Jinping and Deputy Prime Minister Li Kequiang.

Castro visited China twice when he was defense minister, in 1997 and 2005.

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