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Cuba: China's western toehold

When Americans think of Havana, many immediately imagine classic, American-made cars. What they should picture are modern, Chinese-made buses.

The streets of Havana are filled with them: Blue, white and red buses operated by Transtur, a Cuban government company that ferries tourists between attractions. The vehicles are all built by the Yutong Group, an industrial conglomerate based in China’s Henan province. All are stamped on the back with the Yutong logo and a short sequence of Chinese characters.

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In the absence of American trade with Cuba, the Chinese have stepped into the void. China today is Cuba’s largest creditor and its second-largest trading partner after Venezuela. China sells more than $1.1 billion a year in goods to Cuba and buys more than $500 million a year, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Yutong itself has sold more than 5,000 buses to Cuba – for use by Transtur and four other state transport companies – earning roughly $370 million in the process. The company says its market share in Cuba is more than 90%.

Chinese-made products can be found across the island, from household appliances to industrial equipment. To the west of Havana, dump trucks and flat beds built by Sinotruk – a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of China National Heavy Duty Truck Group – rumble along the highway to the port of Mariel. To the east, there is a school for Chinese students in a town once used as a recovery resort for children sickened by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Cuban hotels carry several Chinese television networks.

The ties between the two countries are likely to become tighter. Cuba is actively seeking more Chinese investment, with a new set of foreign-investment laws that include a Chinese-style special development zone around the port of Mariel. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Cuba last year, meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro and touring the barracks that Fidel Castro attacked in the opening salvo of the Cuban Revolution.

“We are full of confidence over the future development of relations between our country and Cuba,” Xi said during the visit, according to a report by Bloomberg.