Chinese president ends regional tour in cradle of Cuban Revolution

HAVANA (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping ended an eight-day trip through Latin America on Wednesday with a visit to eastern Cuba, where both the island's independence struggle against Spain and Fidel Castro's revolution began.

Mr Xi arrived in Havana on Monday and presided over the signing of 29 trade, debt, credit and other agreements on Tuesday ensuring his country will remain Cuba's second largest trading partner after Venezuela, at US$1.4 billion last year.

The Chinese president also met with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, who travelled with him to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. China will continue to restructure debt, estimated at US$6 billion, import Cuban nickel, sugar and cigars, digitalise the television system, upgrade communications and cyber security and cooperate in health, education and science, according to some of the agreements which were made public without any details on Wednesday.

New credits included funding to build a multipurpose shipping terminal in Santiago and a donation to help Cuba's second largest city recover from Hurricane Sandy, which struck the area almost two years ago.

"China and Cuba being socialist countries, we are closely united by the same missions, ideals and struggles," Mr Xi said on Tuesday upon receiving the Jose Marti Medal, Cuba's highest honour.

Other deals included cooperation in pharmaceutical research and development and an agreement between state-owned Cubapetroleo and state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation to increase flows from existing wells and drill at an onshore block just east of Havana.

Mr Raul Castro began instituting market-oriented reforms after taking over from ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2006, much as China did in the 1980s. But growth has nevertheless slowed and is expected to come in at around 1 percent this year, compared with 3 percent in 2013.

This year, Cuba established its first Chinese-style special development zone and passed a more attractive foreign investment law with a particular eye to friendly nations such as Russia, China and Brazil. It includes a clause aimed at China that for the first time would allow investors to bring in their nationals for construction.

Little of the US $80 billion China has invested in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years has been in Cuba, where just two joint ventures operate.

No new ventures were announced during Mr Xi's trip. However, a letter of intent was signed between Beijing Enterprise Group Real Estate Co Ltd and state-owned CUBAGOLF S.A. to build a golf course and condominiums on a plot between the Cuban capital and the famed Varadero tourism resort.

Mr Xi was in Brazil last week for a summit of the BRICS nations, which also includes Russia, India and South Africa. He then travelled to Argentina and Venezuela, signing a raft of multi-billion dollar credit and investment agreements.

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