This article introduces the Sino-Cuban relations in post cold-war era and Castro’s perception of China’s post-Mao reforms.
Fidel Castro and Beijing Duck
Yinghong Cheng, Delaware State University
It was in 1995, a typical cold and windy late-November day in Beijing. The famous Beijing Quanjude Duck Restaurant was filled with gastronomes from Cuba, the Caribbean island. Before wining and dining, the chef of the Restaurant presented a drawn and cleaned duck to Fidel Castro. Delighted, Castro pulled out his pen and put his Hancock on the duck. Then he was escorted into the preparing room and the kitchen to have a real sense how the Chinese delicacy was made. Shortly after the tour, when he returned to the dinning table, the roasted and brilliantly red fowl bearing his name was ready in the plate. With applauding and laughing from both Cubans and Chinese, Castro got his decades-old wishes: enjoying his favorite oriental dish prepared in the most authentic way.
Castro loves northern Chinese food, Beijing Duck in particular. During the first half of the 1960s, when the Sino-Cuban relations were at the peak, he frequented the Chinese embassy in Havana like a smell-feast. Most of these visits were unannounced to the public, and even without beforehand notice to the Chinese diplomats. At his request, the Chinese government dispatched two cooks (one from the Beijing Quanjude Duck Restaurant and the other from the Beijing’s Heilongjiang Restaurant) to Havana to serve him. Castro was not alone in this regard. Raul Castro and Che Guevara, among many others in the inner circle, were patrons to the Chinese embassy as well. Sometimes on their way home they made a turn, pulled over at the embassy and walked in. To accommodate this kind of intimacy between comrades, the Chinese cooks at the embassy had to prepare half-cooked dishes and freeze them for contingency, thus compromising the sophisticated processing of one of the finest cuisines in the world.
The conversations at the dinner table and in the post-dinner chats, which often lasted for hours or even into early next morning, however, were often charged with topics heavier than crispy ducks. On October 18th, 1964, for example, Castro suddenly appeared in the embassy in the late afternoon. He went through the front door and settled himself in the guest chamber even before the receptionist had time to find the ambassador who was upstairs and ready to go home. Castro was all smile and he told Wang Youping, the ambassador, that it was Sunday and he would like to have Chinese food as dinner. But his talk during and after the dinner revealed what he really wanted: Nikita Khrushchev stepped down three days before and Cuba wanted to mediate between Beijing and Moscow by exploiting this development. Castro and his revolution had been caught between the two communist giants ever since. With his “stomach” (material needs) in Moscow but “heart” (ideological affinity) in Beijing, as a famous metaphor illustrates, Castro had made some efforts to bring China and the USSR together. Perhaps worried about Moscow’s response, he never set foot on Beijing, regardless the messages of invitation sent to him over the dinner table at the embassy, but made pilgrimage to Kremlin twice in the first half of the 1960s. With Khrushchev’s disgrace, Castro thought it was the optimum moment for him to make another try, because he knew that the Chinese had blamed Khrushchev for the Soviet Union’s domestic revisionist and international reconciliatory policies.
After that Sunday-evening visit to the Chinese embassy, Castro launched a campaign. He convened a conference of Latin American communists, which resulted in a communique calling for unity among world communists and a joint delegation to Moscow and Beijing for the purpose. When that failed, he asked Che Guevara, the most pro-Chinese in his inner circle, together with two members of the Cuban party’s politburo who flew to Beijing from Havana, to suspend the latter’s visit in Africa and fly to Beijing in early February 1965 to persuade the Chinese. Given Guevara’ distaste of the Russians, one may well speculate that he carried the mission with the utmost reluctance.
Castro apparently overestimated his influence. The Chinese showed no interest in his initiative. At the meeting with the Latin American Communist delegation, Mao even chided the Cubans for their “fear” of “imperialism” and “atomic bomb” thus throwing themselves on Moscow. Pushed by the pressures from Moscow, the tension between Beijing and Havana escalated and openly erupted in early 1966. Among the issues that triggered the Sino-Cuban quarrel, food was the most critical and direct: Beijing reduced its rice exportation to Havana for 1966 and was thus accused by the latter of “joining America’s blockade against Cuba”. Tit for tat, China charged Cuba for partaking in the “anti-China chorus” directed by Moscow and Washington. After this exchange of words, the Chinese cooks at the embassy no longer had to prepare half-cooked dishes and the Chinese diplomats in Havana were able to get their hours in normalcy.
In the early 1990s, however, abandoned by Moscow, Castro suddenly resumed his habit of making unannounced visits to the Chinese embassy, enjoying Chinese food while pouring out his grievances against the Russians at the dinner table. When the Chinese asked if he would like to taste authentic Chinese dishes in Beijing, he said all Cuban passenger carriers were Russian made, and they were noisy and fuel inefficient. “If I fly to China, we have to stop somewhere in Russia’s far east to fill up fuel. That is the last thing I want to do.”
With all of these in the background, the Beijing Duck served to Castro in the Quanjude Duck Restaurant during his first visit to China must have tasted more delicate and crispy. But for Castro, the delicacy of the fine Chinese cosine constituted only one dimension of the food connection between China and Cuba. During that visit, in his first meeting with Jiang Zemin, then boss of the CCP and the Chinese state, Castro complained about China’s food importation. He said: “you have plenty to export in exchange for foreign currency, so you are able to import more foodstuff. Your demand is so big that when you buy, you raise food price on world market. But Cuba is short of foreign currency. We just can’t afford buying food at current market price, and that is why our children are starving.” According to Chen Jinhua, the Director of China’s Central Planning Committee and the official escort for the Cuban delegation, Fidel was rather emotional when he said the above.
The correlation between China’s food importation and Cuban children’s malnutrition apparently shocked the Chinese. Chen Jinhua prepared a special report to Castro. He told him that as far as the food issue was concerned, China was basically on its own. Yes China had imported grains and beans from countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, but that only made up about 1%-3% in China’s food consumption. Furthermore, they said, the imported food was not “purchased” with foreign currency on the international market, but as a result of exchange of commodities bilaterally arranged between China and these countries. Hearing this, Castro nodded his head indicating his understanding of the explanation but uttered no words. In the following days he impressed his Chinese hosts with his disbelief buttressed by his stubbornness. He once asked about China’s rising motor vehicle output, then said for a country with a population as big as China’s, it would be better to build more public transportation services instead of cars, because the more cars you drive the less land you leave for food production. In other words, if China had more cars, Cuba would have more hungry children. The most dramatic moment came in Xian. After visiting Qingshihuang’s tomb and on the way back to Xian, the Chinese brought Castro to visit a peasant’s house, which was apparently a guided tour. Castro’s questions focused on the details about land used and food produced by the family. After this stopover, Castro surprised his host by suddenly asking the motorcade to pull over and then walked into a roadside peasant family. He asked in detail the same questions to the unprepared family members, regardless the embarrassment of his hosts.
One and half years later, January 1997, Castro challenged Hu Jintao, who visited Cuba for the first time as then-heir to Jiang Zemin, with the same question. Qiu Yuanping, one of Hu’s assistants, had a vivid account:
The question “who is able to feed China?” is a heavy topic. Castro was quite meandering in this respect. He started with China’s recent flood, then turned to Argentina’s soybean and America’s wheat, and went back to China to highlight his concerns about China’s food consumption and productivity. He used his fingers to estimate world food production in the future, and told us the importance to the entire Third World of China’s self-reliance of food. At the dinner, he even asked a waiter to bring a bag of rice from kitchen and elaborated economic benefits of adopting advanced foreign technologies in updating food processing and livestock industries.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, the Sino-Cuban relations have been developed to replace the Moscow-Havana alliance for Castro’s survival. Castro has showered China with eulogies on numerous public and international occasions, but has frustrated his lieutenants—his brother and heir Raul Castro in particular—by blocking “learning from China” in terms of engaging in market and internationally oriented reforms in large scale. In addition to his doubt about the ideological orientation of China’s post-Mao reforms, he was and still is concerned about the cost of such reforms. For him, China’s highly visible changes in the cities have to a great extent sacrificed its agriculture, and in long run the world will suffer from the consequences.
To create the impressive appearance of “lacquered duck” and to make it crispy, Chinese cooks pump air under the fowl’s skin to separate it from the flesh before roasting. We never know whether this processing method seemed metaphorical to Castro in his perception of China’s social transformation: while the boasting skylines of China’s major cities and coastal ports have blurred the distinctions between the East and the West, inflated by all kinds of preferential policies like the air pumped under the duck’s skin, China’s countryside has remained worlds apart, shrunk and insipid in comparison. The delicacy and crisp of the duck, in this sense, may symbolize the charm and fragility of the country at once.