Hanoi loses drinking pal as Castro moves on

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am

Mix Cuban rum with fresh Vietnamese mint, limes and sugar and you have the perfect Mojito cocktail - at least if you are serving it to drinkers of a revolutionary leaning.

More than one Mojito will be mixed in Hanoi this weekend as Vietnamese cadres toast their old friend Fidel Castro, who this week finally stepped down as leader of Cuba.

For some it will be bitter-sweet. The Cuban-Vietnamese relationship has long been one of the strangest in the region - but also one of the most enduring.

A steadily modernising Vietnam may be broadening and deepening its diplomacy but its leaders refuse to ignore old mates. And none are older than Fidel, who ruled his Caribbean island nation with an iron fist for 49 years until this week.

Among the intriguing fraternity of communist nations, it is hard to find a closer bond than that shared by Havana and Hanoi - both relatively small tropical nations that are fiercely independent. Both, of course, shared an enmity with the United States.

For decades both struggled under a crippling US economic embargo - a restriction that remains on Cuba.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung spoke of this shared history in highly rare terms this week. 'Fidel is a loyal friend, an impeccable companion,' Mr Dung said. 'For the people here in Vietnam, Fidel Castro will always remain a great friend, a great comrade and a dearest brother who has been making efforts to develop the traditional friendship between the two countries.'

Their links during the Vietnam war were unmatched. Cuban planners, engineers and architects helped build roads, flats, hospitals and hostels - some still standing. Thousands of Vietnamese cadres trained in Havana, with broadcasters pumping propaganda into America to fuel anti-war protests.

There was a darker edge, too. American prisoners of war in the notorious 'Hanoi Hilton' came to fear Cuban torturers - a subject recently revived by US presidential candidate and former prisoner of war John McCain to swift denials from Dr Castro. In the 1980s, the relationship supported rebels in central America. Salvadoreans lived in Hanoi to learn tunnel warfare.

Dr Castro has staged several triumphant visits to Vietnam over the years, including one in the early 1970s when he marched into communist-captured areas of the then American-backed South Vietnam in a propaganda coup. One of the most recent state visitors to his bedside in Havana was Nong Duc Manh, current head of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The lingering warmth is all the more remarkable considering clearly divergent paths. While Cuba's reform doors have barely creaked open, Vietnam is steaming along after two decades of at times stuttering economic and social reform - an effort boosted by an emerging friendship with the US. Vietnam's economy is one of the fastest-growing in the region and it is attracting increasing amounts of foreign investment as infrastructure improves and membership in the World Trade Organisation bears fruit.

After years of wartime aid from Cuba, it is Vietnam that is helping its old patron. Last year Vietnam - the world's second largest rice exporter - shipped 3,000 tonnes of free rice to Cuba. Hanoi continues to lobby and protest against what its leaders describe as an 'unjust and imperialist' US embargo.

As Dr Castro steps aside - an apparent bid to manage transition - it is not clear whether Cuba's new leadership will learn from the Hanoi model. One factor may prove compelling for Cuba's ageing revolutionaries - partial openness, reform and growth has, for the moment at least, appeared to secure the stability of one-party rule.

Even the most hardened old cadre will drink to that.