Russia and Cuba Take Steps to Revive a Bond - January, 2009

Russia and Cuba Take Steps to Revive a Bond

Moscow grants $US 20 million to Havana:

January, 2009

The presidents of Russia and Cuba signed a strategic partnership and several other documents on Friday aimed at rekindling an alliance that collapsed after the cold war. They pledged to expand cooperation in agriculture, manufacturing, science and tourism, but studiously avoided a public discussion of military ties. It had been nearly a quarter century since a Cuban leader had set foot on Russian soil. President Raúl Castro’s visit to Moscow this week had little of the pomp and propaganda of the cold war days, when he and his brother Fidel were greeted with parades in Red Square and Soviet leaders affectionately referred to Cuba as the “island of freedom.” But almost two decades after a crumbling Soviet Union hastily withdrew financial and ideological backing from Cuba, Russia is seeking to expand economic ties with the island and possibly forge stronger military relations in an echo, as yet still faint, of an alliance that lasted some 30 years.

It is part of a larger Russian push into Latin America to secure new markets, and also to swipe at the United States for what Moscow considers Washington’s meddling in Russia’s historic sphere of influence, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics. “Your visit opens a new page in the history of Russian-Cuban relations,” President Dmitri A. Medvedev said at a meeting with Mr. Castro at the Kremlin on Friday. Russian officials promised the delivery of 25,000 tons of grain and a $20 million loan for the development of Cuba’s construction, energy and agriculture sectors. “Without a doubt,” Mr. Castro said at the meeting, “this is a historical moment, an important milestone in the relations between Russia and Cuba. We have taken a huge step to strengthen our relationship.”

High-ranking Russian officials have visited Cuba several times in the past year, and Mr. Medvedev made a quick trip there in November as part of a Latin American tour. Trade between the countries increased 26 percent in 2008, totaling about $239 million, the Kremlin said. “In the last few years, relations with the United States have become strained, with the United States supporting Ukraine and Georgia in their anti-Russian policies,” said Igor S. Fesunenko, a Russian journalist and longtime commentator on Latin American affairs. “And we’re thinking, ‘Oh, how unfortunate that we abandoned Cuba sitting there under America’s nose.’ ” Like Venezuela, which last fall hosted two Russian strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, Cuba has also had Russian military visitors recently. In December, a contingent of Russia’s North Sea Fleet docked in Havana after conducting exercises with Venezuela’s navy. Neither Mr. Medvedev nor Mr. Castro spoke publicly about possible military cooperation, perhaps out of a desire to avoid antagonizing the new administration of President Obama, analysts said.

Since Mr. Obama’s election in November, Russia and Cuba appear to have called a unilateral truce with Washington, and the volume of anti-American sentiment, which reached a deafening pitch in Russia in recent years, has been markedly toned down. “Regardless of whether the policies of Washington will soften or remain significantly hard-line, relations between Cuba and Russia will develop,” said Vladimir M. Davydov, director of the Latin American Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Nevertheless, the effects of the global economic crisis have forced Russia to scale back its plans in Latin America, Mr. Davydov and other analysts said. Cuba has also reacted cautiously to Russia’s overtures because of lingering animosities that emerged when Moscow all but abandoned the country in the 1990s, leaving it impoverished and isolated. Yet, while Mr. Castro’s visit clearly does not carry the ideological weight evident at the height of Russia’s cold war relationship with Cuba, vestiges of those bygone days remain.

In honor of Mr. Castro’s visit, federal television channels showed documentaries about Cuba and the Castro brothers. In Moscow, the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, what Russians call World War II, opened an exhibition covering the history of the Cuban revolution. And Mr. Medvedev congratulated the Cuban people on the revolution’s 50th anniversary. At an informal gathering at Mr. Medvedev’s country home on Thursday, Mr. Castro waxed nostalgic, recounting the time he and Soviet comrades sat around a campfire in the forest eating salo, the cured pig fat that is a staple chaser of Russian vodka. “I’ve desired this for 25 years,” he said through a Russian translator. “I don’t know if I’ll get to eat any salo with black bread, but I’m here.” A few hours later, Mr. Medvedev invited Mr. Castro to join him by a campfire in the forest around the presidential residence, and the two dined on the Russian delicacy.


Cuba – Old New Ally?

Just two months after Dmitry Medvedev’s Latin American tour, Cuban President Raul Castro is in Russia for his eight-day visit. Trade, energy and military cooperation are on the agenda. The Soviet Union was Cuba's biggest ally after the communist revolution in the country fifty years ago. Raul Castro’s arrival on a Russian-made Ilyushin-96 airliner, the same type as used by Russia's leaders, shows how close the two countries were in the past. Thousands of Cubans were educated in the USSR and Havana is still the only Latin-American city with direct flights by Russian airlines. The relations between Russia and Cuba crumbled just as the Soviet Union seized to exist but now are rapidly reviving.

Moscow is keen to renew its influence in the region, which once included a big military presence. Last November President Dmitry Medvedev visited Cuba, along with a contingent from the Russian Navy. “I think it would have been fair for Russia to restore military links with Cuba,” said Vladimir Borodayev, a history professor at the Moscow State University. “Not on the same scale as during the Soviet times, but maybe, with the use of the Lurdez base which we abandoned there.” Back in Moscow it doesn't take long to find another, more peaceful connection between the two nations - the love of Cuban cigars. Since the economic blockade by the United States that imposed severe hardships on Cuba, the Soviet Union became a major importer of Cuban tobacco. “People in the Caribbean used to only smoke cigars, which is the most pleasant way of smoking,” said Vilya Alvera, a cigar distributor in Russia. “Cigars became a symbol of Cuba, just like a clock is a symbol of Switzerland.”

Visitors of a Cuban bar in Moscow have their own view on what the relations between the countries should be like. ”It's important to preserve the relations we used to have during the Soviet times,” said one client, “Especially when it comes to relations between people and not just economic and trade issues.” With the shared past, the countries can now give each other things they did not have before. Cuba is gradually becoming a popular tourist destination for Russians eager to escape their own motherland’s gloomy winters. Russia, in turn, can offer Cuba its vast export market.


Raul Castro Completes Visit to Russia

Cuban leader Raul Castro has completed his official week-long visit to Russia, his first trip to the former Socialist ally since 1985. During his visit Castro and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a memorandum on "strategic" cooperation and reached an agreement to grant the Caribbean state a $20 million loan tentatively to buy Russian-made construction, electricity-generating and agricultural equipment. Russia also promised substantial food aid to alleviate an acute food problem on the island badly affected by two tropical hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, in September 2008. Russia's foreign trade bank Vnesheconombank (VEB) said it had opened credit lines totaling $44.5 million to fund the purchases of Tu-204CE civilian cargo aircraft and equipment by Cuba. Over 30 documents were signed as part of Castro's Russian visit, including memos on cooperation in trade, education, sport and tourism. Opening the talks on Friday, Medvedev said the two countries should increase their trade turnover, which currently stands at a "meager" $239 million. He said Castro's visit would "open up a new page in the history of Russian-Cuban relations." And the Cuban leader called their talks "historic" and a "milestone event" in bilateral ties. Relations between Russia and Cuba stalled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia faced by financial difficulties halted huge Soviet-era subsidies and trade. In recent years, Russia has moved to revive ties with Cuba, as well as other Latin American states. Medvedev visited Havana in November, and a Russian anti-submarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Cuba in December. Last Thursday, the two leaders enjoyed a nostalgia-tinted informal meeting at the presidential Soviet-era country residence at Zavidovo.


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