HAVANA TIMES — Few times does one witness – within the course of 50 years – a historical cycle like the one Cuba and Russia have just closed. Relations between the two countries will of course not be guided by the same parameters, but the fact of the matter is that Havana and Moscow are once again aware that they need one another.
Shortly after arriving in the island in 1990, I recall how relations between the two countries fell apart and everyone, friend or foe of the Cuban revolution, believed the break-up was so definitive that they could never again be mended.
At the time, the supermarket in my neighborhood began to sell boxes of citric products for export and many of my neighbors felt happy about this, not seeing that this transitory abundance stemmed from the end of a system of preferential trade and was the prelude to the most severe shortages Cuba had ever experienced.
The Russians told Cuba there would be no more subsidies, that, as of that moment, if they wanted trade with the country, they would have to pay in hard currency like the rest of the world. Fidel Castro replied that, in that case, they were no longer interested in the garbage their former socialist brothers were selling them.
Tensions grew even more when Moscow demanded that Cuba settle its 35 billion dollar debt to Russia and Cuba reminded the Kremlin that the debt was in rubles, not dollars. Cuba also demanded compensation for Russia’s failure to fulfill a number of contracts, such as the one for the construction of the Juragua nuclear power plant, which Moscow refused to complete.
Bilateral relations reached an all-time low in 2001, when Vladimir Putin ordered the dismantling of Lourdes, a military base located in the outskirts of Havana designed to spy on communications from the east coast of the United States.
Cuba – Russia Relations Restored
Less temperamental than his brother, Raul Castro worked to restore bilateral relations between the two countries from the moment he took power. He did so through Russia’s Armed Forces, an institution that has almost the same interests it had under Soviet rule.
Intergovernmental relations broadened, but there is now doubt General Castro had his closest contacts among Russia’s military. So close, in fact, that, during a trip to Asia, he made a long stopover in a small Russian airport to meet with personal friends of his in the military.
Raul Castro worked his ties with Moscow with the precision of a clockmaker and the discretion of a confessor, as evidenced by the fact he appointed his own son, Colonel Alejandro Castro, to discuss the most sensitive issues with the Russians: the military and security.
The West took care of the rest, as they did in the 60s. The difference is that, at the beginning of the Cuban revolution, they pushed Havana into the arms of the Soviet Union, and, today, they’ve done exactly the opposite: they forced Russia to re-establish relations with the island.
Cuba continues to be 90 miles away from the United States and the countries’ bilateral enmity continues. These two factors make Havana one of the most secure and reliable allies the Kremlin could hope for in the region. The rapprochement is a natural response to NATO, which closes in on Russia’s borders more and more.
What’s more, when it comes to trade, Cuba is the only country in Latin America in which Russia does not have to compete with Washington’s interests. The United States’ economic embargo, which Cuba has endured for over half a century, again paves the road for Moscow to step in.
Another important difference is that, in the 60s, Cuba was isolated. Today, by contrast, it is part of organizations seeking integration, maintains relations with all countries in the continent (except, of course, for the United States) and has close ties to some powerful nations, such as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.
Pragmatism has prevailed in Cuba-Russia relations. Havana has now rid itself of its largest debt, is guaranteeing significant Russian investments in sectors such as air transportation, energy and oil and has secured an alliance with all of the BRICS countries, an indispensible move for a nation that does not enjoy the sympathies of Western powers.
All the while, Russia secures a safe port in Latin America where it can dock its military and commercial “vessels.” It trades an unpayable, 3-billion dollar debt for investments at Cuba’s Mariel Port and receives authorization to prospect Cuban waters for oil.
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