Cuba and Russia: Comrades Once Again?

But new warmth between old allies may not help Castro much

When Russian Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets came to Cuba last October to declare a rebuilding of ties between the two former ideological soul mates, he joked, "We still call each other comrade, not mister."

Now, four years after the former Soviet Union cut off billions of dollars in annual assistance to Cuba's Communist regime, the possibility of a Communist Party victory in Russia's June 16 presidential elections may have Cuba hoping for even closer camaraderie with its former first ally.

Yet despite some recent signs of a renewed alignment and closer economic relations between Russia and Cuba, Havana seems unlikely to benefit much even if a Communist is elected as Russia's president.

Both countries may increasingly try to play the prospect of improved ties against their relationship with the United States, experts say.

But what was always an unnatural relationship - for cultural differences and geographical distance - is unlikely to become much closer than it is now. That is largely because Russia doesn't have the resources to become a better financial friend than it already is, while Cuba has very little that Russia wants besides sugar.

"We're going to hear about [Russian-Cuban relations] as the elections draw closer and especially if there is a Communist victory, but it will be more hot air than substance," says Phillip Brenner, a professor of international relations at the American University in Washington and a Cuba expert.

Signs of warmer ties

Signs of renewed Russian friendliness toward Cuba are surfacing, especially with Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov speaking of Cuba in warm terms. He echoes the feelings among some sectors of the Russian military that Russia lost an important symbol of its global reach when it abandoned Cuba.

Last month, for example, Russia abstained from voting on a successful US-sponsored resolution before the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemning Cuba for human rights violations.

For the previous four years, Russia had voted in favor of the condemnation. Russia, along with Canada and the European Union, is also loudly criticizing a new US law designed to harden the US trade embargo on Cuba by targeting foreign firms trading with the island.

"It's reasonable to guess there might be more of what are already improved relations, but Russia is limited by real constraints," says Mr. Brenner, "and Cuba certainly doesn't have what Russian private enterprise demands, which is hard cash."

"The Cubans aren't getting all that much [out of the Russians]," adds a State Department official, "and a Communist winning is not likely to change that because the Cubans have very little to offer."

From a high of $8 billion in trade and assistance in 1989, Russian trade with Cuba fell last year to $300 million. Still, there is no denying that Cuba's reuniting with its former bankroller, even if on a much smaller scale than during the cold war, was part of the island country's improved economic scenario in 1995.

A new barter agreement on the exchange of Russian oil for Cuban sugar will help alleviate Cuba's chronic energy shortages, while an accord supplying Cuba's largely Russian-built industry with badly needed spare parts means more factories can fire up.

Cuba will continue receiving $200 million annually for the Lourdes electronic-listening station outside Havana, and the two countries say they are determined to find a third partner to join in completion of the mothballed Jurugua nuclear power plant project near Cienfuegos on the island's southern coast.

"We anticipate very favorable conditions for increasing Russia's involvement with us as an economic partner," says Pedro Garcia Roque, director of Russian affairs in Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations. "From the Russian point of view this is an opportunity not to lose their foothold in this hemisphere."

Many Cuba observers question just how valuable an economic "foothold" Cuba can be for the Russians in Latin America, however, given the complications of operating from Cuba as a result of the US embargo. And even Cuban officials acknowledge that their country's most realistic option lies in improved ties with a nearby and generally supportive Latin America.

"We can't deny the rather negative factor of the distance between our two countries," says Mr. Roque. "That's why Latin America really is the promising scenario for us."

Since 1991 Cuba's trade with Latin countries has more than doubled. And with Cuba's trade increasingly diversified - top trading partners are Canada, Mexico, and Spain - the country has no interest in returning to the days when four-fifths of Cuba's trade was with just the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the most important test of the renewed strength of the Cuban-Russian friendship will be the success or failure of plans to complete the partially constructed Jurugua plant.

Cuban President Fidel Castro's suspension of construction on the Russian-designed plant in 1992 was bitter acknowledgment of Cuba's lost favored status with Russia, but the project was resurrected in October.

At that point, Russia gave Cuba $30 million to safeguard the plant site and construction while the two countries seek a third partner to finance completion. Russia is committed to putting up $350 million of the estimated $700 million completion cost. As recently as March, Cuban officials were saying they expected the third partner, presumably a large foreign company involved in nuclear power, to sign on to the project and allow construction to resume in 1997.

But signaling the priority they give the project, Russian officials now say they may begin construction within a few months as a way to attract attention to the project.

On April 22, Victor Mikhailov, director of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, declared in Moscow that Russia wants to resume construction in June.

"They want to show this is a serious commitment on their part," says Jonathan Benjamin Alvarado, an expert in Latin American security issues at the University of Georgia. "Their hope is this will attract interest and get the ball rolling again."

But the Jurugua project is specifically targeted in the new US law strengthening the Cuba trade embargo, calling for a dollar-for-dollar reduction in US aid to any country participating in the project. The law could also affect private companies participating in construction that also have business in the US.

The US opposes the plant on safety considerations and as long as Cuba has not formally signed international nuclear proliferation accords. Some US observers fear another Chernobyl just off the Florida coast, although Cuban nuclear officials say the plant's technology is a copy not of Chernobyl but of a Russian-built plant in Finland that has an excellent safety and energy production record.

Still, the US law is likely to dampen foreign interest in the project at least until US determination to implement the complex law becomes clearer. Some US-Cuba experts note, for example, that the new law also mentions the Lourdes listening post and calls for the US to reduce aid to Russia by whatever amount Russia pays to keep the spy station on Cuban territory.

Listening post valued

But the law also allows the president to waive enforcement of these and other provisions when it is in the national interest, and some experts argue that the US military actually favors Russia's access to Lourdes because it allows Russia to verify US compliance with arms control accords - and in turn leaves them more apt to comply. "If Lourdes didn't exist, we'd almost want to give them one," Brenner says.

Similarly, Mr. Alvarado argues that with Russia and Cuba looking determined to finish the suspended nuclear project, the best interest of the US would be served by participating in safety inspections and construction review. Cuban officials are open to such an American role, he notes.

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