As US turns its back on Cuba, Russia steps in

Russia has renewed ties with its Cold War ally in recent months. Trade between the countries expected to hit $500 million this year.

Ismael Francisco/AP
Leandro Cueto poses for a portrait with his car, a Russian 1986 Lada bought before the USSR abandoned the island, at his home in Havana, Cuba, Oct. 6, 2019. Russian exports make up most of the new trade wave, and include new-model Lada automobiles and Kamaz trucks.

Over the last year, Russia has sent Cuba 1,000 minibuses, 50 locomotives, tens of thousands of tourists, and a promise to upgrade the island's power grid with a multi-million dollar improvement plan.

Russian-Cuban trade has more than doubled since 2013, to an expected $500 million this year, mostly in Russian exports to Cuba. And a string of high-ranking Russian officials have visited their former ally in the Caribbean, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. On Tuesday, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel lands in Moscow for meetings with officials including President Vladimir Putin, with the expectation that they will move forward on deals for more trade and cooperation.

Russian-Cuban ties are far from the Cold War era of near-total Cuban dependence on the Soviet bloc, which saw this island as a forward operating base in the Americas then largely abandoned it in the 1990s. But observers of Cuban and Russian foreign policy say there is a significant warming between the former partners prompted in part by the Trump administration's reversal of President Barack Obama's opening to Cuba. Cuba and Russia are also heavily supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom the United States has been trying to overthrow.

"We did make huge mistakes in the 1990s while turning our backs on Cuba. That time is definitely over, and I'm absolutely sure that our relations deserve better attention from Russia," said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament. "They deserve more investments from Russia both in terms of finances and equipment of course, but also human resources. And definitely we should assist, we should help, Cuba; we should support Cuba as long as it's discriminated against, as long as it's sanctioned, as long as it's blockaded by the United States."

Neither country provides many details about their improving relations, but Russian products being exported to Cuba include new-model Lada automobiles and Kamaz trucks. There's a new Cuban-Russian joint venture to produce constructions materials, and when Medvedev visited Cuba this month, he inaugurated a petroleum products plant and signed deals to repair three Soviet-era power plants.

As tourism from the U.S. slackens, Russian visits rose 30% in 2018, to 137,000.

"Russia is trying to preserve the zone of influence it had during the era of the Soviet Union, looking for partners in Latin America and letting Washington know that it's still a great power," said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born assistant professor of international relations and politics at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. "Cuba's signing up for projects that can benefit it, and are already showing results on the island."

Russia is making no secret of its desire to play reliable partner to an island facing hostility from the U.S., including sanctions on ships bringing oil from Venezuela.

"It's obvious, the U.S. desire to create a toxic atmosphere around cooperation with Cuba, to frighten investors and block the flow of energy," Mr. Medvedev said during his trip to Havana. "Cuba can always count on Russia's support."

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Cuba was filled with Soviet products and citizens, who worked alongside Cubans in chemical plants, mines, and army bases. Moscow sent billions in aid before the fall of the Soviet Union caused a disastrous 30% drop in gross domestic product.

Cuba emerged with $35 billion in debt to the Soviet Union, 90% of which Russia forgave in 2014, an event that Cuban-Russian anthropologist Dmitri Prieto Samsónov called the start of the modern era of relations between the two countries.

"Russia started to think more about its business and government interests and a new relationship with Cuba emerged on the foundation of the old brotherly relations," Mr. Prieto said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP's Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

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