Like lovers who quarrel and then kiss and make up, Cuba and Russia are falling into each other’s embrace again, bringing back memories of their more than 30 years as the warmest of Cold War allies.
The renewed love affair was in full display when Russian President Vladimir Putin met with both Fidel and Raúl Castro and signed a dozen agreements during a visit to Havana that launched his six-day swing through Latin America.
“This is not surprising. Cuba and Russia were allies for many years and remain the most natural of allies, much more so than China,” said Alcibiades Hidalgo, a Miami journalist who served as chief of staff for Raúl Castro, Cuba’s current ruler.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika marked the breaking point in the Cold War alliance, when the communist empire collapsed and Moscow cut subsidies to Havana estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion a year. Cuba plunged into recession and an angry Fidel Castro denounced Gorbachev as a traitor to socialism.
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Putin, then in his first term as president of Russia, made things worse in 2000 when he visited Havana to press Cuba to repay its $32 billion Soviet-era debt and announce that he would close the Lourdes electronic eavesdropping base near Havana. Fidel Castro refused to pay. Lourdes was slowly shuttered in 2001 and 2002.
Bilateral relations began warming after Raúl Castro, described by Hidalgo as an admirer of all things Russian, succeeded brother in 2006 and visited Russia in 2009 and again in 2012.
But the rekindled embrace blossomed during Putin’s visit this month to the lone communist-ruled nation in the Western Hemisphere, when he signed a dozen agreements that fell neatly in line with Cuba’s interest in new credits, trade and investments.
Russia wrote off all but $3.2 billion of the debt and announced a $1.6 billion credit for construction of four power plants. The oil companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft promised to resume the exploration for crude in the deep waters off Cuba’s northwestern coast. There were even reports — and denials — that Russia also had agreed to reopen the Lourdes base and resume eavesdropping on U.S. communications.
“We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade,” Putin declared in Havana, referring to the U.S. embargo. Raúl Castro replied that the debt write-off showed “the palpable generosity of the Russian people toward Cuba” and added that the Castro revolution would not have survived without Soviet aid.
Beyond the economic and political factors, however, there are cultural and historical affinities that the two nations nourished between 1960, when they established diplomatic relations, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Many if not most of Cuba’s top generals and senior government officials studied in the Soviet bloc. The island’s armed forces and Communist Party copied the Soviet model, and Cuban distilleries make vodka from sugar cane.
Some Cubans carry Russian names like Yelena or Dmitri, some married Russians and many remember a few of the Russian words and songs they learned in school and the Russian cartoons they watched on TV as children.
Havana’s Tavarich Restaurant, opened by two Russian brothers in 2013, caters to Russians living in Cuba — 794, according to the 2012 census — and “Cubans nostalgic for the Soviet era,” its manager told a visiting journalist last year.
Fidel Castro remained loyal to Moscow even as virtually every other national leader condemned the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And just last week he endorsed Moscow’s claim that the Ukrainian government shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
In contrast, Havana was never as close to Beijing, Hidalgo noted, even though its combination of a relatively free economy and tight political controls has been held up repeatedly as a model for the island nation.
Cuba took Moscow’s side in the Sino-Soviet dispute that split the communist world from 1960 to 1989. Chinese government trade credits to Cuba have been moderate, and private investors have pulled out several big-ticket investment projects in recent years.
“The Chinese never opened the taps [on subsidies] like the Soviet Union,” said Hidalgo.
On the Moscow side of the love affair there’s a cultural component as well, with many Russians wistfully remembering the days when Fidel Castro was a youthful and exciting ally in the tropics and proof that their own 1917 revolution remained attractive to others.
But trade between the two nations is moderate at best, reaching a mere $272 million in 2012 and making Russia just Cuba’s 10th largest commercial partner. Cuba, mired in economic stagnation, cannot afford to increase its imports without credits.
Militarily, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has repeatedly said he plans refueling bases in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Yet most experts believe that while Russian warships and long-range bombers can occasionally “fly the flag” in the region, Moscow is too weak militarily to project real power.
Politically, however, the warming Cuba-Russia alliance appears to be a Putin signal of defiance in the face of opposition by the Obama Administration, European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to his seizure of Crimea and support for pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Andy Gomez, a retired Cuba specialist at the University of Miami and now senior policy adviser for the Washington law firm Poblete Tamargo said Putin’s is plainly thumbing his nose at Washington with his Cuba rapprochement.
“Putin believes that U.S. foreign policy is now at probably its weakest point in 10 to 15 years,” Gomez said. “He has realized that he can get away with anything, that he can tell the Americans ‘We’re back in the region, and what are you going to do about it?’ ”
Carl Meacham, head of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Putin’s visit to Cuba more broadly signaled “that if the United States and NATO pushes in on Ukraine, Russia can push in on Cuba.”