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Dec 15, 1997 | 06:00 GMT

4 mins read

Russia Revives Relationship with Cuba

Relations between Cuba and Russia are warming up. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, on a tour of Latin America, discussed the resumption of the traditional oil for sugar deal that had been in place under the Soviet regime but which had dropped to dangerously low levels— from the Cuban point of view—since the collapse of communism. The key discussions were not held in Havana but in Caracas. The Russians claimed that Venezuela is the key to Russian trade with Cuba. During the 1980s, Cuba shipped sugar to the Soviet Union. Venezuela shipped oil to Cuba to fulfill the Russian end of the bargain. The Soviets then filled Venezuelan contracts in Europe on matching basis. As a result, the Soviets were able to save on transportation costs, making a losing proposition bearable. According to Moscow TV1, the resumption of this trilateral trade was one of the reasons that Nemtsov was in Caracas. Russia is about to sign new agreements with Cuba and needs Venezuela's participation to make the deal viable.

In a parallel development, a Russian military delegation, led by Russian Chief of Staff Anatoliy Kvashnin, visited Havana at the same time Nemtsov was starting his sweep through the region. Kvashnin's mission was renewing Russia's lease on its sophisticated electronic site in the suburbs of Havana. Manned by Russian technicians, the facility provides the Russians with the ability to eavesdrop on both U.S. and Latin American telecommunications and military operations. Castro's price for continued use of the facility: unspecified military equipment and spare parts. Kvashnin's meetings took place at the highest levels, including meetings with Fidel and Raul Castro.

It is particularly interesting that, following these meetings, the Cuban media reported that Fidel Castro addressed the Cuban national assembly in extremely good spirits, predicted the imminent collapse of capitalism, and pointed to events in South Korea as an indicator that his policy of absolute resistance was the correct one. By all accounts, much of Fidel's old self-confidence was back. How much this had to do with the Asian meltdown, and how much with warming ties with Russia is obviously a matter of speculation. But our prediction that Castro will survive now seems clearly confirmed. We are watching the second act of this drama—renewing ties with Russia.

Drawing closer to Cuba is a logical step in Russia's international evolution. As relations with the U.S. deteriorate, Russia's interest in Cuba will be identical to the Soviets' interest. We find it particularly interesting that the Russians are using the Cuban card in Venezuela, attempting to justify the decline in Russo-Venezuelan trade relations as the result of a decline in Russo-Cuban relations. Clearly, Moscow is concerned about U.S. responses to improving Russo-Cuban relations and is trying to create an atmosphere in which closer Russian ties to Cuba benefit other nations in the region. Of course, we do not know if Nemtsov actually raised this issue in Caracas, or whether he made it a salient part of his trip. What we do know is the Russians domestically linked the Venezuelan meetings to Cuba, which is news in itself.

This is a minor affair of course. Some sugar-oil trade has gone on in the last few years. Russia has been operating in Cuba uninterruptedly at its listening post. Clearly, things are going to intensify in Russo-Cuban relations and the Russians are trying to do what they can diplomatically to limit U.S. response. Russia's attempt to entangle Venezuela in its warming relations with Cuba is not of particular importance. What is of importance is that Russia is clearly viewing Cuba as an important strategic asset once again and is clearly devoting some thought to how the warming process should be staged.

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