Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 235

President Vladimir Putin wound up several days of talks in Cuba this weekend which proved in general to be longer on rhetoric than substance. The high-profile visit to the Caribbean island–the first by a Russian leader since 1989–had been anticipated by many as a major move by Moscow to rebuild ties with a former ally. In hinterglance, however, the trip appears to have been something less than that. Putin did use the occasion to attack the United States, and he and Cuban leader Fidel Castro proclaimed their common positions on several key international issues. But Putin’s at times aggressive anti-American rhetoric was balanced by congratulations sent to the incoming presidential administration of George W. Bush and, later in his trip, by assurances that Cuban-Russian friendship is not directed at Washington. With regard to bilateral ties between Moscow and Havana, the result was much the same. The two leaders called for a restoration of close ties between their countries and signed several agreements. But there were no deals of any real significance and Putin and Castro failed to resolve differences over what is the major sticking point in their bilateral relations: Cuba’s large Soviet-era debt to Moscow.

That Putin’s visit to Havana might turn into a Russian-Cuban anti-U.S. love fest was suggested by the rhetoric heard from both sides on December 14, Putin’s first full day there. He described Cuba as one of the last roadblocks to complete U.S. hegemony, and alleged that Washington is “attempting to place a monopoly over international affairs.” He also predicted that U.S. dominance would ultimately wane, warning that “similar attempts at world domination were made numerous times throughout the course of history,” and all had failed. Castro followed with a condemnation of world trade bodies, calling them the “the kiss of death.” He argued that the United States was “forcing neo-liberal globalization” on Cuba (AFP, December 15). The two men expressed their joint opposition to U.S. plans for the development of a national missile defense system.

On December 14, in a show of actualizing their rhetoric, Castro and Putin signed a joint declaration condemning the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and calling for a multipolar world to counter U.S. influence. In the document Putin also pledged “to increase cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean countries,” a region which he said was “rapidly becoming an independent center in the formation of the multipolar world.” The agreements included an accord to continue a long-standing (and sometimes troubled) arrangement by which Moscow has traded Russian oil for Cuban sugar. The two men also signed a protocol extending a US$350 million Russian credit to Cuba, one originally granted in 1993 and intended to finance the completion of industrial projects. In addition, they agreed to establish a historic archive of Cuban-Russian relations and to cooperate on public health issues. There was also a report suggesting that Russia’s Norilsk Nickel metallurgy plant had made progress on a joint deal to build a smelter on Cuba in tandem with Havana’s state-run General Nickel Company (Washington Post, AFP, December 15; Reuters, December 14).

But the bigger deals which some had thought might be forthcoming did not materialize. The most important of these involved repayment of Cuba’s debt, which Russian estimates have set as high as US$20 billion and which the Cubans have insisted should be a fraction of that amount. Indeed, Putin apparently made it clear on December 15 that, while Moscow would offer advantageous repayment conditions to Cuba, it had no intentions of simply writing off the debt. “We are going to offer Cuba the most privileged terms,” he said, “but that must be done with procedures used in international finances.” There were suggestions that the Russian side was angling for an arrangement whereby at least some of Cuba’s debt would be covered by Russian participation in economic development projects in Cuba (AP, December 15; Reuters, December 14).

The two countries appeared also to have failed to resolve differences over two other important projects: the completion of the Juragua nuclear power plant and the future of the Russian listening post at Lourdes. If Putin’s remarks on December 15 are to be believed, it was Cuba which showed little interest in moving forward on the nuclear power plant deal. “Our Cuban friends are not showing interest in [the plant’s] construction,” Putin said, and suggested that there might be some irritation on the Russian side on this score. Claiming that Moscow has invested some US$30 million in the facility, Putin was quoted as saying that “we don’t insist [on its completion] but we have to understand what do with this project as we have invested a lot in it.” Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry has pushed hard to boost the country’s export of nuclear technologies and presumably hopes to see completion of the controversial Juragua plant become a reality (AFP, December 16; Reuters, December 15).

Negotiations on the Lourdes listening post appear to have ended just as inconclusively. Putin did pay a visit to the secret facility on December 14, at which time he reportedly greeted and gave a brief address to hundreds of the 1,500 inhabitants of the Russian-operated base. But, in his December 15 remarks to the press, the Russian president offered only a vague hint as to the future of the listening facility, telling reporters that the post “will operate for now. We will see what happens at a later date” (Reuters, December 15; AFP, December 16).

Neither did there seem to be much progress in talks between the two sides regarding military cooperation. Some Russian sources in particular had noted the presence of Defense Minister Igor Sergeev on Putin’s delegation and have suggested that a Cuban-Russian arms deal of some sort might be in the offing. One Russian military expert who had earlier served at a Soviet military base on Cuba speculated that the two countries would probably sign agreements involving operation and modernization of both the Lourdes station and the Cuban army’s military technology more generally. But no announcement of any such agreements were made, though Russian sources were quoted as saying that “technical” talks involving Russian defense officials were underway (The Russian Journal, December 18; Washington Post, December 15).

In comments he made on December 15, Putin suggested that his visit to Cuba marked an initial Russian move aimed at boosting Moscow’s presence in Latin America. But, as some Western reports suggested, the dearth of concrete results in the Russian-Cuban talks indicated the degree to which Moscow’s efforts in this direction are likely to be constrained by Russia’s lack of financial resources (AP, December 15). That Putin was walking a careful line was also suggested by the degree to which he softened his anti-American rhetoric on the final day of formal talks in Havana. The more measured tone appeared to be intended, first, to suggest the Kremlin’s openness to the establishment of friendly relations with the incoming Bush administration, and, second, to prepare the way for talks with top Canadian government officials scheduled to begin today. In his meetings with Western leaders Putin rarely makes use of the confrontational, Soviet-style rhetoric he sometimes employs at home or in meetings with officials from governments not on friendly terms with the West.