Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 180

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov completed a two-day visit to Cuba this week during which he held talks with Cuban President Fidel Castro and other top officials. The rhetoric which accompanied the visit was what might have been expected. Both countries spoke of the importance each attaches to bilateral relations, and called for a restoration of the close ties which existed between Havana and Moscow prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. In a joint communique and in statements to the press, the Russian and Cuban sides also underscored the degree to which their views of international affairs coincide.

In a series of digs at the United States, Ivanov restated Moscow’s now standard call for a multipolar world. He joined Cuban leaders in condemning the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, and particularly the Helms-Burton act (which seeks to penalize companies from third countries which use property seized by Cuban authorities from American citizens after the Cuban revolution). Ivanov also called for Washington to put aside Cold War-era sentiments and to resume relations with Havana. Two documents were signed. One condemned the recent terrorist explosions in Moscow, the other confirmed ratification of a Consular Convention signed in March of 1998.

For all the happy rhetoric, however, it was unclear whether Ivanov’s visit did anything to invigorate relations which have, in fact, remained in a state of atrophy since the demise of the Soviet Union. It was, after all, Ivanov’s first trip to Cuba since his appointment as foreign minister in September of 1998. Indeed, it was the first visit by a Russian foreign minister to the island since Yevgeny Primakov held talks in Havana in May of 1996. The relative neglect which has characterized post-Soviet Russian policy toward Cuba is also reflected in the fact that a bilateral intergovernmental commission established in 1992 to boost trade between Russia and Cuba convened for the first time only in June of 1997.

Moreover, despite the more recent efforts of that commission to increase trade, the numbers in recent years have remained unimpressive. Bilateral trade between Cuba and the Soviet Union totaled some US$9 billion in 1990, but fell to about US$500 million a year later. In 1998, trade turnover between the two countries still amounted to only US$600 million. In addition, of that total some 80 percent was reported to consist of exchanges of Russian petroleum for Cuban sugar. During Ivanov’s visit to Havana, one Cuban official complained that, whereas during the Soviet period the governments of the two countries had ensured high levels of trade turnover, Russia’s post-Soviet marketization has forced Cuban authorities to deal increasingly with individual Russian companies. The experience has apparently been a less than satisfactory one for the Cuban side (Russian agencies, September 27-29; AP, September 27-28; EFE, September 28-29).