latin america

Putin eyes Cuba as springboard for economic expansion into Latin America

Russian leader visits Havana after forgiving €26 billion in debt owed by island nation

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.Mikhail Klimentyev / AP

Vladimir Putin’s official trip to Cuba – the first leg of a tour that will also take him to Argentina and Brazil – underscores the growing rapprochement between Moscow and Havana and the island’s renewed role as a springboard into Latin America.

The Russian president is aware that ever since the creation of the São Paulo Forum in 1990, Cuba has developed closer ties with a political left that now rules over countries with which the Kremlin is keen to establish more commercial links.

Meanwhile, the United States is keeping a close – and concerned – watch on Russia’s new geopolitical moves.

Putin is scheduled to meet with Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, two historical figures from the Cold War, when the communist island was a key piece in the chess game between the US and the Soviet Union. In October 1962, the discovery of a Cuban base holding Soviet nuclear missiles brought the world to the brink of another global conflict. Fidel Castro never forgave the agreement that US President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev reached behind his back: to remove the missiles in exchange for an American pledge not to invade the island and to pull its own missiles out of Turkey.

Putin will be arriving in Cuba in the middle of his most serious post-bloc confrontation, the one pitting him against Washington and its European allies over control of Ukraine. The intervention of US diplomacy in Russia’s backyard seems reflected in Moscow’s gradual penetration into America’s own backroom, most particularly the Latin American countries governed by the left, and more specifically Cuba, just 145 kilometers off the coast of Florida.

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His arrival is preceded by the Russian decision to write off 90 percent of Cuban debt, representing around €26 billion built up over three decades of dependence on Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelled financial disaster for the island, whose GDP fell by more than 30 percent.

Bilateral relations then fell to the bare minimum until the present, although the link is now much more utilitarian than ideological. The rapprochement began in earnest in 2005, and includes all aspects, including the military. The two sides are in the late stages of logistical agreements to allow Russian war ships to dock and undergo maintenance work in the port of Havana. The spy ship Viktor Leonov recently made a stop there.

This is the second time that Putin has visited Cuba, while Raúl Castro has already traveled to Moscow twice, in 2009 and 2012. The island’s top trading partner is Venezuela, followed by China and Spain. Russia sits 10th on the list with €200 million.

The remaining 10 percent of the debt that has not been forgiven, around €3 billion, will be reinvested in the Mariel free zone, located 45 kilometers from Havana.