Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov kicked off his tour of Latin America this week with a visit to Cuba. The choice is not a mere coincidence. Lavrov's visit comes at a time when Moscow and Havana are enjoying their closest relationship in decades.
The Soviet Union was once Cuba’s greatest patron. It lavished the island with economic subsidies and favourable trading arrangements in an attempt to bolster the lone communist outpost on America’s doorstep. Infamously, the United States and the Soviet Union neared the brink of nuclear war in 1962 over Moscow’s attempt to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba.
But as the Cold War approached its end, Cuba became less and less of a priority for the Kremlin. During the final years of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev cut economic aid to Cuba and withdrew Soviet troops from the island. Relations between Moscow and Havana continued their downward spiral at an even faster rate once the Soviet Union fell in 1991. The new reformist and pro-Western government of Boris Yeltsin had little interest in lending support to communist Cuba.
Early in his presidency, Vladimir Putin put the final nail in the special relationship’s coffin by shutting down the Lourdes spy station in Cuba, which for decades had served as Moscow's largest military base and intelligence facility in the western hemisphere. The Cuban government reacted with shock and anger to the decision, protesting that it had 'not given its approval' for the closure and accusing Russia of appeasing the United States.
Over the past several years, however, Moscow and Havana have experienced a revival in their relationship. Both parties have their own motives for closer relations. Following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia found itself completely estranged from the United States and eager to show the world that it was still a major global power. Cuba, whose Obama-era detente with Washington fizzled out once Donald Trump took office, was eager to receive Russian help.
The first major step toward reconciliation came in 2014 when Russia forgave 90 per cent of Cuba's £22.2 billion Soviet-era debt. In 2017, Russia began shipping large quantities of oil to Cuba for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
With Cuba feeling the burden of US sanctions, Russia has emerged as an alternative source of trade and investment. Trade between the two countries more than doubled between 2013 and 2019, jumping from £139 million to over £380 million. Russia is in the process of installing four power plants on the island, which are expected to be operational by 2025. Just last year, Russia pledged £1.5 billion to revitalize Cuba’s railroad system.
Moscow is also stepping up its military support for Havana. Russia issued a £33 million loan in February 2019 to Cuba so that the island could maintain its Soviet-era military equipment. In June, the Russian navy sent one of its most advanced warships to Cuba in a gesture of solidarity amidst Havana’s growing tensions with Washington.
Russia has openly flirted with the idea of reopening its Lourdes spy station, but the facility remains shut for now.
Yet the greatest success for the resurrected friendship between the two countries is undoubtedly Venezuela. Together Russia and Cuba have allowed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to withstand mass protests at home and mounting US sanctions by providing the embattled socialist leader with military, economic, and diplomatic support.
The Trump administration recently admitted that it was caught off guard by Moscow’s and Havana’s success in bolstering Maduro against the U.S.-backed opposition headed by National Assembly leader Juan Guaido.
'We underestimated the importance of the Cuban and Russian support for the regime, which has proved I think to be the two most important pillars of support for the regime and without which it wouldn’t be there, it wouldn’t be in power,' US special representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrahms said last month.
Guaido has certainly lost considerable momentum. Last January and February, Guaido was able to rally thousands of protestors across Venezuela against Maduro. But he has so far spent 2020 trying to reassure billionaires in Davos and Venezuelan expats in Miami that he still represents a viable opposition movement.
The revamped Russian-Cuban partnership is admittedly still a far cry from its Cold War glory days. Moscow’s economic aid to Havana is many degrees smaller than what its Soviet predecessor provided and a return of Russian troops or missiles to the island remains highly unlikely. But Washington is starting to take notice of the new entente between Russia and Cuba for a reason. The two countries have shown that together they can outmanoeuvre the United States in a key battle for political influence in Latin America. That in itself is no small feat.