The Washington Diplomat / April 2009
By Larry Luxner
In 1967, while posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Wayne Smith attended a rally protesting the murder of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevarra. A student handed him an anti-American placard that, translated from Russian, read "Hands Off Cuba!"
For years, that sign has occupied a prominent place on the wall of Smith's office at the Center for International Policy. Now 77, the retired diplomat says it pretty much sums up his attitude toward Washington's anti-Cuba policy during the last 50 years.
"U.S. policy is dictated by the hardline exiles in Florida. It has almost nothing to do with what happens in Cuba," said Smith, who from 1977 to 1981 served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a sort of quasi-ambassadorial position in the absence of real diplomatic relations.
"We used to tell Fidel Castro during the 1980s that if he would get his troops out of Africa, stop giving arms to guerrillas in Central America and reduce his military relationship with the Soviets, then we could move ahead and improve relations in a significant way."
Over time, the Castro regime met all those conditions and U.S.-Cuba relations only got worse — even after the Soviet Union imploded and Russia's new democratic leaders left Castro out to dry, leading to Cuba's worst economic disaster in living memory.
But lately, the Kremlin is reaching out to its old friend. During the past year or so, Moscow-Havana ties have warmed up significantly as Russia seeks to re-assert itself in Latin America, using Cuba as its base of operations.
Last October, top-ranked Russian Gen. Alexander Maslov visited Cuba and signed key treaties in IT and communications with his Cuban counterpart, Ramiro Valdés. Later that month, a massive Russian Orthodox cathedral was inaugurated in Old Havana — even though virtually no Cubans belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Then in November, President Dmitri Medvedev visited Havana, marking the first such visit of a Russian leader to the Cuban capital since 2000. On Dec. 19, a Russian anti-submarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Havana Bay — in what AP correspondent Will Weissert called a "thumb-your-nose port call" aimed at Washington in waters just 90 miles from Florida.
Russian officials said the visit was non-military, an extension of a tour that included stops in Venezuela and Panama. The idea, said observers, was to flex some muscle in America's backyard after the Bush administration supported the former Soviet republic of Georgia. During the visit, Russian sailors in white-and-tan dress uniforms stood at attention on the deck of the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer, which chugged into Havana Bay amid a cloud of gray smoke.
"What Cuba and Russia are doing today is using each other for mutual convenience," says Dan Erikson, director of Cuba programs at Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
"For Cuba, this is part of a broader strategy of diversifying foreign relations and trying to secure new sources of credit which Russia has promised," Erikson told the Diplomat."In addition to that, there was so much bad blood between Fidel Castro and the Russian leadership following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now that Raúl is president of Cuba and Medvedev is president of Russia, that's enough of a leadership transition for both sides to let bygones be bygones."
On Jan. 28, Raúl arrived in Moscow for a week-long state visit — his first since 1984 — that culminated with a "strategic partnership" between the two leaders. A total of 34 agreements were signed covering everything from creation of joint ventures to cooperation in biotechnology and the establishment of a joint electronic scientific research center.
"Cuba's objectives in renewing and expanding its relations with Russia are obvious," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "Russia is a major power with a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Cuba desperately needs all the foreign aid and credits it can get. Russia has been a traditional supplier of weapons and spare parts to Cuba, and Castro is interested in modernizing his armed forces."
There's also the petroleum issue, said Suchlicki, noting that Venezuela currently provides 92,000 barrels of oil a day on credit that Cuba will never be able to repay.
"Russia can be an alternate source for oil if Venezuela were to fall apart or Chávez is kicked out, although I don't think this is going to happen," Suchlicki said in a phone interview from Miami. "Raúl doesn't want to get caught with his pants down like he did in 1990. That's also why he's gotten closer to Angola, Iran and Brazil. These are all countries that can provide Cuba with petroleum."
The other side of the coin is Moscow's motivation. The Russians would also like to recover part of Cuba's $20 billion debt, most of which dates from the Soviet era. In addition, the Kremlin is still annoyed at Washington's efforts to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, though that project's future is up in the air now that Obama is president.
"Part of what motivated them was irritation at what they perceived as the Bush administration's interference on their periphery," said noted Cuba-watcher Phil Peters, vice-president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "The missile defense system and the U.S. relationship with Georgia clearly irritated them, and I think their building up a relationship with Cuba and Venezuela is their way of responding."
But Peters doesn't think Russia's increased presence in Cuba is cause for concern.
"I don't think the Cubans would put their own security at risk," he said, alluding to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. "The Cubans are more cautious than anyone in that regard."
"A few months ago, the Russians were really pissed off at us because of the missile shield program in Europe, they indicated that their strategic bombers could fly out of Cuban airfields. But this was not an official statement. Then they sent a military mission to Cuba, and it was expected that they'd sign some sort of agreement," he said. "But the mission came back with nothing. A Cuban military spokesman said his country had no interest in a closer military relationship with Russia, because they'd been down that road before."
That's why Smith, at least, doesn't seem overly concerned with Moscow's latest overtures to both Cuba and Venezuela, including a recent offer of $1 billion in credits to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to buy weapons and Russian nuclear technology.
"This doesn't mean that Russia and Cuba are going back to their former relationship, but given the economic distress in Cuba, having more economic ties with Russia just makes sense," Smith said. "At a time when U.S. standing in Latin America has never been so low — thanks to Bush — Russia is simply taking advantage of that. They're trying to reach out and strengthen their relations with Latin America."
Suchlicki sees a more sinister side to Russia's new fascination with Cuba.
"The Russians are interested in rebuilding the Lourdes eavesdropping facility [which was dismantled in 2002 at the insistence of the U.S. government]. I think they're going to do it under the guise of creating a satellite tracking station."
The objective, he said, would be to provide the Russians an important and nearby listening post to spy on U.S. military, civilian and industrial communications.
Should the Obama administration be worried about this?
"Absolutely," replies Suchlicki. "The U.S. government is worried about this new presence in Cuba. Compared to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, this is chicken shit. But it's something people in the Pentagon are following and tracking. I'm not saying it's a priority, but there's definitely some element of concern."