Russian oil exports to Cuba were up 81% in the first few months of 2017, and a deal with Russian oil giant Rosneft will likely mean an even stronger economic relationship between the two countries in the future. The last time that Cuba and Russia enjoyed such a strong relationship was during the Cold War, when nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia had the world on edge. William M. LeoGrande, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and expert in Latin American affairs, spoke about these renewed ties and what might lie ahead for Cuba.
Putin first visited Cuba in 2000 as part of a larger effort to renew ties with Russia’s allies after succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia. The visit resulted in expanded trade deals as was a first step. The second step was taken 9 years later when Fidel Castro visited Moscow to sign 33 cooperative agreements.
In 2014, Putin visited Cuba to forgive 90% of the country’s Soviet-era debts. Since 2015, Russia has been a major investor in Cuban infrastructure, including the newly-build Mariel economic zone and some thermal energy plants. As for Russia’s role as the main oil supplier to Cuba, that’s something that hasn’t happened since the Cold War.
Although the relationship benefits Cuba greatly on economic terms, it also has strategic value, says LeoGrande. A stronger relationship with Russia serves as a “counterweight” to Washington’s rekindled hostility under President Trump. For Russia, the expansion into Cuba, a country so close to the United States, makes a huge statement about the willingness and ability of Russia to expand into territories close to the United States, just as the United States has expanded into territories near Russia, namely Ukraine. In addition, Cuba supports such global political positions taken by Russia, such as Ukraine, Syria, and NATO expansion. It’s rumored that Russia is looking to establish a new military base on the island as well.
Cuba isn’t just looking to Russia for a friend – it is making efforts to befriend other world superpowers in light of President Trump’s policies towards Cuba, including China and the European Union. However, Cuba is handicapped by the inability to pay for trade due to a lack of exportation.In 2016, Cuba imported $10.3 billion in goods, while it exported just $2.3 billion. Goods imported from Russia totaled $191 million, but exports to Russia were only $32 million.
LeoGrande, however, says that it seems unlikely that, given the chance, Cuba would refuse to build a stronger relationship with the United States. The close military relationship shared between Cuba and Soviet Russia was largely based along ideological lines. The United States remains a highly desirable trade partner for Cuba due to its proximity and wealth.