CubaBrief: A brief look back at Russia’s “strategic partnership” with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua over the past 20 years and the current crisis

Press accounts over the past month have warned about a new missile crisis based on threats coming from Moscow due to differences over Ukraine. Others warned of this danger over a year earlier. Professor Jaime Suchlicki of the Cuban Studies Institute on May 5, 2020 shared a report by Soviet-born Canadian Professional Engineer, Paulina Zelitsky on the expansion of the Russian military in Cuba. Zelitsky, a member of a design and construction team of a secret Soviet submarine base installation in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos, Cuba, which operated for over 20 years during the Cold War, defected in 1971, and in 2020 reported the Russians were rebuilding their nuclear submarine base in Cuba.

Vladimir Putin visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro in December 2000

Russian President Vladimir Putin vows to strengthen ties with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela while tensions with Washington are raised over Ukraine, but the reality is that the ties have been strengthened over the past 20 years. Putin visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro on December 14, 2000. This was during the Clinton Administration’s engagement with Cuba. President Bill Clinton met and shook hands with Fidel Castro at the United Nations in September 2000. One month later the President signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TEFRA) that opened trade between the Castro regime and U.S. companies.

Relations between Cuba and the United States cooled during the Bush Administration, although trade between the two countries reached its highest point in 2008, but the White House thought they could reach an understanding with Putin, and were disappointed.

The Obama Administration attempted a reset with Russia in 2009, and pursued engagement with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Results were disappointing.

Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez and Maduro in the background (2009)

On March 6, 2009 Secretary Hillary Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland announced the “Russian reset” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but things didn’t go as expected as Time Magazine’s Simon Shuster reported a year later when there were already signs that things were going in the wrong direction:

Last March, she had the honor of starting Obama’s charm offensive by presenting her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a little red button. It was supposed to have the Russian word for reset on it and was meant as a harmless bit of fun. But thanks to a spelling mistake somewhere in the State Department (presumably the Gimmicks Directorate), Lavrov had to explain that the button actually said overload. It caused some awkward laughter.

In September of 2009 the Obama Administration announced that they “no longer planned to move forward” with the missile shield and scrapped it, but pursued an alternative scaled down version that still bothered the Russians who viewed the President as weak.

In October 2010 Hugo Chavez visited Moscow and an agreement was announced between the two regimes that Russia would build Venezuela’s first nuclear power plant.

In October 2011 the Russians lent Hugo Chavez in Venezuela four billion dollars to purchase Russian weapons. ” Venezuela became the largest importer of Russian arms for ground forces in 2011,” the Moscow based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade reported in December 2011.

On March 26, 2012 President Obama was caught on a hot mike telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” President Medvedev replied, “I understand. I transmit this (inaudible) to Vladimir.” President Obama went on to win re-election.

By 2014 Vladimir Putin responded to President Obama’s promise of “flexibility” by militarily taking part of Ukraine, backing Assad in Syria, forgave $32 billion owed by Havana to Moscow, and floated the idea of opening Russian military bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Russian funding for weaponry in Nicaragua returned in 2014.

Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov at the port in Havana, January 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Russian Navy’s intelligence collection ship, the Viktor Leonov, docked in Havana just a day before the arrival of the American delegation to negotiate the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States in January 2015. This was a month after President Obama and Dictator Castro had announced their intentions to resume diplomatic relations. The Russian warship was docked in a pier usually reserved for cruise ships to send a high profile message.

The press has focused on Cuba and Venezuela, but Russia also has a continued and strengthened presence in Nicaragua.

Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua “purchased” 50 new T-72B1 battle tanks at a cost of 80 million dollars in 2016 that attracted international media attention. ( It was learned later that the tanks had been donated by Moscow.) Armando Chaguaceda’s 2019 article in Global Americans titled “Russia and Nicaragua: Progress in bilateral cooperation” explained the strategic significance of these “donations.”

In 2016 it was also confirmed that, since 2013, Nicaragua had ordered four Project 14310 Mirazh patrol boats, two Project 1241.8 Molnia2 missile boats and four Yak-130 planes from Moscow. The donation of Russian equipment does come with a non-monetary price: the access allowed by Managua to Nicaraguan ports for the establishment, in 2017, of a Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). Though the station was declared to be for “purely civil ends,” it has the capability of performing electronic intelligence and cyber operations. 

This history for the most part is missing in the reporting on the current crisis and Russia’s “strategic partnership” with Cuba. This is not new, but a decades old reality. It should also give advocates of engagement with these regimes cause to reconsider their position.

Despite “normal” relations and the U.S. Administration’s 2009 high level outreach, the Ortega regime in Nicaragua pursued closer relations with Russia and China. Vladimir Putin signed a new security agreement with Ortega in 2016. In 2013 a joint Chinese-Nicaraguan effort to build a canal through Nicaragua to create an alternative to the Panama Canal was announced.

The U.S. President announced the normalization of relations with Cuba on December 17, 2014, and despite a worsening human rights situation conducted a state visit to Cuba in March 2016 and did the wave at a baseball game with Raul Castro.

Months after this historic visit, U.S. and Canadian diplomats in 2016 began suffering from the mysterious Havana Syndrome. 40 U.S. diplomats and 15 Canadian diplomats were harmed in Cuba. The CIA has now released a report, to the dismay of the victims, stating that “cases were unlikely to have been caused by a foreign power.” The timing in the midst of the ongoing crisis with Russia has not gone unnoticed in policy circles.

A high ranking Castro regime official today called on President Biden to restaff the embassies following the CIA report, and to normalize relations with the 63 year old military dictatorship. Hopefully, the White House will not confuse engagement with the Cuban people, with the dictatorship that continues to oppress and silence them. However, it was interesting that this official also said that the CIA might change its mind on the conclusions reached in the report stating they’d leave “room for themselves to produce whatever version in the future.”

Fidel Castro, center, meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, July 11, 2014.

CNN, January 26, 2022

Cuba calls on Biden to restaff embassies, normalize relations following CIA ‘Havana Syndrome’ report

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN

A concrete Cuban flag is erected in front of the US Embassy in Havana in April 2021.

Havana, Cuba (CNN)A high-ranking official in Cuba’s foreign ministry is calling for the Biden administration to restore relations with the island in light of a recent CIA report that found most “Havana syndrome” cases were unlikely to have been caused by a foreign power.

The spate of mysterious health incidents that have plagued American diplomats and CIA personnel in Havana, Cuba, among other cities, can be explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions and other factors, rather than “a sustained worldwide campaign” by a foreign adversary intended to harm US personnel, CIA officials said last week, describing interim findings from a wide-ranging study.

While Cuban officials rarely agree with anything their longtime nemesis, the CIA, says, Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez, a vice minister at Cuba’s foreign ministry, told CNN that the report should provide enough evidence for US President Joe Biden to order the reopening of embassies and normalize relations.

“The logical step by the US government with this evidence, with what they know now would be to put aside the excuse used at the time about attacks and then normalize the functioning and the operating of their embassy in Havana and to normalize our embassy in Washington,” said Fernández de Cossío, who served as director general of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry.

In 2016, US diplomats and undercover CIA officers in their homes and hotel rooms in Havana began complaining of unexplained symptoms, such as dizziness and pounding headaches. These sometimes were accompanied by an unidentified “piercing directional noise” that sounded as if metal was being scraped across a floor.

Eventually, 24 diplomats were diagnosed with brain damage that ranged from mild impairment to injuries “so severe they may never be able to return to their previous jobs.”

US officials feared the unexplained illnesses might have been caused by “sonic attacks,” an unknown directed energy weapon or microwaves.

In 2017, the US ejected 15 Cuban diplomats and withdrew most of its diplomats working in Havana, ending consular services for Cubans seeking visas to the US. Last year, the US government estimated that more than 100,000 Cubans had been unable to receive visas to travel to the US as a result of the closure of the consulate in Havana.

As investigators examined the circumstances surrounding the incidents, President Donald Trump said he believed Cuba was to blame.

Even though additional US diplomats in China, Austria, and other countries reported feeling similar symptoms, Cuban officials say they were singled out by Washington.

“Cuba is the only country that is being punished because of this, which proves there was no justification — which proves that this was a government delivered operation to use the excuse of symptoms suffered by diplomats to take action against Cuba,” Fernández de Cossío said.

In the interim findings delivered to Biden and briefed to Congress in recent weeks, the CIA reported it had yet to find any evidence that a nation-state is behind any of roughly 1,000 reported episodes around the globe.

Some of the diplomats and their family members expressed frustration following the release of the interim report that the US government still was unable to identify the cause of their symptoms.

A senior CIA official said the agency hasn’t ruled out that a smaller subset of incidents could be attacks, and the intelligence community continues to investigate “whether any device or mechanism plausibly could cause the symptoms reported.”

Fernández de Cossío said the CIA may once again try to accuse the communist-run island of being involved in the incidents: “It’s an agency known for its tricks and not for its honesty so one would think that they are leaving room for themselves to produce whatever version in the future.”

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.

Newsweek, January 26, 2022


Putin Shores Up Cuba, Venezuela Ties as Tensions with U.S. Worsen Over Ukraine

By Tom O’Connor On 1/24/22 at 7:36 PM EST

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Cuban counterpart Miguel Díaz-Canel at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on October 29, 2019. Moscow and Havana have deep-rooted ties stemming from the Soviet Union’s support for Communist Cuba as it withstood—and continues to withstand—a strict U.S. embargo. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Russian PresidentVladimir Putinhas vowed to bolster ties with Latin American partners in a series of phone calls to his counterparts in Cuba and Venezuela at a time when tensions with the United States were simmering over Ukraine.

The talks came amid questions as to whether Moscow might seek to shore up its military presence in the Western Hemisphere to offset pressure it feels from the U.S. and its NATO alliance in Eastern Europe.

On Monday, Putin spoke with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel via telephone. The Kremlin referred to the talks as an “in-depth exchange of opinions on bilateral cooperation in trade, the economy and investment” and Cuba’s presidency called the parlay “a cordial and fruitful telephone conversation.”

“The President of Cuba thanked Russia for the humanitarian aid supplied to the republic, including in the context of countering COVID-19,” the Russian readout said. “The presidents discussed further coordination of Russia’s and Cuba’s actions in the international arena in line with the principles of strategic partnership and the traditions of friendship and mutual understanding.”

The two men also “reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening bilateral relations and agreed to intensify contacts at different levels.”

The Cuban side echoed Díaz-Canel’s gratitude for Russian assistance throughout the pandemic as well as his mutual desire to expand relations with Moscow.

“Both leaders reviewed the excellent state of relations between the two countries and discussed the future development of bilateral collaboration in different fields,” Díaz-Canel’s office said. “They also exchanged on international and regional issues.”

The meeting came just days after Putin spoke with another friend in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Their discussion Thursday “covered topical issues of Russian-Venezuelan cooperation and the implementation of joint projects in trade, the economy, energy and other sectors” as well as cooperation in countering the spread of COVID-19, according to the Kremlin.

Putin and Maduro also “reaffirmed their commitment to close coordination in international affairs in keeping with the principles of strategic partnership that underlie bilateral relations.” As Venezuela, like Cuba, faced U.S. sanctions and Putin himself faced threats of being blacklisted by Washington over the crisis emerging in Ukraine, the Russian leader “expressed his unwavering support for the Venezuelan authorities’ efforts to strengthen the sovereignty of the country and ensure its socioeconomic development.”

Maduro, like Díaz-Canel, thanked Putin for Russia’s support in mitigating the damage dealt by COVID-19 and the two hailed the development of their relations, including “advances on economic, military and health issues, among others,” according to the Venezuelan side. The Russian leader, for his part, “expressed all his support and multidimensional backing in defense of the sovereignty and in pursuit of the development of Venezuela.”

The Kremlin said that “the two presidents agreed to step up contacts at various levels and Maduro’s office said he has been invited to Russia “in order to deepen cooperation between the two countries.”

In a tweet following the dialogue, Maduro said he and Putin “exchanged on issues related to existing cooperation in various strategic areas at the highest level, a relationship that is strengthened by the unbreakable union of our peoples.”

Just two days earlier, Putin phoned another socialist leader whose government has been hit by U.S. sanctions in the region, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Putin “reaffirmed the unwavering support to the efforts of the Nicaraguan government to ensure the national sovereignty and its readiness to further support the social and economic development of the republic,” according to the Kremlin.

“Both sides underscored that importance of close coordination at the international arena within the context of Russian-Nicaraguan strategic partnership,” according to the Russian readout.

Moscow has maintained good relations with leftist leaders in Latin America since the Cold War as the Soviet Union sought to forge ties with anti-imperialist movements trying to push back against U.S. interventionist policies in the region. The partnership with Communist-led Cuba proved especially fateful as a plan to deploy nuclear-capable weapons on the island led to the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The standoff ended with the Soviet Union reversing the decision to send such weapons to Cuba and the U.S. withdrawing its own weapons systems closer to the USSR’s borders in Turkey. Such mid-range missiles were later banned by both sides under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

But in 2019, former President Donald Trump‘s administration scrapped the agreement, accusing Moscow of being in violation. The U.S. quickly began developing new missiles that would have been restricted under the longstanding deal and Russian officials have raised concerns that such weapons would once again find their way to Eastern Europe, where the U.S. has already deployed advanced defense systems opposed by Moscow in NATO states Romania and Poland.

This dispute has again come to the forefront of international attention as Russia amassed an estimated 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, which has sought membership in NATO despite Moscow’s concerns of the bloc’s further expansion to the east. Amid concerns that military action may be imminent, President Joe Biden‘s administration has threatened severe sanctions against Russian leadership and has doubled down on military assistance to Ukraine, leaving the Kremlin further incensed and threatening reciprocal measures.

Asked earlier this month if such measures might include Russian military deployments to Cuba and Venezuela, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters that such an option could not be ruled out. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby all referred to Ryabkov’s remarks as “bluster.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Friday that the subject was touched upon when he met with Blinken for talks in Geneva.

And while Russian ambassador to Caracas Sergey Melik-Bagdasarov told the YouTube channel Soloviev.Live that Venezuela’s constitution does not allow the country to host foreign military bases, he said the Latin American country would “absolutely” support Moscow if tensions with Washington worsened.

“From the very first minutes of the hysteria, which was sparked by the words of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Alexeyevich Ryabkov, in the West and the United States, I have been receiving calls from Venezuelan politicians and cabinet members,” Melik-Bagdasarov said. “I have held meetings with them, and they pledged their unequivocal and, in general, unhesitating support, since they have gone through that and are going through it together with us.”

“It is this form of unprecedented pressure involving illegal restrictive measures, slander and persecution in the international arena, along with all the means of pressure available to our Western counterparts,” the envoy added. “They face it all in full, so they are well aware that the relations between our countries have the possibility of strengthening further on.”

As Washington prepares for potential hostilities in Eastern Europe by recalling diplomats in Kyiv, the Biden administration is also set to focus later this year on its Latin America policy as it’s scheduled to host the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June.

A senior administration official told reporters Thursday that a decision has not yet been made whether or not to invite Cuba, Venezuela or fellow leftist-led Nicaragua, which is also subject to a number of U.S. sanctions. Given Washington’s criticisms of the trio’s political systems, however, the official hinted they may be excluded.

“I think the operating assumption is that we look forward to welcoming the democratically elected leaders of the Organization of American States to the summit,” the official said.

Unlike the U.S. in Europe, Russia has no formal military installations in the Western Hemisphere, but Moscow’s growing influence in Latin America has manifested into robust defense cooperation.

Venezuela has especially expanded its relations military-technical ties with Russia. Just a month before the political crisis that erupted in Caracas in January 2019 as U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó challenged Maduro’s presidency, Russia and Venezuela held joint military exercises that drew criticism from the Trump administration at the time.

Support from Russia and Cuba has been critical to Maduro’s government in power for three years despite efforts by rivals to unseat him, including through an abortive April 2019 coup attempt led by Guaidó and a May 2020 failed raid by U.S. private military contractors and Venezuelan dissidents.

Marking three years since the presidential dispute that has divided the international community, Maduro vowed Monday to continue to resist U.S. policies.

“It has been 3 years of imperialist aggression, of damage to the people; also, 3 years of a beautiful Unity, Fight, Battle and Victory! Resisting and fighting is our great commitment,” Maduro tweeted. “They will not stop the march of a people with their conscience awake to never be defeated!”

From the archives

The Cuban Studies Institute Publications, May 5, 2020


Note: The following article highlights Russian actions in Cuba that may have major implications for U.S.-Russian relations and for Cuba.  If Putin is willing now to challenge U.S. security interests in the U.S.’s own backyard, it may represent a threat perhaps as dangerous as Khrushchev’s surreptitious introduction of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.  Russian submarines now carrying nuclear missiles, and Russian missiles in the ocean floor in waters on the coast of  Cuba represent a major threat to the U.S. and a Russian strategic gamble that requires a U.S. response.   

Jaime Suchlicki
Cuban Studies Institute


By Paulina Zelitsky*

The main Spy Ship Vischego Klassa of the Russian Navy returned to Havana on March 3, 2020, once again, in secret and in an unsafe manner, that is not turning on transmitter to send signals over AIS (Automatic Identification System) or turning on lights, or answering inquiries from other ships to avoid collision in high-traffic areas.[1]

The current arrival of AGI Victor Leonov in Havana surprisingly did not produce any notice or reaction from the Western or even Russian press this time. They chose not to notice this fact (except Cubanet), despite the initial tweet with the picture of this ship on March 4, 2020, by Patrick Oppmann correspondent of CNN in Cuba. I have the expert confirmation that Patrick is right, but CNN decided not to mention this news item. Such turning of blind eyes on the current visit to Cuba of AGI Victor Leonov is surprising, for it is highly unlikely that the Russian navy drops secretly every few weeks to Cuba because they love Cuban beaches. Previously it always provoked a lot of media noise.

During her previous Cuban visit in December 16,17, and 18 of 2019, AGI Victor Leonov provoked numerous protests from passing vessels and the US Coast Guard with some experts suggesting that it is gathering US military information from US naval bases, digital signatures of US subs, radars and sensors, information from undersea cables networks and even the surveillance of US coastline for “alleged Kanyon targeting”.[2]

At the same time, her visits this past December and now in March are likely required for working with their new Russian Intelligence Gathering Base/GLONASS, currently operating just 90 miles off the US coast. This new modernized Intelligence Gathering SIGINT/GLONASS has replaced the previous outdated Soviet Spy SIGINT center in Lourdes. Putin, Medvedev, and Borisov officially personally announced the commencement of its operations in Cuba last October; not a single Western media noticed their announcements either.[3]

On February 22, 2020, the head of Russian Navy Admiral Nikolay Evmenov, returned to Moscow from 6 days working visit of Cuban ports and Cuban Navy enterprises on the invitation of Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel in response to their own working visits to Moscow earlier in 2019. Only the Russian and the Cuban media reported the visit of Russian Navy Admiral Nikolay Evmenov to Cuba in Russian and Spanish languages.[4]

The Russian official press and “so-called independent” Russian TV media reported that the reason for such a long working visit (6 days) of the Head of Russian Navy was that Cuba agreed, once again, to rebuild a Russian submarine nuclear base in Cuba, a facility being built in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos.

The Russian media describes the deal for the return of the Russian navy base in Cuba is made at the behest of the Cuban state. To that end, Russia promised to invest over 1 billion Euros into rebuilding and modernizing Cuban harbor facilities (in Jagua Bay?) to service Russian navy submarines and the Cuban navy military industry. Also, the Russian media asserted that the Cuban civil residents of the Bay of Jagua and coastal areas of Cienfuegos will be relocated from the coastal areas. One billion Euros would be their largest ever investment into militarizing Cuba.

Being aware of the current dismal socio-economic situation of ordinary Russians, because the Russian state cannot pay even for the medical services of Russian veterans and pensioners, I decided to check this claim and found the confirmation in Cuban media of 2019 made upon return of Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel from Moscow. The Cuban government announced to the residents in the area of Bay of Jagua and Cienfuegos their imminent relocation to the interior of Cuba for climatic reasons.[5]

In conclusion, the Russian Navy announced their return to providing a base in Cuba for Russian submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, as well as for the Russian navy surface fleet, equipped as well with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. According to Putin, who only recently publicly acknowledged the operation of the Soviet navy base for submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles in Cienfuegos from 1969 to 1992, the current Russian base should be similar to Tartus – a Russian navy base in Syria.

These new developments are in addition to the even more dangerous Russian technology: SKIF – Russian nuclear-tipped cruise missiles located on the ocean floor in the offshore of Cuban territorial waters. These missiles are controlled remotely from the already mentioned above brand-new Russian SIGINT/GLONASS center, which Russian V-President Dmitry Medvedev personally officially opened and announced as functional in Cuba on October 4, 2019.

Most curious is that not a single source in English or any western media mentioned this scandalous event. I suspect that Russia is back dancing their Third Waltz of the Cuban crisis, just what Putin announced they will do. The first was The Caribbean crisis in 1962, the second started in 1969, which I described in my memoir, and the third Russian Waltz has started now. The operation of this navy base in Jagua Bay in Cienfuegos I described in my memoir “The Sea is Only Knee Deep” available on Amazon.[6]

The West, once again, does not want to know about it. Russia surrounds and threatens the US with nuclear cruise missiles and satellite/subsea cable surveillance, and the US and Canada do not want to know or to notice it. I wonder if they simply do not know what to do about it and have no means to deal with it. Russian cruise missiles are not experimental technology as the alleged, very expensive Kanyon is. Russian cruise missiles shot from air, land, surface ships, submarines and the seafloor have been in operation for the last 20 years.[7]

All these military maneuvers by Russia, 90 miles off the American east coast, are a not-so-subtle message to the U.S.: “We are very dangerous. Stay out of our hair, stay out of Ukraine”. The same message was delivered during the previous two Cuban crises. 1st in 1962, 2nd in 1969 and now 3rd in 2020.[8]











Russian Press about the visit of Admiral Evmenov and Putin’s declarations:  (INTERFAX military news)   (Free Press)  (Nezavisimaya Gazeta) (TASS)

Russian TV:   (24News plus)  (News Today)   (Honest News)

*Paulina Zelitsky is a Soviet-born Canadian Professional Engineer with international experience in security, transportation and energy sectors. During 1968-71, she was a member of a design and construction team of a secret Soviet submarine base installation in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos, Cuba, which operated for over 20 years. She defected to Canada in 1971. The dramatic story is detailed in her memoir “The Sea is Only Knee Deep”.