CubaBrief: Cubans fighting alongside Russians in Ukraine. Cuban military undergoing training in Belarus. European Union is Cuba’s biggest trading partner and one devoted to “mutual respect.”

Last week, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel appeared on the  Spanish-language version of Russia Today to reiterate Cuba’s “unconditional” support for Russia, adding, “we condemn and do not accept the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders,” reported Evan Dyer of CBC News. Diaz-Canel also “called on the peoples of the world to ‘move away from the dollar.’”  This 47 minute interview on May 30, 2023 came as Cubans were seen fighting “alongside Russians fighting in Ukraine, both in the Russian Army and in the Wagner Group.”  Moscow claims they joined as volunteers and are not part of the Cuban army. However, it was Cuba’s regular armed forces that inked a contract last month to train their troops in Belarus, a close ally of Moscow that is heavily involved in the Ukraine conflict.

One day after the Diaz-Canel interview on Russia Today, a photo appeared over social media of Gerardo Hernandez, a Cuban spy freed in a 2014 spy swap, placing a wreath on a monument to Fidel Castro in Moscow.

If advocates of engagement with Havana were right then this shouldn’t be happening. Their premise is that trade and economic interdependence creates peace.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, stated in Havana on May 25, 2023, that the 27-member bloc remained Cuba’s biggest trading partner and one devoted to “mutual respect” despite Havana’s increasing overtures toward Russia. According to Borrell, “it is clear that we are much more important [in terms of trade] than other partners such as Russia and China.” He said that the EU accounted for about one-third of the island’s foreign trade, “versus 8% by China or 8% by Russia,” reported Euractiv on May 26, 2023.

The European Union is competing with Russia in creating a new oligarchic class that is politically connected and will oversee Cuba’s private sector. Without the rule of law or private property rights, as is the case in Russia today, the private sector is determined by those connected to the inner circle of the dictatorship and the military. ( It is important to remember that during the 1990s engagement with former Soviet actors in Russia’s privatization process that helped to create the oligarchs, and extensive corruption that brought an end to a Russian Democratic Spring, and paved the way for Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer to take power.)

This theory that has been called “Capitalist peace” or more recently the “Dell theory” failed spectacularly with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Havana’s behavior towards Russia and China over the past 40 years demonstrates a permanent hostility to democracy, human rights, and transparency while at the same time supporting great brutality against civilians.

Perestroika was a policy that recognized economic central planning was a failure, and pursued reforming and restructuring the Soviet economy, and Glasnost was a policy that sought “more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information.” These policies both instituted were viewed with great hostility, and rejected by the Castro brothers. This was at a time when 75% of Cuba’s commercial exchanges were with the Soviet Union, but that did not stop Havana from censoring Soviet publications, and the beginning of the Castro brothers’ outreach to Beijing in 1989.

Relations with China had been substantially estranged for decades, but the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Cuban government’s strong and unconditional support for Beijing’s crackdown was an early critical event in the Sino-Cuban rapprochement. Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen’s visit to Latin America took place in the midst of the crackdown, and he described the contrast between Havana’s warm welcome and the disapproval of many other countries in the region.

“The crackdown in Beijing, Qian says, completely changed the atmosphere around his tour: many Latin American governments expressed their disapproval of the suppression and cancelled his visits, and even the overseas Chinese, who usually greeted visiting Chinese officials with enthusiasm, had“stern faces” and questioned the reasons for using force. Qian had planned a visit to Mexico before Cuba. The Mexican government cancelled his visit but allowed him to go to Cuba via Mexico City.”

[…]

“But Qian’s reception in Havana exceeded his expectations. He was greeted by the Cuban foreign minister at the airport and brought to a welcome dinner the next evening hosted by Fidel Castro himself. Castro had a long talk with Qian at dinner which continued in his office until midnight. Understanding Qian’s situation, Castro gave him a detailed description of what had happened in Beijing since 4 June and the international response, based on his collection of information and from his own perspective. Castro said that he “completely supported the Chinese government” and would offer “whatever occasions and facilities” Qian might need to make his government’s voice heard.”

Havana’s behavior has not been dictated by economic relationships, but to maintain the existing 64 year old dictatorship in power, attack U.S. interests, and subvert democracies in the region. They have been successful in Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Miami Herald, June 5, 2023

Why is a Cuban spy who was nabbed in the U.S. and freed in a prisoner swap visiting Moscow?

By Nora Gámez Torres June 05, 2023 1:22 PM

Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, the convicted Cuban spy who now heads the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, during a visit to the Victory Museum in Moscow on June 1st, 2023. RIA Pobeda RF

A Cuban spy who was captured and imprisoned in the U.S., and later released in a prisoner swap with Cuba, has been making official visits overseas, including to Russia, for the island’s government, raising questions about his role, especially after his trip followed visits by the head of Cuba’s intelligence and security services.

During a two-week trip that started mid-May, Cuba’s Minister of the Interior, Gen. Lázaro Alberto Álvarez Casas, met with the Vietnamese minister of Public Security, China’s minister of Public Security and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, whom he had previously met in Havana in March.

Closely tracking Álvarez Casas with his own tour to Vietnam, Laos and Russia was Gerardo Hernández, the former spy who currently heads a Cuban organization with no foreign-policy mandate. Media reports and government statements placed Hernández and Gen. Álvarez Casas in Vietnam at the same time, and possibly also in Russia, though their trips have not been officially linked.

Full article ]

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article276104946.html

Miami Herald, June 5, 2023

In Cuba, E.U. official prioritized economic engagement over human rights. Shameful | Opinion

By John Suarez June 05, 2023 11:06 AM

The coordinator of the CubaDecide civic movement, Rosa María Payá, and three MEPs asked the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, to forcefully condemn the human rights violations in Cuba. (Photo taken from Rosa María Payá’s Twitter profile) Rosa María Payá Twitter page

Even before Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, arrived in Havana it was clear that addressing the plight of more than 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba was not a top concern.

Before his official visit to Cuba, from May 25-27, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders and five other human-rights organizations sent Borrell a letter, made public on May 22, urging him, together with E.U. member states to respond to the country’s human-rights crisis during the third EU-Cuba Joint Council in Havana.

They asked him “to lead the E.U. and its member states in robustly engaging the Cuban authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for exercising their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” They asked, specifically, that they “raise the cases of José Daniel Ferrer García, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Maykel ‘Osorbo’ Castillo Pérez, Aymara Nieto, Sissi Abascal Zamora, Donaida Pérez Paseiro and dissident artists Richard Zamora Brito “El Radikal”, Maria Cristina Garrido Rodriguez and Randy Arteaga-Rivera.”

On May 23, the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights held a hearing on Cuba, where some members raised concerns, including the chair, who asked Jonathan Hatwell, head of the EEAS Division for Latin America and the Caribbean, if his boss, Borrell would be taking a list of political prisoners to hand over to the Cuban government and press for their release. Hatwell’s meandering response, in which he said he didn’t know, spoke volumes.

[ Full article ]

https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article276049021.html

CBC News, June 3, 2023 

“Cornered In Ukraine And Isolated By The West, The Kremlin Returns To Cuba” 

Some Cubans fear their island could become a new front for Russia-NATO confrontations. 

By: Evan Dyer 

Dozens of Russian officials have travelled to Cuba in recent months — and some former Cuban government insiders are warning that Russia might plan to again use the island as a forward base on the United States’ doorstep. 

This week, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on the Spanish-language version of Russia Today to insist on Cuba’s “unconditional” support for Russia. 

“We condemn and we don’t accept the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia,” he said. 

Last week, for the first time ever, Cubans appeared alongside Russians fighting in Ukraine, both in the Russian Army and in the Wagner Group

Russia says they joined as volunteers and are not part of the Cuban army. 

But it was Cuba’s regular armed forces that signed a deal this month to train troops in Belarus, a close ally of Moscow heavily involved in the Ukraine war. 

Vladimir Rouvinski, a Russian expert on his country’s relations with Latin America at the Instituto Colombiano de Estudios Superiores de Incolda in Cali, Colombia, said the Kremlin sees Cuba as America’s “near abroad.” 

“Russians are interested in expanding the relation with Cuba from the logic of reciprocity, in order to say to the United States, ‘We’re here again, and we may make some troubles for you, so pay attention to us,'” he said. 

Cuba’s crisis of everything 

The Russians are coming as Cuba faces its worst economic crisis since Soviet subsidies ended in 1991.  

Cuban agricultural production has collapsed and it must now import 80 per cent of its food. But the pandemic cut the flow of tourists bringing the hard currency Cuba needs to buy food overseas. President Donald Trump’s tightening of restrictions on U.S. remittances to Cuba further reduced the Cuban government’s reserves. 

Over the past few weeks, Russian oligarchs have signed agreements with Havana covering a wide range of commercial interests: supplying wheat to Cuba; investments in its sugar and rum industries; revitalizing ports, urban infrastructure and hotels. Russia has agreed to help restart Cuba’s steel industry and, more importantly, supply the country with oil. 

“The Cuban government does not have a strong position,” former Cuban diplomat-turned-dissident Miriam Leiva said from Havana. “It depends on the Russian government giving it oil, food and money. They are even allowing Cuban land to be leased for the first time, for Russian investors. 

“There’s a very big commitment from the president personally to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war. This distances us from the international community and leaves us isolated.” 

Leiva, a former Communist Party member who worked in the Soviet Union and East Bloc countries during her time in Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, said the new Russia can’t afford to subsidize Cuba as the old Soviet Union did — but the new Cuba is so weak it has to take whatever it can get. 

“Cuba’s sovereignty is being compromised with all the prerogatives that are being offered to the Russians,” she said.  

Those prerogatives include Havana allowing Russia to change Cuba’s laws to protect its investments. 

“The right the Cuban people don’t have, the right to determine our laws and our constitution, is being given away to others,” she said. “What we Cubans cannot do, the others are going to do. That’s the difficult and sad situation.” 

The Cuban government did not respond to questions posed by CBC News. 

Ukraine the catalyst 

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave Ukraine independence and launched an economic crisis in Cuba that moderated but never really ended. 

The dormant relationship between Havana and Moscow began to revive in 2014, when Russia turned to Cuba for diplomatic support for its annexation of Crimea. 

Havana obliged and in turn received forgiveness of 90 per cent of its debts with Russia — over $40 billion, a sum Cuba was in no position to repay anyway. 

That same year, Russia said it would reopen its old spying station at Lourdes, Cuba, a facility Russian President Vladimir Putin closed as a cost-saving measure in 2002. 

But not much actually changed until early last year, when Russia was secretly preparing to invade Ukraine. It was Russian Deputy Defence Minister Sergei Ryabkov who brought up the idea of sending Russian troops to Cuba or Venezuela — a clear attempt to convince the West not to interfere in Moscow’s plans for Ukraine. 

One month later, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a move Cuba immediately blamed on NATO. The next day, the Cuban government effectively warned Cubans not to question that position when it arrested a dissident who tried to lay a bouquet of flowers on the steps of the Ukrainian embassy. 

As the war began to turn sour for Russian forces, Cuba’s situation was also worsening, said Cuban ex-diplomat Juan Antonio Blanco. 

The former member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee for foreign relations said he became disillusioned when the party rejected reforms following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He ended up in exile in the U.S. 

He said Cuba’s multiple crises reached a desperate state by October with the accelerating collapse of Cuba’s energy grid. 

“That was the final straw. All the indicators were in crisis,” said Blanco. “They realized suddenly that those [power] plants have run out of time and have to be replaced. They don’t have the money to replace them. It’s about $10 billion (US). 

“They saw that protests were rising throughout the island. Either they get resources from somewhere or they would have to put away all that they know for the last 60 years. 

“Like in 1991, they didn’t want to go the democratic way. They decided to make another transition.” 

Blanco said Cuba’s rulers were not interested in following the Chinese or Vietnamese post-Communist models of free-market capitalism under an authoritarian government. “They are more inclined to copy the Russian model of a dictatorship with a market that is controlled by oligarchs,” he said. 

Capitalist innovations shock Marxists 

The scale of Cuba’s capitulation to Russian demands has caused shock in some international Marxist circles. 

Russian investors in Cuba have demanded and secured tax preferences, the right to repatriate profits and the power to hire and fire Cuban workers at will. 

“Now the Russians come to Havana,” said Blanco. “And they say, ‘Well, we’re ready to help, but you would have to change your constitution, change your laws, revise this or revise that.’ 

“In less than a week, they’re calling for the parliament to check everything out and see how they’re going to accommodate the Russians.” 

For Rolando Remedios, who was arrested in the protests against one-party rule that broke out across Cuba on July 11, 2021, the return of the Russians suggests the Cuban Communist Party believes it has no alternative if it wants to hold on to power. 

“They are offering these incentives to Russian companies that Cubans do not receive, despite knowing that Russians will become more influential over Cuban affairs,” he told CBC News from Havana. 

“They’d rather empower a foreign power than empower the Cuban people.” 

Havana’s goal: avoid total collapse 

The war in Ukraine still drives the alliance. 

Cuba abstained from the historic March 2 United Nations vote that saw 141 countries condemn the Russian invasion. By the fall, it had moved to a more openly pro-Russian position — voting with Russia and five other countries to block Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy from addressing the UN General Assembly, supporting the Russian annexation of four regions of Ukraine, and voting against a motion calling for Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine. 

Also in the fall, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began to talk publicly about another scenario like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 

Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as Raul Roa, Castro’s foreign minister, looks on. The trio met during a UN assembly in New York, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis permanently soured relations between Cuba and the U.S. (Prensa Latina/Associated Press) 

Blanco, who maintains contacts on the island, said Putin sent a personal messenger to Raul Castro — officially retired but widely seen as the real power in Cuba — at some point around that time. Two weeks later came a formal visit by President Miguel Diaz-Canel to Moscow. Following that visit, an army of Russian officials and oligarchs began to descend on Cuba. 

Since March, the island has hosted not only Lavrov, but also Nikolai Patrushev — who has headed Russia’s Security Council for 15 years — Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Boris Titov, an oligarch with a presidential commission who led a delegation of Russian business leaders that signed agreements for 30 projects in Cuba. 

“Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union” and Cubans know they can’t expect assistance on the scale they received during the Cold War, said Rouvinski. The Cuban regime’s goal, he said, is “to avoid the total collapse of the Cuban economy that’s on the horizon.” 

The Cuban Communist Party brings value to the alliance. 

The Kremlin’s Ukraine war diplomacy — its efforts to foster support for the war among allies and client states — is heavily focused on developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Cuba currently holds the presidency of the Group of 77, the successor to the Non-Aligned Movement that unites 134 countries, including virtually the entire global South. 

“That provides them with a manoeuvrability within the UN and multilateral organizations to serve the purposes of Russia,” said Blanco, who headed Cuba’s office for the Non-Aligned Movement. “They have also been very effective in promoting Russian disinformation in Spanish in all of Latin America and Spain.” 

The pending arrival of Russian banks in Cuba could help Russian businesses evade sanctions imposed by countries that don’t sanction Cuba, such as EU member states, Japan and Canada. 

But the two former Cuban diplomats who spoke with CBC News said they fear that Russia will demand bigger sacrifices from Cuba. 

Missile diplomacy 

In recent days, Lavrov and Kremlin-controlled television have been hinting at a reprise of the Soviet Union’s first armed foray into the Western hemisphere — when it secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. 

Rouvinski said Russia is in Cuba to send a message. 

“The message is mostly directed to the United States and the Western allies, saying if things get really bad in Ukraine, we may go forward and place some kind of strategic equipment on the island,” he said. 

Rouvinski said he doesn’t expect an exact replay of the events of 1962. 

“One of the things (the Cubans) learned,” he said, “is that they were excluded by the Soviet Union and the United States from any negotiation about the fate of the Soviet missiles on the island. The decisions were taken without them and this is something they don’t want to repeat.” 

‘No option but to react’ 

Blanco agreed the Cuban side likely would draw the line at permitting land-based missile launchers on the island. 

“I think the Russians are going to manage a way to have a permanent presence without establishing a military base in Cuba,” he said. 

“They may send a ship, or a nuclear submarine. They send it in August, in September that leaves and then another one comes and takes its place, and then another one and another one. And by the time that you realize it, they have normalized a rotative, flexible, permanent presence in the Western Hemisphere, 90 miles away from the United States.” 

“Every nuclear submarine probably has more missiles, cruise missiles than all the missiles on Cuba in 1962,” added Blanco, who as a young soldier in 1963 manned a Russian SA-2 Desna missile battery as part of a joint Russian-Cuban unit. 

“The worse that the war [in Ukraine] will go for the Russians, the more likely this kind of military scenario in Cuba.” 

Rouvinski agreed. “This could trigger a very dangerous development because the United States would have no options but to react to this,” he said. 

Saving face 

No one CBC News spoke to believes that Russia is really trying to start a war with the U.S. It may instead be trying to find a face-saving way out of the war it already started with Ukraine. 

Rouvinski said Cuba has symbolic value — especially for a leader like Putin who plays on Soviet-era nostalgia.  

“Vladimir Putin was building this image of a new Russia, that it’s again a great power that can have a global reach,” he said. “And Cuba resonated very well with these messages because many Russians did not know details about what has happened in Cuba, but were aware of Cuba as the place that is important in terms of strategic competition with the United States.” 

Blanco said he can envision a scenario where Putin portrays the new Russian presence in Cuba as a strategic counterweight to NATO’s presence in former Soviet republics such as Latvia. 

“If the war really turns ugly for Russia, more ugly than it already is,” he said, “then he can always say, ‘Well, you know what, I don’t have to fight this war anymore because the origin of the war, as I claim, was that they were getting closer to our border. And now we are close to their border.'” 

Blanco said Russia also could use Cuba as a bargaining chip to convince NATO to deny Ukraine membership, or to pressure the alliance into withdrawing its forces from Russia’s border. 

Although it wasn’t revealed publicly at the time, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis ended with just such a quid pro quo. In return for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear withdrawal from Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed to remove Jupiter nuclear missiles the U.S. had placed near Russia in Turkey. 

For now, ordinary Cubans again find themselves bystanders on the margins of a great power competition, and can only speculate on what it all might mean. 

“Russia’s in a very difficult position,” said Leiva. “But it’s precisely when it’s in a difficult position that it’s most dangerous. 

“Hopefully, it doesn’t lead us into a crisis. But in any case, their presence here in Cuba creates a very new situation.” 

 

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/russia-cuba-ukraine-putin-missiles-1.6863359 

 

Havana Times, 3 June 23 

“Cuba: Diaz-Canel’s Exclusive Interview on Russian TV” 

He praises “Friend Putin” and asks the world to “move away from the dollar.” Diaz-Canel exalted Putin as a “Russian and world leader” with whom he claimed to “coincide on many points of the international agenda.”  

HAVANA TIMES – In front of the Russian television cameras, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel once again declared his unconditional friendship with Vladimir Putin. In a long interview, he defended the Social Communication Law recently approved by Parliament and called on the peoples of the world to “move away from the dollar.” 

In the conversation, broadcast by the Russia Today television network and available from this Tuesday to Cubans, the president explained to Cuban journalist Aliana Nieves “the place occupied by the nation in the current geopolitical context.”   

Diaz-Canel didn’t mince words: “I consider President Putin as a friend. A sincere friend to Cuba. And he has also demonstrated it with actions,” he said. “There is an excellent relationship between the Russian Federation and Cuba,” despite the fact that at some point there may have been “incomprehension or some fracture” between the two countries. 

However, all the rough edges were smoothed out, he said, in November 2022, when a Cuban government delegation went to Moscow in search of economic support. “I felt an enormous understanding from President Putin about Cuba’s problems and situation,” he said.   

Diaz-Canel exalted Putin as a “Russian and world leader” with whom he claimed to “coincide on many points of the international agenda.” 

He also referred to the “historic ties” between Havana and Moscow since Soviet times, including, he said, in the family sphere: “There are Cuban-Russian families, and an important part of the skilled workforce talent that we have in our country was educated in Russia, with a whole exchange.”   

He emphasized what he described weeks ago as his support for Russia’s “energetic condemnation of the West,” although this time he limited himself to “strongly condemning” NATO for “expanding its borders” with Russia. 

From Moscow, he summarized, the Island hopes for food, medicines, tourists and economic and commercial support. At the end of the statement, Nieves alluded to the “hope” that was causing the signing of so many bilateral agreements in economic matters, “that ought to or have been translated into everyday life.” Diaz-Canel agreed with the comment and added that the changes would occur “in the medium term.”   

To the question about his detractors’ concerns about the Kremlin’s “advice” to the Cuban business sector, Díaz-Canel responded that you have to see “where those doubters come from.” 

He claimed that the United States should be the real concern, because it “tightens the screws” more and more. “They give false expectations of an alleged effort to improve the Cuban situation, and everything we experience is the opposite,” he said, not clarifying if he was referring to the Cuban government’s discussions with Washington.   

Asked about Cuba’s future role in the context of the economic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), Diaz-Canel again attacked the United States and limited himself to saying that the Island hopes for a “multilateralism” where Russia also has a leading role. 

“BRICS is considering separating from dollarization,” he said, and he pointed out his “strategy”: “By moving away from the dollar, the sanctions imposed by the United States are avoided. Cuba is an example of that,” he said, without alluding to the fact that international remittances in dollars and euros keep the precarious national economy afloat.   

One of the measures to incorporate trade with Russia, he added, has been to open subsidiaries of Cuban banks in Russia and branches of Russian banks and financial agencies on the Island. 

As for the Social Communication Law, Díaz-Canel called it “historic,” since none of his predecessors in the Government had dealt with the issue, and the legislation, in that sense, “was totally outdated.” “It cannot be a law that remains for many years,” he said, because of the “tremendous speed” at which communications technology advances.   

In the context of the law’s approval and the justification for its severity, the president followed the usual script: “Cuba, like other countries, is totally assaulted in the media by campaigns of hatred, slander and discredit, which come from imperial centers of power supported by the US Government,” he said. 

“Networks are less and less democratic and are managed by a small number of transnationals” with their own interests, he alleged. His solution? “Post our own content,” adding that he intends for the Cuban population to “know how to communicate” in that way.   

Diaz-Canel said that he had achieved “consensus” with the citizenry and was implementing a “culture of debate”: “This is a paradigm that many in the world defend, but that is broken when they try to fracture the dialogues, when others say different things than those they want to impose,” he said, without alluding to the severity of the recently approved law that even penalizes interaction on social networks. 

He dedicated the last part of the interview to China but did not describe the present state of its relations with the Island. He limited himself, again, to criticizing the United States and theorizing about the “Taiwan issue,” which threatens the “reunification” that Havana and its allies defend.  

https://havanatimes.org/interviews/cuba-diaz-canels-exclusive-interview-on-russian-tv/

Euractiv, May 26, 2023

EU remains Cuba’s top trade partner, committed to ‘mutual respect,’ Borrell says

EURACTIV.com with Reuters and AFP

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell in Cuba, on 25 May 2023. [Twitter]

The European Union´s top diplomat said in Havana on Thursday (25 May) that the 27-member bloc remains Cuba´s top trade partner, and one committed to “mutual respect” despite US sanctions and the communist-run island´s increasing overtures towards Russia.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, during his first public appearance on a four-day trip to Cuba, told a group of local entrepreneurs the European Union was also the second-largest source of tourists to Cuba, behind Canada.

“Despite all the limitations the restrictive measures of the blockade, which does not make things easy, we are [Cuba´s] principal trade partner,” Borrell said.

The United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro´s 1959 revolution, a relic of the Cold War which continues to complicate financial and banking transactions with the Caribbean island nation.

Such sanctions, Cuba says, have contributed to its recent drive to increase commercial and trade ties with Russia, which has also faced sanctions from both the United States and the European Union following its invasion of Ukraine.

Cuba has said Russia is not responsible for the Ukraine conflict, blaming the United States instead.

Borrell, who spoke with entrepreneurs and fellow European diplomats Thursday, said “it is clear that we are much more important [in terms of trade] than other partners such as Russia and China.”

He said the EU accounted for about one-third of foreign trade on the island, “versus 8% by China or 8% by Russia.”

Borrell announced during his talk with entrepreneurs a €14 million fund to help promote small business in Cuba, a sign of the EU´s “desire to accompany Cuba in its process of … economic and social reforms in a relationship of mutual respect,” he said.

The European Union, a long-time trade partner with Cuba, has previously expressed concern over human rights on the island following anti-government protests in July of 2021, the largest such demonstrations in decades.

Borrell said on Thursday that he hoped to meet with Cuban officials to discuss human rights before the end of 2023.

Russian initiatives

Top Russian officials have flocked to Cuba this year, starting in March with Nikolai Patrushev, Moscow’s secretary of the Security Council, alongside the executive director of state oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin.

A representative of Russian business owners, Boris Titov, also visited.

The most high-profile visit was from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in April on a week-long trip to Latin American allies, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, which like Cuba and Russia are the subject of Western sanctions.

“Russia needs trading partners and political allies, with Latin America offering the possibility of both,” Mervyn Bain, from Aberdeen University in Scotland, told AFP.

Last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko drew up a road map to accelerate cooperation with Cuba.

The two countries have signed around a dozen agreements to relaunch trade relations in construction, information technology, banking, sugar, transport and tourism.

“But to what level” this cooperation can go “is unclear,” said Bain, an expert in Russia’s relationships with Latin America.

Chernyshenko’s plan also referenced Cuba’s need to change certain laws to loosen restrictions on private enterprise.

Cuba has announced the reopening of direct flights between Moscow and the seaside resort of Varadero, and Russian tourists have been able to use the Russian Mir payment system in the country since March.

‘Not the USSR’

The Russian visits to the Caribbean island nation have come only months after Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The two communist entities were close allies during the Cold War, but that cooperation was abruptly halted in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

Until then, 75% of Cuba’s commercial exchanges were with its communist ally.

Having almost ended completely, relations started picking up again from 2005, with the current levels of exchange the highest since then.

According to Russian figures, commercial exchanges between the two countries reached $450 million in 2022, with 90% of that in sales of oil and soybean oil to the island nation.

The strengthening of ties is paying off for Russia in geopolitical ways.

Havana had maintained a position of neutrality over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abstaining from United Nations votes on the issue.

But this week, Diaz-Canel assured Chernyshenko of “Cuba’s unconditional support” in its “clash with the West” and on Wednesday, Havana voted against a World Health Organization resolution condemning Russian attacks on Ukrainian health systems.

However, the aid that Russia can supply Cuba is limited and “nothing like” that which the Soviet Union furnished during the Cold War, according to Vladimir Rouvinski, an academic at the ICESI university in Cali, Colombia.

“Putin’s Russia is not the USSR … nor is Putin interested in spending millions of dollars keeping Cuba within the Russian orbit, and Russia doesn’t have the money to do so anyway,” said Rouvinski, who is an expert on Russia’s relations with Latin America.

While Moscow may not be spending the big bucks any time soon, Rouvinski said that the West’s unconditional support for Ukraine means “the attraction of Cuba for Putin’s Russia is its geographic proximity to the United States.”

“It’s the logic of symbolic reciprocity,” because “any mention of the possibility of having a Russian military presence on the island provokes great nervousness on the other side of the Florida Strait.”

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/eu-remains-cubas-top-trade-partner-committed-to-mutual-respect-borrell-says/