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Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Following the 1959 communist revolution led by Raul and Fidel Castro, Cuba served as the Soviet Union’s strategic partner and proxy, due to its key location just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Now, under an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Russia, the classic Cold War alliance appears to have been renewed.

For evidence of the warming ties, look no further than a tropical storm. When Hurricane Gustav recently cut a destructive swathe through the Caribbean, Cuba rejected Washington’s offer of immediate aid. Instead, Cuba’s state-run television showed two cargo planes, said to be Russian, landing at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, then tents and construction materials being unloaded by soldiers. All in all, Russia sent 200 tons of emergency aid to Cuba in the wake of Gustav’s damage to the island. The Cuban newspaper Granma reported that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev called Cuban president Raul Castro in a show of “solidarity.”

Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has Cuba received such generous and highly visible aid from its former communist patron. But the development has been on the horizon at least since the Russian Security Council announced that the two countries planned to “restore traditional relations in all areas of co-operation.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin added bluntly, “We need to re-establish positions on Cuba and in other countries.”

The United States, of course, has had a very different approach to the island. President Kennedy imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1962, and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act forbade U.S. citizens from conducting business with the country. (The European Union’s economic sanctions, introduced in 2003 and lasting until this summer, are less frequently discussed.) Later, President Clinton loosened restrictions to permit US companies to sell certain products to Cuba, which now receives close to 5 percent of its imports from the United States.

In response to U.S. sanctions, the Soviets under Premier Khrushchev provided Castro with aid, trade opportunities and agricultural subsidies, in exchange for a Soviet missile base on Cuban territory, a development that eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fears that the Soviets would use Cuba as a staging ground for attacks on America faded after that, but never completely disappeared.

And with good reason. As a Soviet client state, Cuba posed a threat to America’s neighbors in the southern hemisphere. Sure enough, communism – and with it, virulent anti-Americanism – spread throughout Latin America after the 1959 revolution. In many instances, these developments were openly and passionately supported by Democratic politicians and American leftists, who romanticized dictators like Nicaragua’s Daniel Noriega as colorful, peasant revolutionaries inspired by Catholic “liberation theology.” The facts on the ground gave the lie to this fantasy, as millions in Latin America became mired in Soviet-sponsored poverty and war. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Latin America showed signs of assigning communism and socialism to the “ash heap of history,” and Cuba was left without the billions of dollars in Soviet aid that had kept its doomed command economy treading water. Instead it relied upon handouts from Venezuela and China.

But the reemergence of Russia as a regional power casts the Russo-Cuban relationship in a troubling new light. Not only have Cuba and Russia renewed their Cold War partnership but they also have reasserted their influence in Latin America, while cultivating troubling alliances around the world. According to military analysts, Havana and Venezuela are circulating rumors that Russia is planning to put a military base – specifically, a refueling base for nuclear capable bombers – in one or both of their countries, an obvious reaction to the recent U.S.-Poland missile base deal.

Stratfor analysts report:

“So far, much of the talk has been just that — and for good reason. Actually attempting to host a base in Latin America would be logistically problematic, expensive and would entail significant military vulnerability. But a center of operations is not the only option for Russia. Following the pattern of the Soviet Cold War tactics in Latin America, Russia can also leverage small amounts of aid and support across the region to generate instability.”

As well, Latin America is sending its support to Russia during its incursion into Georgia last month. On September 3, Nicaragua became one of the first nations, along with Venezuela, to recognize “independent” South Ossetia.

According to one analyst, Daniel Ortega’s newfound assertiveness is “sure to grab Russia’s attention at a time when Russia is looking for ways to keep the United States firmly focused anywhere but on Russia itself. A bit of Russian involvement in Nicaragua would certainly do that. But the Americans will not stand idly by, and Ortega might soon regret his decision.”

Reports of renewed Russian and Cuban alliances, with Nicaragua’s Ortega piping up from relative obscurity, certainly call to mind the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. However, new players in the drama, such as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, add a new spin to a familiar story.

So does the emergence of Iran’s new alliance with Cuba. Beginning in 2006, Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani expressed his desire to improve Tehran-Havana relations by helping meet the “technical and engineering requirements” of Cuba and other states in Latin America. The Iranian-Cuba connection runs deep, since Cuba has become dependent on Iranian oil, not to mention a generous line of credit. In return, “Iran has used Cuba’s electronic transmissions jamming expertise and the Chinese equipped electronic warfare base near Havana, to interfere with U.S. sponsored pro-democracy broadcasts into Tehran.”

When a decrepit Fidel Castro last year ceded power to his brother Raul, there was widespread hope that Cuba would move in the direction of political liberty, democratic government, and improved relations with the West. The reconstituted alliance with Russia suggests, however, that Cuba is bent on refighting the Cold War under the shield of Moscow. That approach is unlikely to serve the country any better the second time around.

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