Cuba – Russia Now and Then

Years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated termination of cooperation and a strong alliance between Cuba and Russia, both states are now working overtime to revive the relationship which once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war when the Soviet Union covertly installed nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. It is hardly surprising that Russia’s attempts to revive its relationship with the former ally are being closely monitored by the U.S., seeing that Russia and Cuba have a shared legacy and due to Cuba’s proximity to Washington. Presently, however, Russia is not attempting to develop a relationship based on ideological confrontation, but rather one based on economic pragmatism.

An Overview of Cuban Relations with Russia
Russia and Cuba ties originated many decades prior to Fidel Castro taking power. After Cuba’s independence in 1902, the Russian Empire initiated diplomatic relations with Cuba. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Cuba put the relationship on hold until1943, when Russia was a major belligerent in the war against Nazi Germany. In 1952, Batista Cuba again broke off its relationship with Moscow due to Russia’s communist affiliation. During this period and then after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and even after Fidel Castro’s proud communist cry, Cuba was not viewed by Moscow as being of particular importance to Russia. Soviet leadership realized that the island was squarely located in the U.S. sphere of influence and would be difficult to defend if challenged by the U.S.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the United States had investments in Cuba totaling about one billion in U.S.-dollars, representing nearly twelve percent of all US-investments in Latin America. The Cuban economy at the time was completely dominated by its powerful neighbor, but everything changed after Fidel Castro came to power. He launched a land reform program and seized American assets, putting them under government control. In attempting to topple the Castro-Regime, the United States slashed its sugar quota for Cuba which heavily affected the Cuban economy. This measure did not result in a desired change in Cuban leadership, but effectively moved the island much closer politically to Moscow.

Castro Becomes a Communist
When Castro came to power in 1959, his revolutionary movement did not profess communistic ideology, but only two years later, he announced that he was a Marxist Leninist and would remain so until his death. He also declared that the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (IRO), the precursor of the Communist Party of Cuba, was formed by the merger of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Revolutionary Movement and the People’s Socialist Party. Castro’s political shift could be seen as one of economic necessity. After the revolution, the Cuban middle class, dissatisfied with the new leadership’s political course, fled Cuba. This huge economic brain drain, coupled with the closure of the U.S. market to Cuban sugar, led to a precarious fiscal situation on the island.

The Soviet Union took advantage of the favorable situation for it to meddle and decided to come to Cuba’s assistance on February 13, 1960. It did this in order to gain influence in the Western Hemisphere, marking the inauguration of the modern Cuban-Soviet relationship. Representatives from both leftist governments signed a trade agreement which became the basis for further economic cooperation. In this agreement, the Soviet Union committed to purchase 425,000 tons of sugar in 1960, and from 1961 to 1964 one million tons sugar annually. Furthermore, Nikita Khrushchev granted Havana a 100 million U.S.-dollar credit at a very low interest (2.5 %) and promised to sell oil to Cuba below world market prices. This enabled Cuba to once again rely on its sugar industry to buoy the Cuban economy because of Russia’s guarantee of a stable market and further economic aid. As a result, Cuba became nearly totally dependent on the Soviet Union. In order for Cuba to receive financial subventions from Moscow, the Soviet Union demanded that Cuba make certain economic reforms. Just as Cuba reformed its economy to follow the Soviet Union’s specifications, Cuba’s political order was reformed as well. On the surface, Castro’s regime became Marxist Leninist; in fact, he and his speeches framed the ideological guideline and not the working class or the party. However, through his formal commitment to communism, Castro won the abiding support and affection of the Soviet Union, even though its leaders barely comprehended him, thereby ensuring financial security for his island. Furthermore, the Soviet Union gained an ally in its Cold War against the United States located close to its borders. This alliance led to the most serious confrontation during the Cold War when Soviet and Cuban governments placed nuclear missiles on Cuban soil in 1962.

In the 1980s, Cuban dependence on the Soviet Union increased due to falling global oil prices between 1983 and 1985. Cuba, which once could sell a part of the cheap oil that it bought from Russia on the world market, was now finding it difficult to profit from the sale of its surplus oil. Thereafter, Cuba focused almost completely on trade with the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries by the late 1980s. Between 1959 and 1991, the Soviet Union delivered 170 million tons of oil, 13 million tons of grain, and 300,000 trucks, cars and tractors to Cuba. While Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union was growing, the latter began to gradually disassociate itself from the island. In an interview with a Cuban newspaper, Raúl Castro revealed that the Soviet Union told Fidel during his visit to Moscow in 1983 that it would not defend Cuba if the U.S. was to attack the island. Both countries decided to keep this strategic shift secret. However, eight years later it was the Soviet Union which imploded and triggered the fall of communist governments around the world.

Cuba’s Survival After the Collapse of the Soviet Union
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia immediately began to throw the switches on its traditional economic relations with Cuba. Russian officials began to distance themselves from Castro and began to support the Anti-Castro emigration from Cuba. According to the Russian parliament (DUMA), the trade between Russia and Cuba decreased from nine billion in 1990 to 710 million U.S.-dollars three years later. From 1989 to 1991, Russian exports to Cuba fell by 70%. The oil exports fell twice between 1989 and 1992, resulting in the collapse of Cuba’s foreign trade. During the course of its economic crisis, the social problems in Cuba were exacerbated. Power cuts, a lack of medicine, and the prevalence of a booming black market were symptoms of the economic crisis which peaked in 1993. However, through internal market reforms, Castro was able to keep his regime barely alive during what was known as the “special period,” which was characterized by great deprivation and suffering.

Although Russia had reduced its cooperation with Cuba to a bare minimum, it never entirely ended the relationship and soon the deacceleration was followed by first tentative efforts of a weak rapprochement. In November 1992, both countries signed agreements on trade and economic cooperation. In December 1993, an agreement on cultural and scientific cooperation was also initiated. In May 1996, the Declaration on the Principles of Relationships between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Cuba outlined the desire to look for ways to resolve present economic frictions. Furthermore, critics increasingly began to voice their concerns over Russia’s restrictive stance towards its former ally.

On October 14, 1994, members of the DUMA criticized the Russian de facto embargo against Cuba and appealed to the Russian leadership to revive the economic relationship with Havana. Simultaneously, it also called upon the United States to end the economic embargo against Cuba which had led to a social and economic catastrophe on the island. However, Washington did not even consider resolving its boycott against Cuba. Instead, after the collapse of Cuba’s powerful sponsor, the United States decided to go for the kill by tightening the embargo in order to try to topple the Castro regime. In 1996, the Clinton administration passed “The Cuban Liberty Act,” also known as the Helms-Burton Act. Title III of this bitterly anti-Cuban initiative determined that the United States would prosecute countries “allegedly trafficking property formerly owned by U.S. citizens but expropriated by Cuba” after the 1959 revolution had been staged. Helms-Burton also contained a section referring to Russia, which after the collapse had retained its intelligence facilities on Cuban territory. This section refused any assistance to Russia in case it acted to pressure these facilities. Moscow backed Cuba in the UN vote against this act not wanting to close its intelligence facilities or end its economic relationship with Cuba. Instead of biding by the spirit of this act, Russia further sought to gradually foster the revival of its old relationship with its former ally.

Rapprochement of Former Allies
During the rule of Boris Yeltsin (1991 –1999), the first bilateral agreements with Cuba were signed. However, Cuba was not seen as being particularly important for Russian foreign policy goals and trade continued to decrease between the two. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia gradually changed course in its policies toward Cuba. In 2000, he visited and granted Castro a 50 million U.S.-dollar credit, a relatively meager financial aid package, but one that marked the resumption of an official dialogue between some of Cuba’s and Russia’s highest leaders. During his visit to Cuba, Putin emphasized that Russia had no ideological agenda in the region and instead wanted practical deals that would benefit Russian businesses, pointing to a pragmatic component of the relationship. One year later, following the introduction of this new stance, Putin closed the controversial Russian radar station in Cuba, complying with the U.S. demands that had angered many Cubans because of sovereignty issues. Nonetheless, under Putin, trade links between Cuba and Russia increased, from 125 million U.S.-dollars in 2005 to over 231 million in 2006 and then to 285 million, with the trade turnover peaking in 2007. These figures made Cuba the seventh largest Russian trading partner in Latin America (but represented only 0.05% of Russia’s total foreign trade). More significant than the trade relationship between the former allies was the revival of their strategic partnership. In 2009, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin signed four contracts securing exploration rights in Cuba’s economic zone in Cuban territorial offshore waters, involving oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nonetheless, for the United States, Russian involvement in Cuba is nothing to worry about. “Russia has no nuclear weapons on Cuba, no weapons. The relationship between Russia and the United States is not a threat for us,” said Wayne Smith, Senior Fellow and Director of the Cuba Project at The Center for International Policy. Even the Pentagon acknowledges that Cuba does not constitute a danger to U.S. public security. This raises the question why the United States is still clinging to the boycott against Cuba which has had no impact on Cuban policy thus far. Dr. Smith, who served as executive secretary of President Kennedy’s Latin American Task Force and Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, criticizes the American stance toward Cuba: “It does not make any sense. But the United States is not prepared as of yet to deal rationally with Cuba. Cuba is not a threat and it has signaled that it wants to have a constructive dialogue, which is needed. Polls indicate that the majority of Americans are in favor of such dialogue,” which has to leave the Obama administration a bit embarrassed by its false starts up to now.

13 thoughts on “Cuba – Russia Now and Then

  • February 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Mr. Haperskij, to answer your question posed in the last paragraph, the boycott continues because Americans generally despise egotistical dictators who destroy their countries. Cuba's economic problem is not due to the US boycott.. Castro has the entire rest of the world to trade with. Its problem is that under Castro management, Cuban society has become grossly unproductive. They produce nothing to trade with anyone. You also completely misrepresent the past. THe US curtailment of sugar trade and the exodus of the middle class were the result of Castro treachery. Castro began seizing private property and aligning himself with Russia in the first year of his dictatorship. You claim (or lie, whichever fits best) that the US pushed him to Russia. A communist dictatorship was Castro's objective from the beginning. Why do you think the US Cubans hate him? The middle class was his support when he was still in the mountains, but when he came to power he immediately began to steal their businesses and property. He lied (or obfuscated) his political objectives during the revolution, then totally screwed his supporters. What a hero.

  • February 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a good reason the trade embargo should remain in place. I'd like to see why COHA doesn't criticize a government in which "insulting the figure of Fidel Castro" is an imprisionable offense.

  • February 25, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    References would be appreciate.

  • February 26, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Dear Evgenij Haperski, your point of view referring the history of relatiohships between the different countries named in your article is very interesting for me. Do US history teacher really tell their students things like that. – Now wonder for the attitude of your compatriots then!
    Your wrote:
    “Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the United States had investments in Cuba totaling about one billion in U.S.-dollars, representing nearly twelve percent of all US-investments in Latin America.” I did not know those numbers, however, I would like to know about the profit the US respectively the United Fruit Companies made also, while the Cuban rural population grew even poorer and Havana was a gambling house and a brothel for US marines and the mafia.
    Cuban people had been suffering from the Batista dictatorship having been protected by the US government, which caused thousands of dead and disappeared people.
    Before the breakout of the French Revolution the French queen Marie Antoinette allegedly wondered: “The people have no bread? Why don’t they eat cakes?”

    “ … when Russia was a major belligerent in the war against Nazi Germany.”
    This is wrong: The major belligerent country was Nazi Germany. There had been a non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, which Hitler irgnored when after having attacked Poland tried to conquer Russia. Russia had to defend itself!
    “Furthermore, the Soviet Union gained an ally in its Cold War against the United States located close to its borders. This alliance led to the most serious confrontation during the Cold War when Soviet and Cuban governments placed nuclear missiles on Cuban soil in 1962.”
    You are mixing up cause and effect by this statement.
    Nikita Khrushchev had realized before that the US had placed close to its borders in Turkey nuclear missiles.
    I remember McNamara saying in those years that the aim of USA would be to exhaust the Soviet Union by the competition of armament.
    And this plan was successful at last by the entrapment of the Soviet Union into the Afghanistan war when the CIA had supported the insurgent Mudjahedeen against the democraticly elected Nadjibulah regime in 1979 before, see:… ;
    Referring Cuba: It seems to be sonsequently ignored by the majority in the US thanks to misinformation by the “disciplined medias” (Noam Chomsky) that Cuba suffered since the 60s from sabotage and terrorist acts by CIA trained exile Cubans causing until 1999 3,478 dead and 2.099 disabled people.
    Meanwhile five Cubans are imprisoned since more than 11 years because of having tried to prevent such terrorist acts.
    Shame on your “Democracy” of an aggressive Empire!

    • April 28, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you for clarifying the inaccuracies of this article. I personally appreciate that you have pointed out so many parts of misinformation mentioned in this article. I am just a curious individual seeking potentially accurate information.

  • February 26, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Sorry for my writing mistakes above!
    As Wayne S. Smith is quoted at the end of the article I would like to add another quotation of him from January 9, 2009 on CounterPunch:

    "Pardon the Cuban Five in Return for the Release of Cuban Political Prisoners.

    Cuba will never accept preconditions. Demanding that it release political prisoners before the U.S. takes any steps to improve relations is the best way to assure that neither ever takes place. The Cubans have been down that road before, to their regret. Raul Castro, however, has come up with an interesting idea. One gesture for another, as he describes it. Cuba would be willing to talk to a number of the dissidents now held in prison, and their families, to see if they’d be interested in going to the U.S. If so, Cuba would be willing to release them. That would be its gesture. The gesture on the part of the U.S. would be that it free the Cuban Five, the five Cuban agents who came to the U.S. to penetrate and spy on exile terrorist organizations in Miami.
    The Cuban Five should be pardoned anyway. Their trials were grossly unfair. There was never any evidence that they had committed any crime other than to be the unregistered agents of a foreign power. They were spying on exile groups, not on the U.S. government. And spying on exile groups is not a crime. The case of Gerardo Hernandez is perhaps the worst. Convicted of “conspiracy to commit murder,” he is serving a life sentence. Yet there was never any evidence at all that he was involved in any way in the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft back in 1996. The conviction of the Five and their long years in prison are a black mark on the U.S. system of justice, one that at some point must be overturned. One can imagine the outcry among some in Miami, however, at the suggestion that they be pardoned.
    Raul Castro’s suggestion may offer a way out. It would be difficult for the hardliners to oppose the pardoning of the Five if that was to lead to the freeing of a group of political prisoners in Cuba. And so, hopefully, it is something President Obama can at some point consider."

  • February 28, 2010 at 2:55 am

    First off, people have been tortured in Cuba under the Castro regime. There is a well-documented body of literature on the subject as long as my arm, and something as cursory as a quick google search will lead you to those documents. And you still haven't answered the question as to why Castro imprisons people who insult his figure. That's something a dictator would do. Fidel Castro isn't a dictator is he? That would just turn my world upside down. Oh, and Granma is no better than deli paper. I'd rather wrap a sandwich in it than read it, as far as I'm concerned.

  • March 1, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I thought so, that you would talk like this!
    Since I have been in Cuba from 1995 until 2008 for 10 times – each time travelling around the country for weeks, meeting people, attending conferences etc. I don't trust people telling stories about Castro's dictatorship and any torture in his name at all!
    You should hear what Saul Landau says on "Espejos de Aztlán" on April 6, 2009, or William Blum or Noam Chomsky or what Howard Zinn had written.
    There are US intellectuals, different from people like, saving the honor of the United States.

    • June 28, 2010 at 12:11 am

      I wonder, Josie, have you ever heard of a raft being built in Florida to float to Cuba? But Castro is not a dictator, right?

  • August 19, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Something has been true in the past centuries: victims of dictadorships never talk untill the regime collapse or is about to collapse.
    The embargo does arm the Cuban population, it is just not the only reason of Cuban poverty. Last but not least, i found this article pretty fair and neutral (which is difficult when two world have been opposed during half a century). I am sure the author is as scandalized by human rights abuses as you and i, it is not mentioned because the subject of the analysis is Russian-Cuban relations. Russian has not respect human rights either in the past (i am not teaching you anything), so i guess Putin and Fidel never talked about it, therefore it was not to be written i the analysis even if remembering is important. Sorry for my writting mistakes, English is not my mother tongue.

  • September 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    Russia appears to be incapable of developing international companies and corporations like the USA. It has had 40 -50 years to do so in Cuba. It could have developed manufacturing companies using Cuba as a base to export to the rest of the South America. It could have built hotels and resorts to develop the Cuban tourist industry, it could have expanded and diversified the agricultural industry particularly to grow tropical products that cannot be grown in Russia, it could have built universities, hospitals with a “brand Russia ” on them (Like the American University in Beirut, or” The American Hospital ” in Paris and this would have, had they been successful, generated good will and possibly allowed further areas of cooperation with other Carribbean and South American countries. It is something I just don’t understand about Russia. The population in Cuba are generally educated, the salaries they would have payed would have been a lot lower than salaries even in Russia, the government in Cuba at the time already had an established relationship with Russia. Is it a lack of imagination or are they just not very intelligent, because now, as America re-encroaches back into Cuba, Russia has possible already missed it’s chance. That’s what amazes me about “Russian-Cuban” relationships. And not even one of Russias oligarchs seems to have had the vision to see this. Hardly surprising that Russia with a population of almost 140 million approx only has an economy the size of Italy. And the Russians wonder why is the Russian economy is floundering, ? Really they only have themselves to blame and can’t just blame it on oil prices or American sanctions.

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