Russian President meets Raul and Fidel Castro during a visit to Cuba
Putin and counterpart sign deals expanding cooperation between the two countries
Russian officials agreed to forgive 90% of the more than $30 billion Cuba still owed
Cuba and the former Soviet Union enjoyed one of the firmest Cold War alliances
In a scene out of the Cold War, Cuban President Raul Castro and ailing brother Fidel met with the current leader of the communist island’s longtime economic benefactor, the state press reported Saturday.
During a daylong visit on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart signed a slew of agreements expanding cooperation between the two countries.
Putin also visited with Fidel Castro at his home outside Havana. Pictures released in Cuban state media showed the men standing and a smiling, with Putin placing his hand on Castro’s arm.
Castro was sidelined in 2006 by a mystery gastrointestinal illness and no longer holds official duties, but he still regularly greets visiting heads of state.
Cuba was the first stop on Putin’s Latin American tour, which will take him to Argentina and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the World Cup final game on Sunday. Russia is set to host the next World Cup in 2018.
On Saturday, Argentina President Cristina Kirchner tweeted a picture of her shaking hands with Putin.
“Argentina is Russia´s main strategic partner in Latin America, the United Nations and the G20 Group,” Putin said hours before departing for his trip to Latin America, according to the Telam news agency of Argentina.
In an interview with the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, Putin said the “Latin American nations that struggled for their independence inspire our deepest respect for their autonomy and their right to self-determination.”
“Today, cooperation with the Latin American nations is one of the key orientations and prospects of Russian foreign policy,” Putin told Prensa Latina. “Multilateralism in world affairs, respect to international law, strengthening of the central role of the U.N. and sustainable development are the principles that bring us together.”
Last week, Russian officials agreed to forgive 90% of the more than $30 billion Cuba still owed Russia. The remaining $3.5 billion would be paid back over a space of 10 years and reinvested in Cuba.
“It’s a great sign of the generosity of Russia towards Cuba,” Raul Castro said in video released of the agreement signing with Putin.
The two countries announced they also would cooperate more closely on energy, security and health matters.
The head of the Russian oil drilling consortium Rosneft accompanied Putin on the trip, and Cuban officials announced that the firm would help them explore for oil off the island’s northern coast.
Several international companies have drilled for a massive reserve of oil Cuban officials believe lies about 50 miles off their shores, but so far all have come up dry.
Cuba and Russia once enjoyed one of the firmest Cold War alliances, but that special relationship between ended abruptly with the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the start of the 1990s.
The loss of supplies from oil-rich Russia along with the end of favorable trade and aid that once propped up Cuba’s ailing economy plunged Cuba into an severe economic crisis.
In an interview published in the Cuban communist party newspaper Granma on Friday, Putin promised a new era of closer relations with Cuba.
“We are disposed to recover lost possibilities,” Putin said.
Following the crisis in Ukraine, Russian officials said they were looking to establish new naval bases in handful of countries, including Cuba.
While Cuban officials have said little about the Russian overtures, they have several times allowed a Russian spy ship to dock and resupply in Havana’s port.
It remains to be seen how significantly the two countries can aid one another as both Cuba and Russia deal with flagging economies and the impacts of U.S. trade sanctions.
“They are looking at ways to rebuild the relationship but it’s not that easy anymore,” said Marc Frank, author of the book “Cuban Revelations.” “Russia is no longer the Soviet Union while Cuba is still a Cuba. It’s a communist country while Russia really is not.”
According to Granma, Fidel Castro discussed with Putin his research into growing food in tropical and subtropical climates as a way to fight the effects of global warming.
Many Cubans said they remembered the relative economic security that the alliance with the Soviet Union brought and welcomed a renewed Russian presence on the island.
The child of a Cuban father and Russian mother, Andrei Shevsou in 2013 opened the Havana restaurant Tavariche, which serves Russian food and is filled with mementos of the Soviet era in Cuba.
“One country is cold, the other is hot. We have different food, different ways of thinking,” he said. “But we found common ground because [we] lived through historic times together.”