On October 27-30, 2019, the new President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, will visit Russia. Until recently, he served as chairman of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, and was elected president at an extraordinary session of the Cuban parliament on October 10, 2019.
At present, bilateral relations between Russia and Cuba are undergoing some improvement. In July of this year, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Cuba, and in October two top officials visited the island simultaneously: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. The bilateral talks focused on a strengthening of the Russian-Cuban strategic partnership, the expansion of military-technical cooperation, joint oil exploration and production, and biotechnology cooperation. Currently the trade turnover between two countries is growing, while there remains a noticeable imbalance in favour of Russia. In 2018, Russia's trade with Cuba amounted to $387.9 million, a 33.69% increase compared to 2017. While Russian exports to the one-time Soviet ally were worth 372.7 million dollars, imports only amounted to 15.2 million dollars. Today the issue of opening the Russian market for Cuban goods is a priority for the two states.
Cuba occupies a special place in the history of Russian diplomacy, which inherited the “Cuban syndrome” from the Soviet era. It owes its origin to the Caribbean missile crisis of the fall of 1962, which culminated in 13 days in October, when the whole planet stood on the threshold of a nuclear apocalypse. The hasty withdrawal of Soviet missiles batteries, which has been likened to a retreat from conquered and well-fortified positions, remained a painful wound for the armed forces. It also became a lesson for Soviet diplomacy: even a superpower like the Soviet Union had limits to its ability to project military power to other regions of the planet. The Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee and Soviet diplomats clearly realised that what the USSR could afford to achieve in Central Europe and Southeast Asia it could not do in the Western Hemisphere. The problem was not only the geographical remoteness of Cuba, but also its proximity to the United States. Today, just like many years ago, US leaders are inclined to consider the strengthening of Moscow's military presence on Cuban territory an existential threat that requires immediate and decisive action.
It is no coincidence that one of Vladimir Putin's first foreign policy steps aimed at improving relations with the United States was the announcement in October 2001 of the closure of Russia's Lourdes electronic intelligence centre in Cuba. Since 1967 this centre had intercepted all types of messages (radio, telephone, fax) on the US east coast, in the centre and in the southern part of the United States, in the interests of the armed forces and intelligence of the USSR and subsequently Russia. But Washington did not appreciate the Russian president's gesture of courtesy: by 2003, Russian-American relations had already re-entered a period of crisis. However, it is necessary to emphasise that despite all its difficulties in maintaining bilateral relations with Washington, Moscow did not restore the centre in Lourdes, making it clear: we recognize that Cuba is behind the “red line” that separates the zones of privileged interests of the two countries; we will cross this line only in extraordinary circumstances that have not yet occurred.
The current political and economic model of Cuba does not favour bilateral cooperation because of the public sector's dominance. Only recently, in 2014, the Cuban authorities adopted a series of laws that opened the domestic market to foreign investors and protected their rights. However, the effectiveness of this step in the face of continued US sanctions is low. They were even recently strengthened by the Trump administration as part of the confrontation between the United States and Venezuela, which today is Cuba's main economic partner.
Cuba’s economy is completely dependent on world prices for its sugar, nickel and tobacco. The Caribbean country has relatively rich deposits of non-ferrous metals (tungsten, copper, lead, zinc, chromium, magnesium), and due to positive medium-term forecasts for these metals prices rising, there are opportunities for Russian mining companies to invest in this sector. Another promising area of cooperation is tourism. The potential for its development is huge: in 2018 alone, 137,000 tourists from Russia visited the island, which received 4.7 million tourists from all over the world. The development of Cuba's hospitality infrastructure and its commercial operation could become a priority area of Russian-Cuban cooperation at the level of government and private business.
Russian policy towards Cuba today serves as a litmus test for assessing relations between Russia and the United States. If issues of military-technical cooperation will prevail in the dialogue between Moscow and Havana, it means that the Russian-American conflict is growing. If the interests of metallurgists, the oil industry and tourists are a priority, then cooperation wins. Even a small country like Cuba can be an important indicator of the relations between the great powers.