Russian president visits Cold War ally Cuba

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

HAVANA — Russia’s president visited old Cold War ally Cuba on Thursday, spending hours with President Raul Castro on the final leg of a Latin America tour designed to increase Moscow’s profile in a region long dominated by the United States.

Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Havana from Venezuela, where he met with socialist President Hugo Chavez and agreed to help the oil-rich South American country start a nuclear energy program.

Russian officials deny that Medvedev’s four-nation trip to Latin America is meant to provoke the United States, but the voyage included meetings with Washington’s staunchest opponents in the region. Chavez and Medvedev met aboard a Russian warship docked in a Venezuelan port ahead of joint military exercises.


The visit comes at a time when Russia is angry at U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in eastern Europe.

The upper chamber of the Czech Parliament on Thursday approved a deal to accept a U.S. missile defense installation. Russia fiercely opposes the plans, saying U.S. military installations in former Soviet satellites threaten its security.

In Cuba, Raul Castro did not greet the Russian president at the airport, but he was by his side just a short time later, accompanying Medvedev to the monument of independence hero Jose Marti and to a recently inaugurated Russian Orthodox Church.

The pair also met privately, then spoke again surrounded by top advisers as part of "official conversations" at the storied Palace of the Revolution, discussing the global financial crisis and other topics.

Medvedev told reporters that Russia is stepping up its political ties in Latin America and said Moscow must aggressively seek to shore up its economic position in the region.

"In some ways we are only now beginning full-fledged, full-format and, I hope, mutually beneficial contacts with the leaders of these states," he said, speaking of Latin America as a whole. "We should not be shy and fear competition. We must bravely enter the fight."

The 77-year-old Castro — who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February — served as Cuba’s defense minister for nearly five decades and enjoyed an excellent relationship with Soviet defense officials. A steadfast communist who visited the Soviet Union often, Castro has long been thought of as a great admirer of Moscow and its policies.

The Soviet Union was Cuba’s chief source of aid and trade until its disintegration in 1991, and relations between the Russian federation and the island soured. Former Russian President Vladimir Putin visited in 2000 to strengthen ties but reminded Havana it should pay its Soviet-era debt.


Shortly after Putin’s visit, Moscow closed a Cold War-era electronic spying facility in Lourdes, just outside Havana, and it has since been converted into an elite computer sciences university.

Russia’s ambassador to Cuba suggested last week that his country is interested in offshore oil exploration in deep Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico and taking part in a Venezuelan effort to refurbish a Soviet-era refinery in the port city of Cienfuegos.

There was no word on whether Medvedev would see the 82-year-old Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

Suffering from an undisclosed illness in a secret location, the ex-president has continued to release essays several times a week. He also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who came to Cuba as part of his own tour of Latin America last week.

Earlier Thursday, Medvedev toured a Russian destroyer in Venezuela, one of two large Russian warships that arrived for training exercises in the first deployment of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War.

Chavez saluted the captain, and joked: "We’re going to Cuba!" The warships will hold joint exercises with Venezuela’s navy next week.

Russia pledged to help Venezuela with oil projects and building ships, while Chavez’s government signed a deal to buy two Russian-made Ilyushin Il-96 passenger jets. Moscow also plans to develop a peaceful nuclear cooperation program with Venezuela by the end of next year.

While in Caracas, Medvedev also met with presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and said Russia is ready to consider participating in a socialist trade bloc led by Chavez.


Medvedev also visited Peru and Brazil.

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