- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

HAVANA | Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited former Cold War ally Cuba on Thursday, as a resurgent Moscow flexed its muscle in Latin America by securing energy, military and trade deals across the region.

The symbolic trip to Havana is sure to irk the White House in its traditional back yard with relations between Moscow and Washington already strained over Russia’s war with Georgia and U.S. plans for missile defense programs in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Medvedev arrived in Havana after meeting another U.S. foe, President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where Russian warships conducted joint exercises in the Caribbean and the two leaders talked over deals for more arms sales to the OPEC member.

Russia is likely to commit to rebuilding its alliance with Cuba, abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russian oil companies want to drill offshore and the military has talked about air space defense cooperation with Havana.

But where ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union were once a symbol of Russian power in Latin America, Havana is now more likely to seek more diverse trade, and Moscow is hunting for new markets to ward off the global economic crisis.

Mr. Medvedev is the first Russian leader to visit Havana since his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, closed down Russia’s Lourdes intelligence base in 2001. Cuba will likely take a pragmatic approach to ties with Moscow after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama offered to roll back some restrictions on the island, analysts say.

“Even with Russia’s differences with the United States, they are not interested in worsening relations,” said Vadim Teperman at the Latin American Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Cuba is expecting some positive changes from Obama, promised during his campaign.”

Mr. Medvedev’s Cuba visit comes on the heels of a trip by Chinese President Hu Jintao, who put off some of Cuba’s debt payments and agreed to cooperation deals to strengthen ties between the two communist nations.

Cuban President Raul Castro may visit Russia next year, and Moscow has called for Washington to lift the economic embargo on the Caribbean island imposed in 1962 when Mr. Castro’s brother, Fidel Castro, was in power.

Moscow was Havana’s main benefactor during the Cold War, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 battered Cuba’s economy.

Venezuela under Mr. Chavez has increasingly become a key trade partner for Cuba, providing the island with valuable energy supplies in exchange for services. Caracas is also upgrading an oil refinery and a nickel plant.

“Cuba is involved in a series of diplomatic initiatives aimed at diversifying its portfolio,” said Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is pure pragmatism.”

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