What’s Putin Putting in Cuba?**
The recent Putin visit to Cuba rekindled memories of the Cold War. In those days the Soviets used Cuba to challenge and spy on the U.S. An electronic eavesdropping facility was placed on the island. Airports and ports to service the Soviet planes and fleet were upgraded. Finally nuclear missiles were introduced bringing the world close to a nuclear holocaust.
These are different times. The U.S. is a much stronger power. Russia is a smaller, weaker nation.
Yet the Russians defied the U.S. and Europe over Crimea; are not particularly cooperative on Iran; have profound differences with the U.S. over a possible Nato-missile deployment in Europe; and recently deployed in Kaliningrad, in the Baltic, tactical nuclear missiles to the chagrin of the U.S.
Within these growing U.S.-Russian differences, what’s Putin up to in Cuba? First there is no significant Russian interest in commercial relations with a poor, debt ridden country lacking in major mineral resources and the ability to purchase large scale Russian goods. Second, while Russia signed agreements with General Raul Castro’s regime to continue to search for petroleum in Cuba’s waters, the Russians have enough petroleum and no need for Cuban petroleum. Third, these are not the Soviets, willing to subsidize the bankrupt economy of an ally.
The Russian visit is primarily strategic, perhaps aimed at poking the Americans in the eye. Russian investments in the Port of Mariel and the construction of a modern airport in San Antonio de los Baños, may not presage the visit of Russian tourists, but of naval vessels including nuclear submarines, and long range bombers. Also the installation of Glonass infrastructure could provide Cuba with remote sensory and satellite telecommunications, as well as a facility to eavesdrop on U.S. military and commercial communications, not much different than the Lourdes facility of the Cold War era, but much more sophisticated.
It seems that Putin and the Russian military are not content with remaining a second rate power. By this visit and actions, Putin is giving notice to Washington that Russia is ready for an aggressive projection of power and for a new internationalism.
**To be re-published in Caribbean Journal on July 17, 2014.
*Jaime Suchlicki is Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro, now in its fifth edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to NAFTA, now in its second edition and the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.