After the historic meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro in Panama, Russian experts are preoccupied with the question of the Kremlin losing its historic ally in Latin America. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles as he looks over towards Cuban President Raul Castro, left, during their historic meeting, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, on April 11, 2015. Photo: AP

The last week's historic meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama put an end to more than half a century of enmity between the two countries. Back in Russia, many are wondering if the Kremlin could be deprived of an old and time-tested friend and ally.

From the very early 1960s onwards relations between Moscow and Havana were described as “unbreakable and fraternal,” and Cuba itself was referred to as the “Island of Freedom.” The then young Soviet singer (now State Duma MP) Joseph Kobzon, sporting a bona fide Cuban beard, camouflage jacket and replica Kalashnikov, marched briskly back and forth across the stage singing the tellingly titled “Cuba, My Love.”

Today, in the words of well-known columnist Andrei Kolesnikov, Cuba is drifting out of Moscow’s orbit.

“The restoration of diplomatic relations, Cuba’s removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and the sudden bond between the two leaders, who could be father and son (Obama was born a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis), herald the Island of Freedom’s return to the pre-Marxist era,” writes Kolesnikov in the popular online publication “Russia let Cuba — its ‘historic’ outpost and pirate Soviet base in the Caribbean Sea — slip clean through its fingers.”

But let’s take a closer look. Did Moscow really let Cuba “slip through its fingers”? And if so, let’s try to answer another question: Could Russia have clung on to its ally?

Relations between Russia (previously, the Soviet Union) and Cuba have never followed the accepted norms of political and economic interplay between two sovereign states. From the very outset of Castro’s “barracks socialism,” the relationship was always one of donor and recipient.

Cuba’s economic model was utterly parasitic, and the country could not subsist merely on massive subsidies from Moscow, but needed the handouts to grow indefinitely, be it the purchase of Cuban sugar at ultra-low prices or practically free deliveries of oil, foodstuffs, machinery and equipment.

Moreover, Havana was not accountable to Moscow for its actions. For instance, in 1975 it dispatched an expeditionary force to Angola without informing the Soviet Politburo in advance, only putting Big Brother in the picture post factum.

Eloquent testimony to the lack of any balance in the relationship was Cuba’s decision to re-export Soviet oil at the height of perestroika. Back then the Cuban economy consumed 11 million metric tons of oil per year. Over the period 1987-1989 the Soviet Union delivered an annual amount of 13 million metric tons to the island. The remaining two million Cuba sold on the world market, which represented the country’s main earner in foreign currency. Peru and other Latin American countries were supplied with Russian tractors and civil aircraft that had been delivered gratis to Havana.

The collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to the subsidies, immediately opening up a rift in the “unbreakable” friendship. In 1992, enraged by such “historic injustice,” Fidel Castro, who had never accepted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, fulminated against the policies of the new Russian government. In several public speeches in Havana, the exalted Cuban leader described Russian cars as “basura” (garbage).

And when the Cuban economy finally picked up after the lean years of the so-called “special period,” thanks mainly to tourism and the emergence of a new sponsor in the shape of Venezuela, the Cuban authorities made it clear that further economic cooperation with Moscow was not a priority.

Deliveries of spare parts for outdated Soviet-made vehicles? Yes, please. Low-interest loans for the purchase of agricultural products? Absolutely. But in return there was no special place for Russia in Cuba’s strategically important sectors, such as the nickel industry and tourism.

In the northeast of the island, where the Soviet Union had once built two nickel plants, the Canadians moved in. New hotels were built by Mexican and Spanish firms. True, two years ago Cuba did seem to express renewed interest in working with Russian oil companies upstream. But experience tells us to remain cautious. For two decades, Soviet experts explored for oil off the Cuban coast, finding a few juicy items along the way, but were then suddenly taken off the case and all their discoveries were handed over to the Mexicans.

Russia-Cuba friendship: Game over?

What will happen to the “unbreakable” friendship when the United States lifts its 50-year economic embargo on Cuba and hundreds of U.S. companies beat a path to the door of the new El Dorado? Russian Latin American experts cannot agree.

“Russia’s interests in Cuba are varied. They are at once economic and — given the worsening relations between Russia and the United States — political,” says Boris Shmelev, head of the Center for Political Studies, Institute of Economics, Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). “In light of the fact that there is no imminent way out of the impasse, Cuba’s significance for Russia is increasing.”

As the “reset” in relations with the United States has fizzled out over the past few years, Moscow has been trying to incline Cuba to resume military and political ties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and even President Vladimir Putin have all paid visits to Havana.

 Russian media reported that Russia could reactivate the electronic surveillance station at Lourdes, and start using Cuba as a refueling base for its strategic bombers. But the Cuban authorities turned out to be less acquiescent, and the rumors were debunked by Putin himself. Moreover, in 2008 Moscow failed to persuade Havana to recognize the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And in their official statements Cuba’s leaders have tiptoed around Moscow’s “special op” in Crimea and events in southeastern Ukraine.

Starting 2006, when power effectively shifted from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Raul (formally it happened five years later), the Cuban leadership has adopted a highly pragmatic approach.

In this regard, the view of Vladimir Sudarev, deputy director of the RAS Institute of Latin America, appears more balanced, positing that, “If the trade embargo on Cuba is completely lifted and U.S. companies start arriving, Russia will have to operate in a tough competitive environment and risk losing its already established contacts.”

Will Russia really lose Cuba?

But does all this mean that Russia will in fact lose Cuba? It goes without saying that the Cubans are more interested in replacing outdated Russian imports with Western technology. However, the whole of Cuba’s existing transport and other infrastructure is a carbon copy of the Soviet Union’s. And it will take years to disassemble.

Therefore, trade and economic ties between Moscow and Havana may actually thrive, especially given the fact that thousands of Cubans have studied at Soviet and Russian universities and speak Russian.

The only thing that Russian strategists must part with irrevocably is the idea of using Cuba as a “Russian aircraft carrier in America’s backyard.” Havana is so keen to establish good relations with Washington that any talk of strengthening military cooperation with Uncle Sam in the crosshairs is idle chatter.

What’s more, Moscow’s hopes that the 2016 U.S. elections could see Republican hardliners return to power, condemning Cuba to another blockade, are illusory. Indeed, Raul Castro himself has stated that he will vacate the captain’s bridge, whether or not he remains healthy.

If the absence of any ideological component is a precondition for the successful continuation of Russian-Cuban ties, then, however paradoxical it may seem, the emotional element will linger for many years to come. After all, many Cubans, even those who emigrated from the island to the United States, have an undisguised soft spot for Russia.

“When, after studying at flight school in Krasnodar, I returned to Cuba in the late 1980s, the suffocating atmosphere on the island shocked me — the contrast was so striking,” says pilot Orestes Lorenzo, who fled to Miami in 1993. “Gorbachev's perestroika completely changed my view of life and incentivized me to flee the island of captivity.”

“What’s happening on the island now reminds me of perestroika in the Soviet Union,” says Juan Juan Almeida, son of famous Cuban comandante and close Castro ally Juan Almeida Bosque. “I only hope that Cubans learn from [Russia’s] negative experience and can overcome the barbaric stage of wild capitalism.”

Well then, if Cuban exiles in the Sunshine State are nostalgic about Russia, it seems that Soviet ideologists were right about one thing - the friendship really is strong and unbreakable.