One of the most significant figures of the Cold War era has passed away, but it’s clear that Moscow and Washington are looking to the future rather than the past.
A soldier is silhouetted against the early morning sky during the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 30, 2016. Photo: AP
Cuba is still in mourning after Fidel Castro, the historical leader of the revolution, died. Presidents and prime ministers from dozens of countries came to the island to say farewell to the revolutionary. However, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor U.S. President Barack Obama took part in the funeral proceedings.
Despite the restoration of U.S.-Cuba relations this summer, which at the time was trumpeted as one of the most important accomplishments of his foreign policy legacy, Obama did not come to Cuba for the commemorative event. Putin also did not attend the mourning ceremonies in Havana. Instead, he sent a delegation to Cuba headed by the Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin.
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Greece was the only European country represented by a top-level official, the head of the Greek government, Alexis Tsipras. By and large, Latin American countries showed their solidarity with Castro, as 15 heads of state arrived in Cuba.
Putin's spokesmen Dmitry Peskov explained that the Russian president could not come to Cuba because of his tight schedule. In particular, he was preparing for his annual address to the Federal Assembly. However, many foreign media outlets suggested that the true reason behind Putin’s absence in Cuba was Moscow’s desire not to complicate relations with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who recently called Castro names.
Trump claimed that Castro was a “brutal dictator” and also promised to review the U.S. relationship with Cuba, if “Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people and the U.S. as a whole.”
In addition, the modest representation of the Russian leadership in the commemoration ceremony in Cuba in a way reflects the quite complex and ambiguous nature of the Soviet-Cuban and (later) Russian-Cuban relations that have existed for nearly 50 years now.
Despite the propagandistic slogan about “brotherly friendship,” Russia-Cuban relations have traveled along a bumpy road ever since the victory of the Cuban revolution in January 1959.
One of the most vivid political cataclysms between the two states happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev unilaterally decided to dismantle nuclear missiles from the island in October 1962. Castro reacted very emotionally against such a decision.
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev told his colleagues: “[Castro] is an amazing person… Yesterday he suggested that we start a nuclear war. Apparently, this is because life is not a bed of roses. What is this? Midsummer madness or absence of mind?”
A year after the crisis, the Soviet leadership decided to reconcile with Castro and invited him to visit the Soviet Union as a distinguished guest with an extensive program. However, it could not help to overcome the differences in the character and conceptual approach to the world order between Moscow and Havana.
Over the following years, Castro organized purges against Cuba’s orthodox Communists and took a leap towards China, which caused a great deal of discontent in Moscow. In the 1970s, Cuba undertook a unilateral decision to send its troop to Angola and did not inform Moscow about that.
Cuban socialism, based almost exclusively on the massive Soviet subsidies, resulted in a unique relationship with the USSR. Castro viewed Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko as ideal rulers that he could count on for help and assistance at any time without any compensation.
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Since 1983, Moscow’s humble attempts to stabilize those massive subsidies to Cuba crashed against a harsh lack of acceptance from the Cuban leadership. In any such attempts to cut back on aid undertaken by the Soviet ambassadors to the island, Castro sent a high-ranking envoy to Moscow who got everything needed. Cuba was a priority for the Kremlin, even compared to the relations with Eastern European states.
The deterioration in Cuban-Soviet economic ties only increased. For many years, Moscow sent cargo ships with oil, ore, fish, etc. The Soviet Union satisfied 70 percent of Cuban food demand.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the re-export of Soviet oil became the main source of Cuban income. Under the agreement, Moscow sent 13 million tons of crude oil to Cuba, while it needed only 11 million tons. The remaining 2 million tons were simply given as a gift to Cuba, so it could sell it on the global market. Cubans sold the share of oil that was exported by the USSR for the needs of the nickel factory in Moa, because it was more profitable than to sell the nickel-molybdenum produced at that plant.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia ceased to subsidize the Cuban economy, but relations between the two started to sink even before that. In 1989, the Cuban leadership gave Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a cold shoulder during his visit to the island. After he left Cuba, Castro announced in his emotional manner that Cuba did not need any kind of Soviet-style perestroika.
Later during his addresses, he criticized Moscow’s decision to halt subsidies. “Soviet equipment is trash,” he said once during one of the party meetings.
Back in those times Russia had to end subsidies to many other countries as well – including Mongolia, Vietnam and Angola. But none of them had such a hysterical reaction at the top level as in Cuba.
In this context, Putin’s decision to write-off Cuba’s $32 billion debt in 2014 hardly signals Russia’s intentions to “reset” relations with Cuba. Rather it was a propagandistic decision aimed at preparing a fertile ground for Putin’s visit to Havana in summer 2014. Moscow clearly understood that the Cubans would never pay back that debt under any circumstances.
Russia’s recent delegation to Castro’s funeral might also be seen as a reflection of Russia’s pragmatic policy: Kremlin can well pay tribute to their former comrade-in-arms from Moscow.
The Commandante’s funeral proceedings contrasted greatly with the mourning farewell ceremony for the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, in December 2013, when the U.S. alone sent its three former presidents – Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Bill Clinton.
This time, though, the U.S. embassy in Havana did not even fly flags at half-mast. It’s just further evidence that one of the big-time politicians of the Cold War era, Fidel Castro, will forever remain a polarizing figure in the world of politics.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.