HAVANA – Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Cuba's resilience in the face of U.S. pressure as he hosted his Cuban counterparts for talks Tuesday on expanding cooperation between the old allies.
Putin told Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel that Russia has always remained supportive of Cuba.
"It's not easy to solve economic and social issues in the conditions that Cuba finds itself in, but you have done it successfully," he said. "We are glad to see the strengthening of the Cuban state."
Russian-Cuban ties are still far from the Cold War era of near-total Cuban dependence on the Soviet bloc, which saw the island as a forward operating base in the Americas then largely abandoned it in the 1990s. But observers of Cuban and Russian foreign policy say there is a significant warming between the former partners, prompted in part by the Trump administration's reversal of President Barack Obama's opening to Cuba.
Cuba and Russia are also heavily supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom the U.S. has been trying to overthrow.
Speaking to Putin, Díaz-Canel said his government considers developing ties with Russia its top priority and hailed a recent visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. "We observe the growing role of Russia that resists the U.S. attempts at domination," he added.
The Cuban leader on Tuesday also met separately with Medvedev for talks on boosting economic ties.
Russian-Cuban trade has more than doubled since 2013, to an expected $500 million this year, mostly in Russian exports to Cuba. Over the past year Russia has sent Cuba 1,000 minibuses, 50 locomotives, tens of thousands of tourists and a promise to upgrade the island's power grid with a multimillion-dollar improvement plan.
Neither country provides many details about their improving relations, but Russian products being exported to Cuba include new-model Lada automobiles and Kamaz trucks. There's a new Cuban-Russian joint venture to produce construction materials, and when Medvedev visited Cuba this month, he inaugurated a petroleum products plant and signed deals to repair three Soviet-era power plants.
As tourism from the U.S. slackens, Russian visits rose 30% in 2018, to 137,000.
"Russia is trying to preserve the zone of influence it had during the era of the Soviet Union, looking for partners in Latin America and letting Washington know that it's still a great power," said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born assistant professor of international relations and politics at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. "Cuba's signing up for projects that can benefit it, and are already showing results on the island."
Russia is making no secret of its desire to play reliable partner to an island facing hostility from the United States, including sanctions on ships bringing oil from Venezuela.
"We did make huge mistakes in the 1990s while turning our backs on Cuba. That time is definitely over, and I'm absolutely sure that our relations deserve better attention from Russia," said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament.
"They deserve more investments from Russia both in terms of finances and equipment of course, but also human resources. And definitely we should assist, we should help, Cuba; we should support Cuba as long as it's discriminated against, as long as it's sanctioned, as long as it's blockaded by the United States."
During the 1960s, 1970s and '80s, Cuba was filled with Soviet products and citizens, who worked alongside Cubans in chemical plants, mines and army bases. Moscow sent billions in aid before the fall of the Soviet Union caused a disastrous 30% drop in gross domestic product.
Cuba emerged with $35 billion in debt to the Soviet Union, 90 percent of which Russia forgave in 2014, an event that Cuban-Russian anthropologist Dmitri Prieto Samsónov called the start of the modern era of relations between the two countries.
"Russia started to think more about its business and government interests and a new relationship with Cuba emerged on the foundation of the old brotherly relations," Prieto said.
Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
Rodriguez reported from Havana.