Warm and cool: Cuba’s ties with USSR

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The death of Cuban so­cial­ist icon Fidel Cas­tro at age 90 on Fri­day stirred me­mories of his is­land na­tion’s close but at times fraught re­la­tions with the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gor­bachev, the last leader of the USSR, on Satur­day hailed Cas­tro for hav­ing strength­ened Cuba in the face of an Amer­i­can eco­nomic block­ade, prais­ing his for­mer coun­ter­part for hav­ing left a “deep mark in the his­tory of mankind.” But Gor­bachev, 85, shied from in­vok­ing the cool­ing of re­la­tions be­tween Cuba and the Soviet Union, telling In­ter­fax news agency he would not dis­cuss that pe­riod “on this day of mourn­ing.”

A New Ally

The end of the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion in 1959, which pro­pelled Cas­tro to power, saw Moscow gain an ally in the back­yard of the United States, its Cold War foe. Ini­tially Soviet au­thor­i­ties were un­cer­tain about how to deal with the new leader in Ha­vana. But the US block­ade, which in­creased pres­sure on Cas­tro to find ex­ter­nal sup­port, led Cuba to de­velop its bur­geon­ing re­la­tions with the Soviet Union. Cas­tro ap­pealed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for help. Moscow pro­vided Ha­vana with fuel in ex­change for Cuban sugar. The move saw Cuba pro­gres­sively be­come to­tally de­pen­dent on the Soviet Union. Ha­vana’s re­la­tions with the Soviet Union deep­ened fur­ther af­ter Cas­tro’s forces de­feated the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs in­va­sion in 1961, which led him to de­clare Cuba a so­cial­ist state.

The Soviet Union’s sup­port for the Cuban regime was far from self­less, serv­ing as a part of its broader Cold War con­fronta­tions with the United States. In re­sponse to Amer­i­can bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­ploy­ments in Italy and Turkey in 1962, Moscow struck back by de­ploy­ing its own mis­sile to Cuba just 144 km from the south­ern tip of the US state of Florida.

Af­ter a tense stand­off be­tween the ri­val su­per­pow­ers, the world pulled back from the abyss as Moscow agreed to keep the mis­siles off Cuban soil in ex­change for a US prom­ise not to in­vade Cuba. Cas­tro was an­gered for not hav­ing been con­sulted on the deal, strain­ing re­la­tions with Moscow. In sub­se­quent years Ha­vana moved closer to the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist regime while con­tin­u­ing to foster ties with Moscow, with Cas­tro mak­ing his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1963. In the later years of the Soviet era, Moscow in­vested heav­ily in the Cuban econ­omy and pro­vided it with sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary as­sis­tance.

In the fi­nal years of the Soviet Union, Moscow was strug­gling to meet its fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments to Cuba. Af­ter a cut­off of Soviet bloc aid in 1989 nearly col­lapsed the Cuban econ­omy, Cas­tro al­lowed more in­ter­na­tional tourism and mod­est eco­nomic re­form.

Ties be­tween Moscow and Ha­vana suf­fered af­ter the col­lapse of the USSR in 1991 as the mas­sive flow of fi­nan­cial aid from Moscow dried up. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­ci­sion to close a Soviet-era in­tel­li­gence base south of Ha­vana in 2001 also chilled re­la­tions. Ties picked up a few years later when Moscow be­gan re­assert­ing it­self in Latin Amer­ica.

The Krem­lin has since been striv­ing to re­vive its ties with Cuba as Rus­sia in­creas­ingly squares off against Wash­ing­ton over Ukraine and Syria. Putin vis­ited Cuba in 2014, agree­ing to write off 90 per­cent of Ha­vana’s Soviet-era debt, a sum amount­ing to $32 bil­lion. — AFP

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