The visit of President Raul Castro of Cuba to Russia last week, and his signing with President Medvedev of a series of agreements indicating a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, marks the formal resumption of active relations between them, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Russia’s turn to a form of capitalism and market relations under President Yeltsin.
Immediately before this, in the era of Soviet policy-making of glasnost and perestroika, then President Gorbachev, during a visit to Cuba, had indicated to the Cuban leadership that the old relations characteristic of the period from the 1960s onward could not continue. Cuba would have to conduct its relations with the Soviet Union on the basis of commercial (in effect profit and loss) relations. During that period too, the Soviet Union disbanded certain military and intelligence facilities that it had established in Cuba, signalling the effective end of military protection of that country as a strategic imperative of the two countries’ relations. For Gorbachev, trying to normalize the Soviet Union’s relations with the Western world, Cuba’s protection, from his point of view, would have to be based on diplomatic action.
President Yeltsin, with his determination to end the socialist system, was abrupt in taking action to end what he saw as dependent and one-sided economic and strategic relations with Cuba. That action, coupled with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and of Comecon, the socialist bloc’s integration and trading system, left Cuba in a situation of political, diplomatic and economic isolation. Then, Castro and his colleagues, for the better part of the 1990s were forced to take drastic action to avoid the collapse of the country’s economic system, and possible severe popular political reaction, with policies that meant severe deprivation for the Cuban people. The American decision, in 1992, to extend its embargo on Cuba further reinforced the gravity of the situation. But the consensus of opinion is that the country has effectively survived the effects of both the Soviet collapse and the American efforts at forcing a virtual strangulation.
Naturally the visit of Raúl Castro takes place in the new global atmosphere of the end of relations between countries based on ideological, (that is Cold War) considerations and stances, even though the policies of President Bush towards the East and Central European states have forced a certain rigidity in President Putin’s conduct of US-Russian relations. These, however, have not affected the post-Soviet trend of strengthening economic ties between the two countries based on market relations. And in that sense, Russia has had, over the years, a relatively muted response to the American invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
So Cuba, as a country cut off from its main patron, has had to operate also in that context. It has sought, where possible, to resume economic relations with Russia and some of the Eastern European states, while looking for openings to the United States market where possible. Thus the substantial agricultural trade relations between US enterprises and Cuba, in spite of the Helms-Burton legislation that sought to tighten the embargo, and President Bush’s policy of making the transfer of remittances and the visits of people to Cuba more difficult. The development of relations between Venezuela and Russia, including the visits of Russian warships to the Caribbean, has not affected the general trend of the relaxing of Cuba-US economic relations. And in addition, the European Union, in spite of its reservations during this decade about what it has deemed certain continuing human rights infractions by Cuba, has sought to keep the door open, leading to a recent decision to resume active discussions with the country, aimed at a formal economic agreement.
President Raúl Castro’s visit to Russia, where a number of agreements have been signed aimed at strengthening economic relations, also takes place in a wider context of Russian interest in developing more substantial global economic relations with both developed and developing countries, and having an influence on the “multipolarising” of international relationships in which the major Latin American states would themselves wish to participate. Russia has joined other developing countries, like Brazil for example, in emerging as a major trader in commodities which have been in high demand in recent years. Russia has also watched China, in its pursuit of rapid economic growth, establish substantial trading relations with some Latin American states, again most notably Brazil.
So while it would appear to be the case that Russia has an interest in participating in the exploitation of what seem to be substantial petroleum deposits in Cuban waters, for example, it might be posited that the Russian interest in Latin America no longer gives priority to relations with Cuba, but rather, finds the relationship with Cuba facilitated by its interest in creating and consolidating wider hemispheric relationships. Russia is not yet a member of the World Trade Organisation. But it will certainly be the case, as we have seen with Russia’s natural gas and petroleum trade with Europe, and its interest in harmonizing its mineral trade policies with Middle Eastern and OPEC states generally, that the country will want to have an active stance in the trade diplomacy of the future – especially as this will involve China, already a member of the WTO.
In a sense then, the emerging new Cuba-Russia relationship gives Cuba a degree of diplomatic and negotiating space at a critical time for the country. Obviously, the Cuban leadership is going through a period of re-evaluation of its economic policies in the context of dynamic change in global economic relations. The threat of global recession reinforces the importance of Cuba taking decisive decisions in that sphere. In addition, the attempt to consolidate a new Cuba-Russia relationship takes place at a time when, with the emergence of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the indications are that, with a degree of diplomatic sophistication on both sides, the President’s indications of a desire to reorganize relations with Cuba, can similarly provide Cuba with an environment of wider policy and negotiating space as it discusses the policies which it should adopt.
Finally a reinforced empathy on the part of Latin American countries with Cuba’s economic development predicament, and its changing geopolitical and geoeconomic environments, opens even further policy space for President Raúl Castro and his colleagues.
No doubt, governments of Caricom countries are taking note of this complex setting emerging in their immediate vicinity, as they seek to set parameters for further close economic and diplomatic cooperation with the Cuban government. Prime Minister Golding’s decisive break with his JLP predecessor and mentor, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga’s long-held anti-Cuban stance, indicates some new thinking that brings a bipartisan approach to Cuban relations between the Jamaican government and opposition for the first time since the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Cuba at the beginning of the 1980s.
Caricom states obviously want to be a part, in a significant way, of the opportunities from liberalization and economic diversification in Cuba. No doubt they will be devoting more time, as a collective grouping, to monitoring these new developments, in particular Russia’s new attitudes and policy directions, whether they relate to Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela or other hemispheric countries.