Cuba’s Expanding Ties with Russia
October 12, 2017
Having replaced its long-traditional economic patron – the US – for Russia in the early 1960s, Cuba then replaced Russia with Venezuela at the turn of the century. Almost 20 years later, the perennially cash-strapped Communist regime is switching course again, circling back to Russia once more as bankrupt Venezuela loses utility to the island as an economic and financial partner. Meanwhile, Russia is slowly but surely building up its economic and commercial presence in the region, with the state oil company Rosneft key to this strategy.
Rosneft, which is slowly gathering up oil schemes (and potentially other assets) in Venezuela as the Russian government led by President Vladimir Putin plays lender of last resort to the Caracas government, is also looking to increase business with Cuba. In a press statement dated 6 October, Rosneft confirmed that CEO Igor Sechin had discussed the matter at a working meeting in Moscow with a visiting Cuban delegation including Cuba’s minister of energy and mines, Alfredo López, the Cuban ambassador to Russia, Emilio Lozada García, and the Cuban embassy’s commercial attaché, Vivian Hitchman Miranda. The two parties discussed “extension of supplies volume, joint production projects, as well as prospects for cooperation in modernization of Cuban refinery Cienfuegos”, the statement noted. Rosneft may be looking to step into the breach left in Cuba by Venezuela’s state oil company Pdvsa, which might allow it to expand further into the Caribbean. Notably, Rosneft in recent times has been acting as a reseller of Venezuelan oil in the region, building up a commercial presence.
Russia already supplies some oil and oil products to Cuba and latterly has begun shipping “large quantities of oil to Cuba for the first time this century”, Reuters noted in May. Rosneft in May announced an agreement with Cuba’s state-run Cubametals to supply 250,000 tonnes of oil and diesel fuel. Jorge Piñon, an oil expert at the University of Texas at Austin, told Reuters that he estimated the valued of the deal at some US$105m (for a total oil supply equivalent of 1.9m barrels). Russia previously reported that it had shipped oil products valued at US$11.3m to Cuba in 2010-2015 – so this new deal is worth almost ten times that.
For almost two decades, Cuba – which consumes 22,000 barrels per day (b/d) of diesel and 140,000 b/d of oil products (for a total of just over 160,000 b/d) – has relied on Venezuela for about 70% of its total fuel needs, including oil for refining and re-exports. In return for cheap oil, Cuba exported services to Venezuela, in the form of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers and professionals – reportedly including military and intelligence services. But Venezuelan oil shipments, previously averaging over 100,000 b/d and supplying two-thirds of the island’s daily fuel needs, have fallen by an estimated 50% since 2014, when global oil prices collapsed, bringing down Venezuela’s petro-economy.
President Raúl Castro in July 2016 publicly admitted to the difficulties caused by the waning Venezuelan oil supply, with electricity and fuel rationing imposed on state companies. “It is very clear that Cuba is diversifying its long-term supply contracts in the event that its October 2000 oil agreement with Venezuela is terminated,” Piñon noted of Rosneft’s May announcement of its new supply deal with Cuba.
The latest talks in Moscow between the Cuban officials and Sechin – a very close associate of Putin – followed earlier rather secretive visits to Moscow by senior Cuban officials. In late July, the former head of North American affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, Josefina Vidal, travelled to Moscow for a meeting with Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov. A short statement from the Russian foreign ministry said that, “during the meeting, the officials noted the steady development of friendly relations between Russia and Cuba” and “also exchanged views on current issues on the international agenda”. Following his meeting with Vidal in late July, Ryabkov days later met with the Cuban ambassador Lozada García, at which “current economic bilateral cooperation matters as well as plans for upcoming bilateral contacts were the subjects of discussion”, according to a one-line Russian foreign ministry statement.
The sonic attacks
While US conservatives have been waving red flags about ‘the return’ of Russia to the Western Hemisphere, pointing to Moscow’s expanding political and commercial relationships with various countries including Cuba, the mystery sonic attacks on US and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba has escalated this disgruntlement into a state of heightened paranoia. Cuba’s stout denials of any knowledge of the attacks simply doesn’t wash with these factions, who spy the hand of Russia behind the mystery.
On 3 October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the expulsion of 15 officials from the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC. Four days earlier, on 29 September, the State Department had ordered the departure of all non-essential personnel assigned to the US embassy in Havana, plus family members. While acknowledging that “investigators have been unable to determine who or what is causing these attacks”, the Department said it had moved to act because of a Cuban government failure “to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats, in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention”.
The State Department also issued a new travel warning, advising US citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and “informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff”. While acknowledging that “we have no reports that private US citizens have been affected…the attacks are known to have occurred in US diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by US citizens”. Since then however, some reports have emerged suggesting that some US tourists staying in top Havana hotels including the emblematic Hotel Nacional may also have been affected – albeit these reports remain unconfirmed by official US sources.
In a background telephone briefing on 3 October, an anonymous State Department official revealed that: “Regarding the attacks, there are now 22 persons medically confirmed to have experienced health effects due to the attacks on diplomatic personnel in Havana.” “Our position on assurances does not presume Cuban culpability,” the official noted. “What it does is require the Cuban Government to be able “to fulfil its treaty obligations for the safety, well-being, and protection of foreign diplomats in their country”. And until they can give that assurance, “our personnel, we have judged, are not safe and secure in the country”.
The Cuban foreign ministry in response repeated that it “categorically rejects any responsibility of the Cuban Government in the alleged incidents, and reiterates once again that Cuba has never perpetrated, nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any sort against diplomatic officials or their relatives, without any exception”. It protested the “unfounded and unacceptable [US] decision, as well as the pretext used to justify it”, noting that it was taken “without conclusive results from the investigation…[and] has an eminently political character”.
This echoes a conspiracy doing the rounds that shadowy US elements long bent on removing the Cuban government could in fact be to blame, in the process giving US President Donald Trump further justification to revert to a hard-line US stance on Cuba. Meanwhile Tillerson – who on 26 September met Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla to discuss the issue – was clear that “we continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba”. Tillerson’s continuance in his role, however, is now also under some question, amid apparent tensions with Trump.
The roving diplomacy of Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal, one of the most visible Cuban government representatives in recent years, was key to the Cuba-US political rapprochement instigated (with Canadian and Vatican support) by the former US president Barack Obama (2009-2017) – now on ice under President Donald Trump. In May, not long after President Trump moved to roll back some of Obama administration’s rapprochement measures, it was announced that Vidal would move to become Cuba’s ambassador to Canada. Reportedly, Vidal officially left her post as director of the North American affairs division on 23 July, apparently making her trip to Moscow shortly afterwards.
Speaking at a high profile ceremony in Santa Clara for the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, Cuba’s First Vice President and purported successor-in-waiting to President Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel, accused the US government and right-wing US media of “propagating unbelievable tall tales, without any evidence, with the perverse purpose of discrediting the impeccable performance of our country”. “Overall, these events are a clear example of what Che warned us, you can’t trust imperialism, not even a little bit, not at all,” he declared. He added that “Cuba will not make concessions inherent in its sovereignty and independence and will not negotiate its principles or accept constraints.”
This feature was provided to EMIA by our editorial partner LatinNews.