Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cuban leader Fidel Castro recently held a telephone conference dedicated to current bilateral contacts in the trade, economic and humanitarian spheres. Although neither presidential press service reported the details of the transcontinental conversation, it is clear that these issues were only formalities. However, the rest of the conversation was devoted to Russian-Cuban prospects for co-operation, a topic that gives more food for thought.
President Putin paid an official visit to Cuba three years ago, in December 2000. This has remained Mr Putin's only Latin American trip as president. When the Russian leader addressed a press conference in Havana, he said he viewed the visit as a sign of Russia's reinvigorated political interest in Latin America. The recent telephone conversation, undoubtedly, was the next step in this direction.
Deja vu can be a confusing thing. Is it true that the USSR held multimillion-dollar oil production and energy contracts with Mexico and Venezuela? Did Soviet engineers ever design and build power stations and metallurgic works on the continent? Were shipments of Argentinean- grain and meat delivered to Russian ports? Are tens of thousands of Soviet-made Lada cars and Niva all-terrain vehicles on the roads in Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, or Vladimirets and Belarus tractors on ranches across Latin America? Does this all correspond to reality?
Surely the Soviet Union invested billions of dollars in Cuba's development? Those were the days when Russians learned more about the continent than through the prism of soap operas. The former USSR had a considerable Latin American studies' school. Indeed, Leningrad scholar Yury Knorozov was the first to translate Maya Indians' writings. Sergei Eisenstein and Roman Karmen shot genuine masterpieces about Latin America. The print-runs for the Russian translations of books by Carlos Fuentez, Julio Cortasar, Alejo Carpenter, Gorge Amadu, Gabriel Garcia Marquez exceeded their counterparts in Spanish several fold. The Bolshoi Opera and Ballet toured Latin America, performing at the Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires and at the Bellas Artes in Mexico City, while the shows of Brazilian and Argentinean films never failed to cause intense interest in Moscow.
However, deja vu is conducive to unrealistic perceptions of an ideological nature. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, brought the world to the brink of WWIII. Then there was Soviet support for national liberation movements and socialist revolutions, the Chilean tragedy, the 10-year war in Nicaragua, and the attempts to build socialism in Grenada, a tiny island in the Antilles archipelago. They were all the consequences of illusions.
In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and a new Russia lost its geopolitical, economic and humanitarian orientation. The country abandoned irrelevant ideology, but somehow lost its memory. It looked like Russia had forgotten about the existence of a whole continent with a population of over a billion with its markets, trade and other economic potential. At that time, Russia sought to develop relations with only one country in the Western Hemisphere - the United States.
Russia left the Latin American market. Contracts expired and were never extended, trade turnovers fell to a risible minimum, while the Latin American world came to be perceived in Russia through TV serials alone.
However, if Russia left mainland Latin America quietly, it virtually slammed the door on Cuba and, thereby, pleased the US a great deal. Unlike Russia, the US did not suffer from memory loss and remembered that Cuba was only a short distance from Miami. The distance is comparable to that between, for example, Georgia's Tbilisi and Russia's Vladikavkaz. The USA's concern about Cuba's proximity to its borders is only natural. Washington should not be blamed for the relief it felt when it heard Russia had shut the Cuban door.
The collapse of economic ties with Russia that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union came as a major blow to Cuba's economy, Fernando Ramirez, Cuban First Deputy Foreign Minister, said in a RIA Novosti interview. "These ties had been dynamically developed for 30 years, until one day all the bilateral agreements were annulled, projects frozen and closed down and joint programmes terminated," he said, "and our economy plunged into a crisis." In the early 1990s, Cuba's economic decline reached 35%, and its foreign trade turnover shrank 85%, which resulted in the closure of hundreds of industrial facilities. Cuba has not fully recovered from this shock yet. However, no economy can tolerate a vacuum. Today, Spain, Canada and Italy have replaced Russia, and more than 400 joint ventures operate on the island.
Even the United States, despite its economic sanctions against Cuba and continuing anti-Castro rhetoric, is the island's seventh largest trade partner. Indeed, business is a supra-ideological and flexible sphere, which reacts to the changing environment faster than politics.
According to Raul de la Nuez, Cuban Foreign Trade Minister, his country purchased $343 million worth foodstuffs from the US in 2003. Russia has to work hard to achieve similar success in economic co-operation with Cuba, let alone other Latin American countries.
However, recent senior Russian-Cuban contacts show that Russia is intent on re-emerging itself on the continent. Cuba does not bear any grudge and is keeping the door open to Russia.
Indeed, Russians have begun making moves towards re-establishing partnership with Cuba. What will come of these moves remains to be seen.