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Raul Castro Begins Weeklong Visit To Russia

Cuban President Raul Castro upon his arrival in Moscow
(RFE/RL) -- Raul Castro has begun a visit to Russia, the first by a Cuban leader since the end of the Cold War.

A number of bilateral agreements are due to be signed during Castro's weeklong trip, the latest sign of warming ties between the two formerly close allies.

The trip reciprocates a visit to Havana by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last November, and its stated purpose is to strengthen ties which have lain largely static since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From the Cuban point of view, their policy has always been oriented since the collapse of the Soviet Union toward trying to get as many friends as they can.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Castro and Medvedev will sign agreements on energy, trade, finance, and investment, as well as on cultural and humanitarian issues.

Analyst Stephen Wilkinson, of the London-based International Institute for the Study of Cuba, told RFE/RL that Cuba is trying hard to diversify its economic contacts, having historically fared badly through dependence on one country.

First there was Spain, the colonial power, followed by the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Then, after the socialist revolution led by Raul's brother, Fidel, there was heavy dependence on the Soviet Union. When that entity collapsed, Cuba was plunged into hard times.

"From the Cuban point of view, their policy has always been oriented since the collapse of the Soviet Union toward trying to get as many friends as they can," Wilkinson says. "So basically, if Russia is coming to Cuba with a desire for investment, trade and so forth, Cuba is going to say, 'yes.' Similarly, the Cubans have extended and deepened their relationships with China, Iran, India, and of course with Venezuela and Brazil."

'Some Reciprocity Here'

Wilkinson sees Moscow's motivation for courting Cuba as mixed with broader political considerations, particularly since the Russia-Georgia war last summer.

"Of course, it comes in the context, quite pointedly, of the eastwards expansion of NATO into areas bordering Russia -- the 'near abroad,' as they call it -- and one tends to feel there is some reciprocity here, in Russia turning to Cuba again," he says.

However, these developments seem mild, considering that it was the Moscow-Havana relationship that once brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.

That was in 1962, when the United States demanded that Russia remove nuclear missiles it had placed in Cuba, only 140 kilometers from the U.S. coast. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down, and the crisis cooled.

There are expectations the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama may seek to loosen the restrictions on U.S.-Cuban relations, including a nearly 50-year-old trade embargo.

In the meantime, U.S. officials say they are watching carefully Russia's present attempts to increase its presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Last year, Medvedev also visited Venezuela and President Hugo Chavez, who has taken over the mantle of the ailing Fidel Castro as the region's far-left leader.

Medvedev's trip coincided with the dispatch of a naval squadron to the Caribbean, led by the pride of the Russian fleet, the guided-missile cruiser "Peter the Great."

RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke and Brian Whitmore contributed to this report

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