HAVANA — Russia’s president met with Cuba’s Castro brothers last Friday during the final leg of a Latin America tour designed to bolster Moscow’s profile in a region long dominated by the United States.
Dmitry Medvedev spent hours talking and sightseeing with President Raúl Castro before meeting privately with his ailing, 82-year-old older brother Fidel.
The two leaders laid a wreath at a monument to Soviet soldiers, which holds the remains of about 50 Soviets who died in Cuba in 1962 and 1963, a time when the island was forging a close alliance with the communist bloc.
Wearing a dark suit instead of his traditional olive-green army uniform and clutching Medvedev’s arm, Raúl Castro shouted to television cameras, “It has been a magnificent visit and now he will see Fidel.”
Russian officials deny that Medvedev’s four-nation trip is meant to provoke the United States, but the chat with Fidel Castro capped meetings with Washington’s staunchest opponents in the region.
Medvedev talked last Thursday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez aboard a Russian warship, and earlier with Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, saying Russia is ready to consider participating in a socialist trade bloc led by Chávez.
Medvedev also signed deals with Brazil and Peru, part of an effort to strengthen Russia’s political, economic and military connections across Latin America.
“One must admit, to put it simply, we have never had a serious presence here — these have been just episodes,” Medvedev told reporters.
“We visited states that no Russian leader, and no Soviet leader, ever visited. This means one thing: that attention simply was not paid to these countries,” he said. “And in some ways we are only now beginning full-fledged, full-format and, I hope, mutually beneficial contacts with the leaders of these states …
“We should not be shy and fear competition. We must bravely enter the fight.”
Medvedev’s Latin America tour is, in some ways, a response to U.S. moves in Eastern Europe, where Russia sees its own security threatened by U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in former Soviet satellite states. The upper chamber of the Czech Parliament on Thursday approved a deal to accept a U.S. missile defense installation.
Medvedev said he and Raúl Castro had discussed economic and “military-technical cooperation” — apparently arms sales — “as well as security and regional cooperation.”
The 77-year-old Raúl Castro served as Cuba’s defense minister for nearly five decades, working alongside Soviet defense officials. A steadfast communist who often visited the Soviet Union, the younger Castro has long been seen as a great admirer of Moscow and its policies.
The Soviet Union was Cuba’s chief source of aid and trade until relations it disintegrated in 1991 and relations with the Russian Federation soured. Former Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a tough message when he visited Havana in 2000, saying Cuba should pay its Soviet-era debt. Moscow closed a Cold War-era electronic spying center shortly thereafter.
That spy center is now an elite computer sciences university, and Russia is looking to spend money again, on offshore oil exploration in deep Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, and in a Venezuelan effort to refurbish a Soviet-era refinery in the port city of Cienfuegos.
Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. Suffering from an undisclosed illness in a secret location, the ex-president has continued to release essays several times a week. He also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who came to Cuba as part of his own tour of Latin America last month.
Earlier last Thursday, Medvedev toured a Russian destroyer in Venezuela, one of two large Russian warships that arrived for training exercises in the first deployment of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War.
Russia pledged to help Venezuela with oil projects and building ships, while Chávez’s government signed a deal to buy two Russian-made Ilyushin Il-96 passenger jets.
Moscow also plans to develop a peaceful nuclear cooperation program with Venezuela by the end of next year.
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