¡Viva la Revolución!
Russia Reinvigorates Cuban Communists
January 15th 2019
This is downtown Havana, where the city’s schools, steamy apartments and lively bars empty out to street parties and parades celebrating Jose Marti, the man who won Cuba’s independence from Spain. Marchers appear from every direction, some uniformed, others costumed, all part of endless divisions of children chanting revolutionary slogans. They hoist oversized images of Marti, Fidel and Raul Castro, and revered revolutionaries like Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chavez, its current one, Nicolas Maduro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. This year, Vladimir Putin might make the cut.
Indeed, the Russian leader is fast becoming Cuba’s new hero. While President Trump hurls it into the rogue state pile and vows to erase historic bilateral gains of the Obama years, the Kremlin draws its old Caribbean comrade close. Ever the strategist, Putin meets the island’s urgent needs while methodically piecing together his own priority: a powerful Russian presence across the Americas.
Known for his remote control of public opinion in far-flung nations, Putin has clicked on Cuba where his own Russian media agencies produce news and views with Cuba’s government-run press and broadcast groups. The airwaves are once again filled with anti-Americanism as Russia stokes Cuban pride and promotes the island’s role as a force of resistance in Central and Latin America, a leader in la revolución. Were there any doubt about Putin making a bigger regional play, it was abundantly clear when he met with Cuba’s new president in Moscow. He and Miguel Diaz-Canel, Raul Castro’s hand-selected successor, pointedly called for greater Russian penetration in Latin America. Diaz-Canel traveled on to visit other communist allies—China, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea—but he left Moscow with Putin’s promise to update Cuba’s military.
Just what does Trump’s U-turn from normalizing relations mean? Seasoned diplomats contend that it fails to isolate Cuba and instead isolates the U.S. from the rest of the region. The U.S. shift pleased Florida’s hardline Cuban American community, but it also pleased Russia: the Kremlin watched anxiously as Washington and Havana pounded out one accord after another, including environmental protection, human trafficking, air and sea search and rescue, property claims. The Obama-Castro brokered relationship looked so promising, U.S. commercial airlines tripped over themselves to secure landing rights, American farmers rushed for export sales and U.S. real estate developers saw their next hot prospect.
But that’s quickly given way to Russia, the economic transfuser, and its rapid offers of technology and funds for Cuba’s power stations, railroads, metal plants, pharmaceutical production, oil prospecting and more. Russian tourism, Putin promises, will rival American travel to Cuba. A lifeline once before, Moscow’s support vanished in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up and it halted purchases of Cuban sugar production, energy and food subsidies. The island went into a free-fall: fields went fallow, industrial plants shuttered, and the country faced starvation. Committed Cuban communists resented the abandonment; but ever-resourceful, the nation pushed through the “special period” of depravation. The Castro brothers’ fiery anti-U.S. messaging reduced to a relative smolder when the U.S. and Cuba established diplomatic ties in 2015.
Putin knows the Cubans are too savvy to rely on just one patron again, and he is prospecting for other Latin partners. Trump's team actively condemns Russia’s support of Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, and Bolivian strongmen whose repressive regimes despise the U.S.. Meanwhile, Russia scrambles to increase its security and military interests around the hemisphere.
This year marks Cuba’s sixtieth anniversary of the revolution, Havana’s reinvigorated attack on Washington, and a likely visit from Vladimir Putin, just 90 miles off U.S. shore. For many Cubans, Russia’s renewed outreach is more than reuniting with a beefy comrade; it gives a sense that they’re part of an important strategic partnership and that the revolución has a future.
Learn more about the power of propaganda and how to counter it. Russia’s homegrown manipulation is monitored by International Media Support. Are you a civil rights advocate, a philanthropist, a journalist or associated with an NGO? The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law offers toolboxes for working in repressive arenas. If you’re reading from the U.S., the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy takes a hard look at Russia’s ongoing interference in American elections and communications. For a look at the limitations and control in Russia’s own civil society, see the Freedom House profile.