The recent visits of high-profile Russian officials to Cuba and Venezuela, all in less than a week, have fueled scrutiny and speculation about Russia’s interests in the region amid the war it launched on Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s top security adviser and close ally, Gen. Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian Security Council secretary, met with Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro and the country’s appointed president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in Havana on Wednesday to discuss “security cooperation.” Also present was Lázaro Alberto Álvarez Casas, the head of Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the country’s various intelligence agencies, the police and border guard.
In his strongest statement yet, Díaz-Canel told Patrushev that “we fully support Moscow’s position that the conflict in Ukraine was deliberately provoked by the West and NATO, and we understand that Russia was forced to launch a special operation,” according to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper.
Díaz-Canel’s statement did not appear in Cuban state media, which also did not disclose a visit by Patrushev and members of his staff to the Interior Ministry’s headquarters, which Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported.
“Russia views the region as a buffer to provide it with space in the European theater when it is planning acts of aggression,” said Ryan C. Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s almost like clockwork; Russia tends to visit the region when it is planning aggression in the European theater.”
Berg recounted prominent Russian visits to Latin America and the Caribbean that preceded its invasion of Georgia in 2008, its invasion of Crimea in 2014, and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
“On each of these visits, shoring up Russia’s regional allies — Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — was always the priority,” he added. “This visit could be more of the same.”
Still, many unknowns surround the visit by Patrushev, a general who made a career in the Soviet Union’s KGB and its successor, the FSB.
“Putin certainly wants to aggravate the United States to the greatest extent possible, given the damage we are doing to his reputation by supporting the Ukrainians,” said Brian Latell, a retired Florida International University professor and former Latin America specialist at the CIA who has written several books about Cuba.
For many years, there has been chatter about Russia’s interest in reopening a Soviet-era electronic eavesdropping station in Lourdes, Cuba, which Putin himself shut down in the early 2000s.
“It could be that they are going to intensify intelligence cooperation, and this visit could signal that,” Latell said. “It could be electronic intelligence, or it could be human intelligence. The Cuban intelligence services are so good. They have spies working for them in Western capitals, and they may have a spy reporting to them that would help the Russian cause.”
New oil partnerships
Seeking alternative outlets to Russian oil to counter price caps and U.S. and European sanctions might explain visits by Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state oil company Rosneft — and Putin’s right hand — to Cuba and Venezuela during the weekend.
On Saturday, Sechin first met with Díaz-Canel in Havana in the midst of an energy crisis that continues causing daily blackouts and hours-long lines at gas stations on the island. Sechin traveled to Venezuela the following day to participate in the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of former leader Hugo Chávez’s death.
He also met on Monday with Venezuelan Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, who then announced plans to increase crude production with Russian oil giant Rosneft.
As Venezuela’s oil shipments have declined because of the country’s own production struggles, Cuba has been ramping up imports of the heavy crude Russian oil that the island’s refineries can process. On Jan. 9, the oil tanker NS Captain left the Russian Baltic port of Primorsk and arrived in Matanzas, carrying 703,000 barrels of Urals crude, according to estimates by Jorge Piñón, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Center who closely tracks oil shipments to the island.
But it is not clear who is picking up the tab. Experts believe it could be Venezuela, a close Cuban ally, or Cuba itself through credits extended by Russia, or a combination of both.
According to Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, Sechin said that Putin was personally directing matters related to cooperation with Cuba.
Both Cuban and Russian officials hinted that the Russian government was ready to act on several “requests” made by Díaz-Canel during a meeting with Putin in Moscow last November.
“Cuba is in such dire straits that Díaz-Canel is looking for support wherever he can possibly get it,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington. “Russia has increased its supply of petroleum to Cuba and offered generous payment terms on its debts and exports.”
On Sunday night, news came out that Raúl Castro, 91, also traveled to Caracas to attend Chávez’s death anniversary.
After mostly staying out of public view after first handing the presidency to Díaz-Canel in 2018 and later the Communist Party’s leadership in 2021, Castro has been reappearing in public engagements lately amid an economic and political crisis that has also triggered a mass exodus. Castro was last seen in Caracas in 2018 when he attended a meeting with other leftist regional leaders.
Also accompanying Castro was commander Ramiro Valdés, 90, who led the Ministry of the Interior for decades and is now a vice prime minister. He remains a staunch hard-liner who manages the relationship with Venezuela.
“In many ways, Cuba has occupied Venezuela strategically, a reality made possible through the close relationship of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez,” Berg said. “Without Venezuela, Cuba would be even more vulnerable to energy supply shocks. Raúl’s presence at the events signals the importance of this relationship to Cuba — both ideologically and materially.”
Will the visits derail U.S. engagement efforts with Cuba?
While the comings and goings have caught the attention of Latin American watchers, few believe the visits foreshadow an increased military presence in the region.
“All of these high-profile visits, packed in one week, suggest something is going on,” Shifter said. “There may be lots of talk and threats, but Russia does not have the resources to deploy substantial military assets so far from the war in Ukraine. It wants to demonstrate its presence, but without having the capacity to do very much.”
Experts agree that the high-profile activities have likely drawn the interest of U.S. intelligence agencies. Still, some experts believe they could derail the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Cuba only if they pose a heightened security threat.
“For Cuba, there are military and economic benefits in sustaining its relationship with Russia,” Shifter said. “But at the same time, there is a clear interest in staying on a path of re-engagement with the United States. Shifter said he believes Cuba would resist efforts by Russia to reopen the Lourdes listening station.
“The question is whether the Cuban government is able to skillfully manage its relations with two adversaries fighting a brutal war in Ukraine,” he said.
This story was originally published March 7, 2023, 11:52 AM.