Cuba has become a new playing field for influence between the United States, Russia and other countries. What are the Kremlin’s chances in this fierce new competition?

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro during the historic visit of the American leader to the island. Photo: Reuters 

U.S. President Barack Obama paid a visit to Cuba this week and the American press rightly called it “historic” because the last American president to set foot on Cuban soil was Calvin Coolidge, way back in 1928. The visit also elicited reaction from the Russian media, which attempted to figure out what Obama’s visit to Cuba might mean for the future of Russian-Cuban relations.

A cold welcome for Obama

The largest Russian TV channels closely followed Obama’s visit, primarily focusing on the cold reception that awaited the American president in Havana. Many media pointed out that no important Cuban officials came to greet Obama at the Jose Marti International Airport, not the Cuban leader Raul Castro, and not his possible successor, Deputy Chairman of the State Council Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The talks between Obama and Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, and their mini press conference afterwards, ended with some rather strange body language by both men. Obama, instead of shaking hands, tried to move away from his host, but did not succeed. Castro suddenly grabbed his guest by the elbow, picked it up and shook his hand. This made for a ridiculous scene – with Obama’s hand hanging there like a broken leg of a bird.

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In contrast, many opponents of rapprochement with Cuba drew attention to something totally different. On Mar. 20, when Obama arrived in Havana, the Cuban authorities arrested 50 dissidents and human rights activists, and on Mar. 21, when talks were taking place in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, 12 more people were arrested. However, the national TV channels ignored this topic – Russia is concerned with the risks of its own protesters, and the TV channels decided not to focus on these protests, probably, because this reason.

An honest message from the President

Nevertheless, Obama’s three-day visit, which started off so coolly, by the end had reached quite a high level. On the last day of his visit to the island, the American President gave a headline-making speech at the Gran Teatro of Havana, which was broadcast by Cuban TV.

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The Cubans have never heard such speeches form visiting foreign leaders – neither from the European heads of state nor from the Pope, who came to the island in the autumn of last year. Obama advised Raul Castro, who was present in the hall, “not to be afraid of the voice of his people,” and called on the country to hold free elections and ensure that freedom of speech is respected. As a result, "Mr. Obama’s Honest Message in Cuba” became the headline that The New York Times used in its editorial article about the visit.

The Americans fully understand that rapid democratic change in Cuba, after Obama’s visit, should not be expected as long as the representatives of the Cuban “old guard” (former President Fidel Castro will turn 90 this year, and Raul 85) and the possible successor Miguel Diaz-Canel show that they have no intentions of betraying their “revolutionary principles.”

Three days before Obama’s visit, the Cuban leaders had a friendly meeting with the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is facing the risk of possible early resignation. Yet the Venezuelan leader came to Cuba to sign a large-scale trade and economic agreement until 2030.

Nevertheless, according to the Cubans themselves, Obama’s visit will have an impact of the island.

“Now, before he makes any move, President Raul Castro will ask himself, will such a step benefit or not benefit Obama,” Havana freelance journalist Reinaldo Escobar wrote in his column. “Now the authorities will carefully, word by word, consider changes to the constitution, the electoral laws, and the composition of the new Central Committee of the Communist Party, to measure the maximum acceptable room they can allow for free debates and expression of freedom of speech.”

Havana will maneuver  

Obama’s visit has led to a number of very pessimistic forecasts on the part of Russian experts, who are wondering: Are the Americans taking away Russia’s old ally, Cuba?

“Havana will maneuver, and will try to get the most out of its relations with Moscow, and to develop cooperation with the U.S., because both will only benefit Cuba," said Boris Shmelev, head of the Center for Foreign Policy, Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Anyway, as long as Fidel Castro is alive, as long as power is in the hands of Raul Castro, that is, with the current political team in place, we should not expect any sudden twists or turns in Russian-Cuban relations.”

The Cuban leadership will not place unnecessary trust in the U.S., given the unpredictable outcome of the upcoming presidential elections in the United States and hawkish positions of some Republican candidates, inlcuding billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), an outspoken opponent of any rapprochement with Cuba. So, the country’s leadership might be hesitant about establishing close ties with the U.S., which might be beneficial for Russia: Cuba could reiterate its commitment to fraternal relations with Russia.

It’s the economy, stupid

However, the future of relations between Cuba and Russia will depend not so much on the political, but rather the economic situation in the world. What could be impossible for Obama to achieve in the political sphere might be possible in the economic sphere, where he is making progress. And although the American economic embargo, imposed against Cuba more than half a century ago, remains in place (and which can only be removed by the U.S. Congress), the White House is finding many loopholes, to promote its positive agenda with Cuba.

American business looks with great interest at Cuba, which is seen as a kind of a new Klondike. The country needs everything, from food to building materials, the housing stock and road infrastructure need complete restoration, and the aircraft and vehicle fleets need radical modernization.

U.S. capital has already taken its first steps towards Cuba. Airbnb, apartment-sharing service, are now operating on the island. The U.S. giant General Electric will be working with Cubans in the aviation and energy spheres. The companies Cisco and Google are expected to work on bringing high-speed Internet to the island. Yahoo! News even described Obama’s mission as “economic invasion of Cuba.”

At the same time, China is also eagerly looking at Cuba, actively promoting its own interests in Latin America. Last year, mutual trade turnover between the two countries increased by 57 percent, with China now becoming Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela. Experts are noting that, while joint ventures and direct Chinese investments into the Cuban economy are still small, given their growing geopolitical confrontation with the United States, the Chinese will seek to become more and more firmly entrenched on the island.

Under these conditions, is there room for Russia to strengthen its economic positions in Cuba?

Vladimir Sudarev, deputy director of the Institute of Latin America, argues that if the Americans lift their trade embargo against Cuba, and American companies start moving onto the island, Russia will be faced with a tough competitive environment in the struggle for the Cuban market and various projects in that country. At the same time, he adds that Russia is not rally operating that effectively in Cuba – it has missed its opportunity to benefit from the development of Cuban nickel enterprises, with which the Spaniards and Canadians have already started cooperation.

In addition, the Cuban tourist sector is now under Spanish control, while geological work on exploration for oil deposits on the Cuban shelf are being led by Mexico despite a number of major agreements between Havana and Moscow.

Nevertheless, Russia can effectively work in Cuba in already established areas of cooperation. Thus, the Russia Nissan plant in St. Petersburg has announced that it is considering the possibility of exporting their cars to Cuba.

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Of course, the company will have to compete on the island not only with other modern foreign cars, but also with Soviet-made Moskvich and Lada cars, which are still operating in this country. Moreover, considering that about 100,000 Lada cars run on Cuban roads, Russia could take over their maintenance needs, and supply the needed spare parts.

In addition, last year Russia approved a more than $1 billion state loan to Cuba to finance the construction of four thermal power plants on the island, as well as a $100 million loan for the modernization of metallurgical production.

Thus, Russia’s economic presence in Cuba will fully depend on the efficient operation of Russian enterprises, on how interesting and attractive Russian proposals will be for the Cubans. Cuba has become a new playing field for influence between the United States, Russia and China.

In this new game, the geographical proximity of Cuba to the United States plays a very important role, but the Cuban authorities are more favorably inclined towards Moscow. However, it remains to be seen how this fierce new competition will end.