For the first time in more than two generations, the US presidential race in Florida is following a different dynamic – no longer is the political debate in this key swing state dominated by Washington’s relationship with Havana.
This is a sign that the younger generation in the Cuban exile community is less hardline than its parents – and an indication of the historic shift in Cuban-US relations since 2014. Diplomatic ties have been restored and Barack Obama has become the first US president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in January 1928.
As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, this has occurred with Cuban-Russian relations at their strongest since the demise of the Soviet Union. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has visited Cuba twice since February 2008 while Vladimir Putin visited in July 2014. Meanwhile Raúl Castro has been to Moscow three times in recent years. Can these two relationships really keep improving in parallel?
Cold War legacy
Havana’s burgeoning relationship with Moscow following the Cuban revolution in January 1959 was a key catalyst for the tension between Cuba and the United States for more than half a century. Geopolitics in 2016 may be radically different from the Cold War era, but the old tensions live on. America’s relations with Russia are as bad as they have been since the end of the Soviet Union. And the thaw with Cuba has a long way still to go: the trade embargo is still in place and there are fears that progress might unwind under Obama’s successor.
To understand why relations between Cuba and Russia are reviving, you need to consider recent initiatives in Cuban and Russian foreign policy. Cuba’s political influence has been growing both in Latin America and throughout the developing world. From out of Moscow, meanwhile, a “Putin doctrine” has emerged. It wishes to return Russia to great power status and forge a multi-polar world that is not dominated by America.
Also very relevant to Cuban-Russian relations in 2016 is the legacy of the past. There are many children with Cuban/Soviet parents, while Cuba still requires spare parts for Soviet-era machinery. It has also been logical for Moscow to begin reasserting itself in Latin America from a political point of view with the country that it already knew best, the only one with Russian-language ability.
The one big deficiency between the two countries is in trade. Since 2000 Russian trade to and from Latin America has increased by more than 900% and now exceeds $15bn (£12bn) each year. The same thing hasn’t happened with Cuban-Russian trade. It is below $200m per year, which is less than 0.004% of Russian global turnover.
The two countries’ weak trade relationship is a hangover from the Cold War days, when Cuba was economically dependent on the Russians. By the mid-1980s more than 70% of its global trade was with the Soviet Union. However, Cuban-Russian bilateral trade post-1992 has been typical of trade relationships between newly independent countries and their former metropoles: trade fell rapidly and didn’t recover – and what remains is dominated by exports from the Russian side.
Moscow had no equivalent relationships with other Latin American states during the Soviet era. As a result, there has been no such colonial legacy to hinder Russian trade there. This helps explain why its commercial relationships have been very different.
It has been evident for some time that Russia wants trade with Cuba to move in the same direction. Putin said as much ahead of his 2014 visit to Havana. Put this together with the Cold War legacy and the growing importance of the region for Russia and the two countries’ efforts to reheat relations with one another makes sense. It certainly looks as though the geostrategic importance of Cuba for the Kremlin has increased, if not to the level of the Cold War era.
The US trade embargo of Cuba remains in place despite Obama’s desire for it to be lifted. That has been too much for a Republican-dominated Congress, despite the lifting of travel and certain financial restrictions. Obama has said that the embargo will be lifted, “when I can’t be entirely sure”.
The question is to what extent Cuba will manage to ride both horses at once in future. Partly this depends on who wins the keys to the White House on November 8. Donald Trump’s seemingly more cordial relationship with Putin could make this balancing act easier for the Cubans, although he is on record as saying: “I would probably have the embassy closed until such time as a really good deal was made and struck by the United States.”
Whoever wins in November, it is probably safe to say that Cuba’s longstanding difficulties with America will not disappear overnight. No doubt the issue could still return to Floridian politics in time for the next presidential election in 2020. The danger for Cuba is that its growing dalliance with Moscow makes this more likely than not.