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Russia's president is making the rounds in Latin America this week. Dmitri Medvedev spent part of today in Brazil. Then he headed to Venezuela where Russian warships are taking part in a naval exercise. Tomorrow he's due in Cuba. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the Russian president's stop in Cuba is the latest sign that Russia may be looking to revive relations with its old Cold War ally.
TOM GJELTEN: Dmitri Medvedev's visit to Havana follows three trips there in recent months by Russia's deputy prime minister. Last month, a Russian military delegation was in Cuba to help the island develop its air defense system. After a pair of hurricanes hit the island in September, Russian planes arrived in Cuba with tons of humanitarian aid. After the collapse of Communism, Russia essentially abandoned Cuba. Is it now moving to restore that Cold War alliance? Not in the U.S. view.
THOMAS PICKERING: Oh, I call this Marxo-tourism(ph), you know. This is the old nostalgia for the relationship.
GJELTEN: Veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering was an ambassador to Russia, an ambassador to the United Nations and an undersecretary of state. The new Russian outreach to U.S. adversaries like Cuba, or Venezuela for that matter, is due to domestic considerations, Pickering says. Politicians who stand up to the United States these days score points back in Moscow.
PICKERING: If Medvedev needs for his own personal popularity in Russia to curry favor with those who are ankle-biters of the United States, more power to him. I don't think it's enormously alarming or important, and we ought not to be, in a sense, over-stirred by this.
GJELTEN: Speaking on background, U.S. officials say they see no signs of the Russians re-establishing any military or intelligence presence in Cuba. The Russian's motive in reaching out to Havana probably has more to do with the image they want to project internationally. After the Russian operation in the Republic of Georgia this summer, the U.S. government had sharp words for Russian leaders. Since then the Russians have been warning the United States against further interference with Russian designs. Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, says the moves in Venezuela and Cuba fit in with this agenda.
DMITRI TRENIN: It's political symbolism basically to send that message back to Washington that you've got to back off. You've overextended yourselves. And if you're not careful, you will see consequences that you don't like.
GJELTEN: As for the Cubans, their interest in Russia appears more clear cut. Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College, points out that Havana needs all the help it can get these days. Venezuela is sending Cuba subsidized oil, but the collapse of oil prices could jeopardize that aid. Under the circumstances, Mora says, Russian attention is welcome.
FRANK MORA: The Russians are willing to provide credit, investments, share technology, and the Cubans think that they want to tap into that willingness and simply do what they're doing with the Venezuelans - get as much from an economic standpoint that they can from these two countries.
GJELTEN: For his part, Cuban President Raul Castro is due in Russia next year. When his brother Fidel visited Moscow in the Cold War years, the visits had ideological overtones. They were opportunities for Cuba to demonstrate its political loyalties. But Raul seems to be a pragmatist. He'll take what Russia can offer, but he may also be open to better relations with the United States. In an interview for The Nation magazine released today, Raul Castro tells the actor Sean Penn that he's open to a face-to-face meeting with President-elect Barack Obama in some neutral place to begin to solve our problems, he said. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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