Cuba Renews Ties With Old Ally Russia
In his first major policy initiative since assuming power, Gen. Raúl Castro signed a far-reaching military-aid agreement with Russia. In September, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, visited Cuba and signed an economic-aid pact providing Castro with $350 million in credits to upgrade Cuba's armed forces, including the acquisition of Russian transportation equipment, air-navigation systems, industrial goods for the energy sector and financing of future Russian investments in Cuba, among other projects. Fradkov met with Raúl Castro in a climate described as ''cordial and friendly'' by the Cuban press.

This accord with the Russians rounds out Cuba's international alliances with key strategic countries. They include Venezuela, China and Iran. Whether the Russian deal was in the making prior to Fidel Castro's surgery or developed as a more recent initiative, it reaffirms Raúl's long-standing admiration and support for Soviet policies in the past and for Russian policies in the present.

Consolidating Power

As a young man, Raúl traveled behind the iron curtain and became a member of Cuba's Communist Party. Throughout the duration of the Soviet-Cuban relationship (1960-1990), Fidel and Raúl remained steadfast friends and supporters of Soviet policies, particularly in Africa, where several hundred thousand Cuban soldiers aided in bringing pro-Soviet and pro-Cuban regimes to power in the African continent. Raúl seems fascinated by the Soviet military and displays photos and statues of Soviet generals in his office.

It was only natural then that Raúl would turn to his old allies and friends for support as he consolidates power in Cuba. The Russians can provide his military dictatorship, in addition to weapons, with credits to purchase other Russian products. If the relationship with Venezuela were to sour or Venezuela decreases its oil shipments to Cuba, the Russians could step in and help. Much of Cuba's nonmilitary equipment is Russian made and requires upgrading and replacement. Finally, Russian international positions, influence in the U.N. Security Council and increasing defiance of U.S. policies, fit Raúl's world view and interests.

What can the Russians expect from a renewed relationship with Cuba? For starters the Russians haven't given up on what they claim is Cuba's debt from the Soviet era, approximately $20 billion. In 1991 I participated in a conference on Cuban-Russian relations in Moscow, and the Russian side, both academic and government officials, insisted that the Cuban debt should be paid. My response then was that, even if Cuba had the means, it would not recognize or pay that debt. Castro would always claim that Cuba's sacrifices in support of Soviet policies throughout the world far surpassed Russian economic help to Cuba. The debt seems to have been off the official agenda during Fradkov's visit.

Challenge to U.S. Interests

The Russians also may be interested in resuming and expanding Cold War era espionage cooperation. The Soviet Union built the Lourdes electronic eavesdropping facility near Havana and used it to spy on U.S. military and technological secrets. It was closed by the Soviets following U.S. pressure in the 1990s, but could be recreated. The Chinese have established a similar facility in Bejucal, Cuba, and the Russians may look with envious eyes at the Chinese capacity to tap into U.S. military and civilian technology. Cooperation between the KGB and Stasi-trained Cuban espionage services, one of the best in the world, could resume, if it ever stopped, with the Cubans providing special help to the Russians.

It is yet too early to tell how far Cuban-Russian cooperation will advance or if it will represent a challenge to U.S. interests and security. Yet the new military-aid agreement and the new spirit of Russian-Cuban cooperation may indicate a continuous Cuban militancy and opposition to U.S. policies and a willingness to restart a relationship with an old, albeit much weaker and somewhat different, ally.