On July 8, 2008, tension between Russia and the United States rose a notch after the signing of a treaty between Prague and Washington approving the installation of a radar station in the Czech Republic, a key piece in the United States’ anti-missile shield. Despite the displeasure of most Czech citizens, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Scharzenberg sealed the accord with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to the White House, this military arsenal is intended to protect that region of the world from "rogue states." Unconvinced by that explanation, Moscow sees in this bellicose display a threat to its national security. (1)
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his foreign minister denounced "the nearness to Russian territory of elements of strategic U.S. power." (2) Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also criticized the duplicity of the Bush administration: "They tell us this defense is useful against Iranian missiles, but no Iranian missile has that range. It seems evident, then, that this situation concerns us Russians as well." (3)
By way of responding, Putin made a call for the restoration of relations with Cuba, without ruling out military cooperation. "We must reestablish our position in Cuba and other countries," he said. The Western media alluded to the eventual installation of a Russian military base in the Caribbean that might cause a new crisis similar to the one in October 1962, which almost ended in a nuclear Apocalypse. (4)
On July 31, 2008, Cuban President Raúl Castro welcomed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, to "broaden the process of reestablishing economic, commercial and financial exchanges," according to a joint statement. The cooperation particularly involves the sectors of energy, mineral resources, agricultural transportation, health services and telecommunications. Nowhere did the official document mention any accord of a military nature. (5)
The fact is that it is very unlikely that Havana will accept any new military cooperation with the Kremlin. For several reasons. First, the Cubans did not much appreciate the Russian statements about a new military collaboration, made without consultation with Havana. Also, the revolutionary government knows very well that the installation of a foreign arsenal in its territory would only exacerbate tensions with Washington. Since 1960, the United States has imposed inhuman economic sanctions on Cuba that affect the most vulnerable levels of the population.
In addition, a Russian military base would not be at all useful to the Cubans, not even in terms of national defense. They know full well (and have known for a long time) that in the event of a military aggression by Washington, Russia would not intervene in their defense and that they would be on their own. Fidel Castro raised that eventuality during his conversations with renowned journalist Ignacio Ramonet:
"At a certain time, we came to the conclusion that, if we were attacked directly by the United States, the Soviets would never fight on our side. We couldn’t even ask them to. With the development of modern technologies, it was naive to think, ask or expect [the Soviets] to fight against the United States if [the Americans] were to intervene in this little island, 90 miles from U.S. territory.
"And we became totally convinced that that support would never happen. Furthermore, one day we asked that question to the Soviets, point-blank, several years before the USSR disappeared. ‘Tell us frankly.’ ‘No,’ they answered. We knew that’s what they would answer. So, then, faster than ever before, we speeded up the development of our concept and perfected the tactical and strategic ideas with which this Revolution triumphed and even defeated on the battlefield an army 100 times more numerous and God knows how many times more powerful in terms of weapons. After that reply, we dug our roots into our concepts, deepened them and strengthened ourselves to such a degree that we can say today that this country is militarily invulnerable, and not in terms of weapons of mass destruction." (6)
Finally, Cubans have good memories and still remember the triple betrayal committed on them by Moscow in the past. First, during the October 1962 crisis, Nikita Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles without even bothering to consult with the government of Osvaldo Dorticós and Fidel Castro. Later, when the Soviet bloc collapsed, President Boris Yeltsin overnight broke all economic, commercial and financial accords with Havana, plunging the nation into the worst economic crisis in its history. Finally, in 2001, Vladimir Putin made the unilateral decision to shut down the radar station at Lourdes in Cuba, also without consulting with the island’s authorities, to satisfy the demands of George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Lourdes was vital for the security of the Caribbean nation and generated revenues of US$200 million a year to Cuba.
Russia and Cuba have a long record of friendship, which will not end soon. The two nations appreciate and respect each other, and the ties they have forged cannot be broken over geopolitical issues. But the offenses of the past cannot be forgotten, same as this reality cannot be overlooked: the defense of the Cuban nation depends only upon the Cubans.
(1) Stéphane Kovacs, «Bouclier antimissile: Prague signe un accord avec les USA», Le Figaro, 8 July 2008.
(2) Fabrice Nodé-Langlois, «Bouclier antimissile: Medvedev menace», Le Figaro, 9 July 2008.
(3) Libération, «Poutine: ‘Le bouclier antimissile américain va relancer la course aux armements’», 4 June 2007.
(4) The Associated Press, «Putin Calls For Restoring Position in Cuba», 4 August 2008.
(5) RIA-Novosti , «Russie-Cuba: un vice-premier ministre russe reçu par Raúl Castro», 1 August 2008.
(6) Ignacio Ramonet, Cien horas con Fidel (Havana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado, 2006), Third edition, pp. 415-16.
Salim Lamrani is a French professor, writer and journalist who specializes on Cuba-U.S. relations. He has published the books "Washington Contre Cuba" (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), "Cuba face à l’Empire" (Genève: Timeli, 2006) and "Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis" (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006). He has just published "Double Morale. Cuba, l’Union européenne et les droits de l’homme" (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2008).