Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Thorns and Daggers: The Castros and their allies.” This week on NRO, Nordlinger is expanding the piece into a series. Yesterday’s installment dealt with the Castros and North Korea. Today’s is about the Castros and Russia. Tomorrow’s will deal with the Castros and China.
You can sometimes discern the shape of the world by looking at votes in the United Nations. In fact, these votes are very handy indicators. Who’s aligned with whom? What’s the correlation of forces in the world?
Last March, the U.N. General Assembly voted on a resolution supporting the “territorial integrity of Ukraine.” This resolution, in effect, condemned Russia for its annexation of Crimea. There were just ten votes against the resolution, other than Russia’s.
Two of the votes came from former Soviet republics: Belarus and Armenia. The former is essentially a Communist dictatorship, complete with a KGB. The latter resents Ukraine for its support of Azerbaijan, Armenia’s neighbor and enemy.
Three of the votes came from genocidal or quasi-genocidal states: North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. There was also Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Finally, there were four Communist or would-be Communist states in Latin America: Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.
‐With all that support in Latin America, it made sense for Vladimir Putin to undertake a Latin American tour last summer — and to begin in Havana. He met both Castros: the titular boss, Raúl, and the power behind the throne, big brother Fidel.
In the company of Raúl, Putin laid a wreath at the Monument to Soviet Internationalist Soldiers. Each leader had a delegation with him. Raúl pointed out that everyone was wearing a business suit, in the tropical sun. “We have to change the protocol,” he said to Putin. “We don’t wear ties in this country. It’s guayaberas and sombreros, shorts and sandals.” (A guayabera is a light, semi-formal shirt, typical in the tropics.) “This isn’t a country for working, much less for making war,” he continued. “This is a country for relaxing.”
‐The Soviet Union began life 42 years before Communist Cuba, and Communist Cuba has outlived the Soviet Union by 23 years. Still, they had more than 30 years of overlap. And Russians left a deep mark on Cuba.
Names such as “Vladimiro” are common. Cuban ballet dancers are good, both before and after they defect. (Where there are Russians, there is good ballet.) Children of the elite, such as Fidel Castro Jr., studied in the Soviet Union. The old man required Junior to study physics. (Where there are Russians, there is good science.)
Christopher Hitchens relates something interesting in his memoir. He went to Cuba in the late 1960s, as many leftists in free countries did. (They still make these journeys, of course — pilgrimages.) Hitchens was English, as you know. And when Cuban urchins in the streets saw him, they threw pebbles and dog crap at him, saying, “Soviético!”
‐Raúl Castro told Putin that Cuba is a country for relaxing, not working — but the Castros and Putin inked a dozen deals while the Russian was there. These deals related to air travel and energy, among other things. Russia will explore for oil off Cuban coasts.
Also, Putin forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s debts to Russia. Maybe we should say debts to Moscow: They are left over from the Soviet period. Putin forgave $32 billion, leaving just $3 billion and change on the books. This money is to be paid in the next ten years, and reinvested in Cuba.
Said Raúl, “It’s a great sign of the generosity of Russia toward Cuba.” Said Putin, “We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade of Cuba” (meaning American trade and travel sanctions).
‐Why was Putin in such a generous mood? A report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant may well have provided the answer: It said that Cuba had agreed to reopen Moscow’s old spy base at Lourdes, not in France, where the miracles occur, but outside Havana. This base was once the Kremlin’s largest facility abroad. It took up 28 square miles, and was just 150 miles from America. Some 3,000 people from the Soviet Union and its bloc worked at Lourdes, cocking an ear to America, gathering all the intelligence they could.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed — but Russia kept the base. There was this difference, however: Where Castro hosted the base for free before, now the Russians would have to pay — $200 million a year (reportedly).
A decade later, in 2001, Putin decided to close the base. His government portrayed this decision as a gesture of goodwill to the United States. It is probably more relevant to say that the Russians were tired of paying the cost. What purpose did the base serve? The Cold War was over.
After the Russians left, the base went to pot. There is a computer-science university on the premises, but the buildings are decrepit, like most things in Cuba. Goats wander around, looking for food.
‐In the wake of the Kommersant report, Putin issued a denial. “Russia is capable of fulfilling its defense-capacity tasks without this component,” he said, meaning Lourdes. Whether Putin’s denial can be credited, it’s hard to say. The reopening of Lourdes would make sense for him. So does his Latin American sweep in general.
No better analysis was given than that of Nina Khrushcheva, the professor in New York who is the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, boss of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. Speaking to Newsweek, she said, “What Putin is doing is reestablishing the relationships that, when Russia was turning west, planning to become part of wider Europe, and giving up the legacy of the Soviet Union, were actually neglected. I think that stands at the core of his reengagement.”
(For the Newsweek article, go here.)
There is also the matter of Russian pride, and overcoming the shame that derived from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Listen to a former Russian spy chief, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, speaking to Kommersant: “Lourdes gave the Soviet Union eyes in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. … For Russia, which is fighting for its lawful rights and place in the international community, it would be no less valuable than for the USSR.” There is a lot in that phrase, “fighting for its lawful rights and place in the international community.”
And here is Ruslan Pukhov, director of a think tank in Moscow, speaking to the Guardian: “Any country that is supporting us, whether it’s Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, is welcome. And we are not as poor as in the 1990s. We are ready to pay for this. Since we have very big problems with spy satellites, which are full of Western components, and our spy ships are not in good shape and can’t get close to U.S. shores, this base is extremely important for us.”
(For the Guardian article, go here.)
Plenty of observers spoke of fingers: By reopening Lourdes — if that’s what he was doing — Putin was sticking a finger in America’s eye. Or flipping America his middle one.
Putin himself made a telling statement to the Castros’ paper, Granma: “We are disposed to recover lost possibilities.” What he almost certainly meant was, Enough of playing footsie and trying to make nice with the democracies. Let’s get the band back together.
Raúl made an equally telling statement, and slip of the tongue: “We support the current policy of firmness and the intelligent policies being pursued in the international arena by the Soviet Union.” Then he corrected himself. “I mean Russia.”
‐After Cuba, Putin went to Nicaragua to visit Daniel Ortega, an old Soviet client and proxy. Ortega said that Putin’s visit was a “ray of light.”
Thank you for joining me, ladies and gentlemen. I will conclude this series tomorrow.