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29 Jan, 2009 06:45

Cuba – old new ally?

Just two months after Dmitry Medvedev’s Latin American tour, Cuban President Raul Castro is in Russia for his eight-day visit. Trade, energy and military cooperation are on the agenda.

The Soviet Union was Cuba's biggest ally after the communist revolution in the country fifty years ago. Raul Castro’s arrival on a Russian-made Ilyushin-96 airliner, the same type as used by Russia's leaders, shows how close the two countries were in the past.

Thousands of Cubans were educated in the USSR and Havana is still the only Latin-American city with direct flights by Russian airlines. The relations between Russia and Cuba crumbled just as the Soviet Union seized to exist but now are rapidly reviving.

Moscow is keen to renew its influence in the region, which once included a big military presence. Last November President Dmitry Medvedev visited Cuba, along with a contingent from the Russian Navy.

“I think it would have been fair for Russia to restore military links with Cuba,” said Vladimir Borodayev, a history professor at the Moscow State University. “Not on the same scale as during the Soviet times, but maybe, with the use of the Lurdez base which we abandoned there.”

Back in Moscow it doesn't take long to find another, more peaceful connection between the two nations – the love of Cuban cigars.

Since the economic blockade by the United States that imposed severe hardships on Cuba, the Soviet Union became a major importer of Cuban tobacco.

“People in the Caribbean used to only smoke cigars, which is the most pleasant way of smoking,” said Vilya Alvera, a cigar distributor in Russia. “Cigars became a symbol of Cuba, just like a clock is a symbol of Switzerland.”

Visitors of a Cuban bar in Moscow have their own view on what the relations between the countries should be like.

“It's important to preserve the relations we used to have during the Soviet times,” said one client, “Especially when it comes to relations between people and not just economic and trade issues.”

With the shared past, the countries can now give each other things they did not have before. Cuba is gradually becoming a popular tourist destination for Russians eager to escape their own motherland’s gloomy winters. Russia, in turn, can offer Cuba its vast export market.