Is Another Cuban Missile Crisis in Our Future?

Moscow and Havana are tightening ties, but rather than projecting power, their new agreements signal their weakness.

AP/Ramon Espinosa
A man looks out of his window during a programmed morning electricity blackout at Regla, Cuba, August 1, 2022. AP/Ramon Espinosa

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Now, with echoes of the 1960s missile crisis, Cuba and Russia are vowing to tighten relations to defy America. Tragedy or farce?

Havana and Moscow signed several deals last week at the Cuban-Russian Business Committee to supply the island with much-needed resources, including oil and wheat, and boost its tourism sector. The moves are reminiscent of the days when the Soviet Union was Cuba’s sugar daddy — Moscow bought sugar cane it didn’t need in return for bases near American shores.   

Rather than projecting power, though, the new agreements signal the weakness of Moscow and Havana, a deputy director and a senior fellow of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christopher Hernandez-Roy, tells the Sun. President Putin’s alliances in the global south are merely symbolic, as “Russia does not have the cash to spare to make a difference in the Cuban economy,” he says.   

One of the deals signed by officials from the countries includes a contract for a Russia-based company, Prodintorg, to supply wheat to a Cuban state company, Alimport, according to a document seen by Reuters. Others would set up a Cuban-based marketplace for Russian-made goods and aim to increase Havana’s tourism sector by restoring Cuba’s Tarara beach, the documents say.

A month before Russia invaded Ukraine, a deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, suggested if tensions with Washington rose, Moscow could order a military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela. Such statements, though, were mostly a Russian scare tactic, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, Philipp Lausberg, tells the Sun. 

A former KGB agent, Mr. Putin has long been known for making himself look stronger than he actually is in order to scare opponents, Mr. Lausberg says. Compared to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Russia’s military capabilities are significantly weakened by the war in Ukraine, he adds.

For the first time in its history, Havana will allow Russian investors to lease land on the island for 30 years, the chairman of the Russia-Cuba Business Council, Boris Titov, told representatives in Havana. Russians will also gain the right to import agricultural machinery duty-free and to repatriate profits in foreign currency. “They are giving us preferential treatment,” Mr. Titov said. “The path is clear.”

Russia is trying to salvage its relevance, pushing a “narrative of a multipolar world that is challenging the U.S.-led liberal international order,” Mr. Hernandez-Roy says. To boost relations, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, traveled last month to leftist-led Latin American countries, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Brazil. 

“It is a symbolic push,” Mr. Hernandez-Roy adds, noting that the Latin alliance with Moscow is tenuous at best. In a March 1, 2022, vote at the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, virtually all Latin American countries voted against Moscow, and even Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua abstained, rather than siding with the invader. 

Hoping to increase tourism, the Russian deputy prime minister for tourism, Dmitry Chernyshenko, announced last month that regular flights between Russia and Cuba, which have been suspended since March 2022, will resume by July 1. 

Cuba is facing one of the worst economic crises since the 1959 revolution. Shortages of food, fuel, and medicine are the new normal for residents. Blackouts in the first months of the year intensified. Record-breaking numbers of Cubans are escaping the island.

There is no quick solution for Cuba’s economic crisis, the economy minister, Alejandro Gil, told lawmakers last week. Tourism has struggled, leaving the country with a shortage of the foreign currency that is critical to importing farming necessities such as fertilizers.

“The regime is desperate to find alternative sources of revenue,” Mr. Hernandez-Roy says, adding though that even if Russian tourism would double — a big if — “it would still not measurably change things.”


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