Castro, Putin agree to revive Russia-Cuba relationship

HAVANA - Reviving a friendship that withered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Thursday with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, promising little by way of economic aid but pledging to strengthen ties.

''We decided we will build a relationship between our countries based upon the warm feelings and high level relations that already exist,'' Putin said after their morning meeting. ''We agreed to give a new push to solving problems that have piled up during the last years.''

But the only solid economic agreement from talks between the two leaders was $50 million in commercial credit from Russia to Cuba - an amount that pales in comparison with the multibillion-dollar subsidies of the Soviet era.

The generous Soviet-era aid to Cuba ended abruptly in the early 1990s when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev cut subsidies shortly after his 1989 visit to Cuba. He added to the insult by deciding to withdraw Soviet troops without consulting Havana.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, never even visited Cuba.

Putin has made a point of restoring ties with old Soviet allies alienated by his predecessor. There were none of the bear hugs and kisses typical during Soviet times, but after meeting Castro, Putin extolled the old friendship and pledged to strengthen it.

''We must clearly and precisely realize what in our relationship has perspective and what is the heritage of the past,'' Putin said.

Russian and Cuban officials signed agreements in the economic, legal and medical spheres but failed to reach a solution on uncompleted Soviet-era projects in Cuba that would cost billions of dollars to finish. There also was no agreement on how to eliminate part of Cuba's $11 billion Soviet-era debt with Russia.

But the two leaders found common ground in international politics, discussing the need to develop the multipolar world - a reference to what they see as U.S. attempts at global domination. In a joint statement, they condemned the United States' economic embargo against Cuba.

Meeting at the Palace of the Revolution, where a military band struck up both countries' anthems before they went inside for talks, Putin and Castro also agreed to further political dialogue, economic cooperation and trade.

The two countries do about $1 billion in trade a year, down from about $3.6 billion in 1991, Putin said Thursday.

The Soviet Union valued Cuba during the Cold War, and considered it a strategic outpost. Twenty percent of Cuba's gross national product is estimated to have come from Soviet subsidies. But today, in a country much changed since the Soviet collapse, politics are now second to economics.

Later Thursday, Putin was to attend a ceremony honoring Cuba's monument to the Unknown Soviet Soldier, then meet with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and Castro's point man on Cuba-U.S. affairs.

A state dinner, not listed on the original agenda, was scheduled for the evening, Russian officials said.

The Russian delegation included Gen. Valentin Korabelnikov, head of military intelligence, who apparently will accompany Putin on his visit to the Russian electronic intelligence center in Lourdes, the only remaining Russian military facility in Cuba.

On Friday, the Russian president was to play tribute to Cuban independence hero Jose Marti and visit Cuba's Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology. He then heads to Cuba's Varadero beach resort for a two-day rest before going to Canada on Sunday.

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