Russia's Putin starts historic trip to Cold War ally Cuba

HAVANA - Vladimir Putin, the first Russian president to visit Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, held talks with Fidel Castro on Thursday as he started a trip aimed at warming up ties between the former Cold War allies.

The two men were already chatting animatedly through an interpreter late Wednesday shortly after Castro greeted Putin at the Havana airport. Dressed in his customary olive green uniform, Castro shook Putin's hand and at one point placed his hand affectionately on the Russian president's shoulder.

After posing briefly for photographers, the two presidents sped away in a Russian-made limousine without talking with reporters. They could be seen talking inside the vehicle.

In the presence of their respective foreign ministers, the men later talked briefly at the residence where Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, are staying, according to Russian officials. They said Putin invited Castro to visit Russia.

Cuba was a strategic outpost during the Cold War, and 20 percent of its gross national product is estimated to have come from Soviet subsidies. But it is a much-changed country since the Soviet collapse: Politics are now second to economics as Russian-Cuban trade replaces Soviet-Cuban aid at the top of the agenda.

During Putin's two-day state visit, the two countries will examine ways to help wipe out Cuba's $11 billion Soviet-era debt. Putin and Castro were meeting formally on Thursday morning for talks on trade and other economic issues. Putin was to attend a ceremony in the afternoon honoring Cuba's monument to the Unknown Soviet Soldier.

Also Thursday, Putin was to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and Castro's point man on Cuba-U.S. affairs.

On Friday, the Russian president was scheduled 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.

Both Cuba and Russia hope the visit will breathe new life into a decades-old relationship that thrived during the Cold War era.

Cuba was thrown into economic crisis by the loss of its Soviet bloc trading partners at the beginning of the last decade but is slowly learning to become economically self-sufficient. From the Russian perspective, Putin said this week his country must revive economic ties with Cuba or risk losing out to companies from other countries.

Russian trade with Cuba now totals about $1 billion per year, Putin said earlier this week - down from about $3.6 billion in 1991.

Putin was expected to promote Russia's participation in completing construction of Soviet-era projects, including the Las Camariocas nickel plant and the Cienfuegos oil refinery, according to Russian media. Russian officials have said six documents were prepared for the trip, including agreements on cooperation in legal affairs and health.

The number of top officials scheduled to travel with Putin, including Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, was relatively small.

Nuclear Minister Yevgeny Adamov was not scheduled to be in the delegation, Russian officials said. That indicates that no substantive agreements were expected on the unfinished Juragua nuclear power plant, which was being built with Soviet technical help and financing power before construction was abandoned after the Soviet breakup.


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