Russia is betting big on Cuba as it courts alternative economic partners

  • Russia is expanding its economic and trade ties with Cuba.
  • Russia has been pivoting to alternative markets in the face of Western sanctions.
  • Cuba — sanctioned by the US for decades — has been in economic crisis since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russia has set its sights on broader economic and trade ties with Cuba.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said on Friday that more than 100 Russian companies had started operations in Cuba over the past year, according to the state news agency TASS.

Speaking at an intergovernmental meeting between Russia and Cuba, Chernyshenko said the companies were involved in various sectors including heavy industry, energy, banking, agriculture, IT, and tourism. He didn’t name any companies.

He added that some Russian banks were also considering opening representative offices in Cuba. He didn’t name any banks but said the rollout of Russia’s Mir cards in Cuba last year was a milestone.

He said the developments would boost bilateral trade.

“Cuba is a reliable Russia’s ally,” Chernyshenko said, according to an online post by the Russian government. “Today’s meeting confirms the policy of strengthening Russian-Cuban relations.”

Russia has pivoted to alternative markets

Chernyshenko’s trumpeting of Russia’s economic ties with Cuba has come two years after President Vladimir Putin’s regime invaded Ukraine, triggering sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow.

The trade restrictions hit Russia’s trade with Europe, traditionally its single largest market.

But Russia has managed to keep its economy humming by pivoting its trade to alternative markets including India, China, and Iran. It’s even building rail lines to create what one analyst called “a trade route for the pariahs” with heavily sanctioned Iran.

Moscow is also aligning itself closer to Cuba, which was already an ally.

In November, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement for a trade and economic cooperation program that aims to strengthen ties between the two countries.

Despite the close relationship, Moscow-Havana ties appeared to show cracks in September when the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it was working to “neutralize and dismantle” a “human-trafficking network” in Russia that was recruiting Cubans to fight the war in Ukraine.

A Reuters investigation published in the same month found that some poor Cubans who signed up to fight had been lured by Russian offers of signing bonuses and fast-track citizenships.

Cuba has been sanctioned by the US for decades. The country has been in economic crisis since the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting many citizens to flee to the US. Cuba’s inflation rate hit 30% in 2023, while food and medicine shortages are frequent, media reports say.

On Sunday, hundreds of people in Santiago — Cuba’s second-largest city — staged a rare public protest against blackouts that stretched for 18 hours or more a day, Reuters reported.

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