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By Global Public Square staff
Remember last December when President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, and got a lot of criticism for it? In truth it didn't signal any sort of a real rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban rapprochement of note is a different one – with Vladimir Putin, who recently made the long trip to Havana.
While there, Putin forgave about $32 billion worth of debt that Cuba had accrued from the former Soviet Union decades ago and that Russia had inherited – that's 90 percent of Cuba's outstanding debt to Moscow.
In addition, Russian officials recently confirmed that Cuba has also provisionally agreed to reopen a spy post. This eavesdropping facility, 150 miles off the coast of Florida, allowed Russia to spy on the United States until it closed in 2001. (Putin denied claims that he's reopening the listening post in Cuba, but many experts doubt his denial).
What in the world is going on?
Remember that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Havana lost billions in aid and subsidies from Moscow. The Cuban economy plunged, contracting by about a third.
Then Cuba found another oil-rich regime to prop it up: Venezuela. Trade with Venezuela accounted for about 20 percent of Cuba's GDP in 2012. But plunging oil production and political instability in Venezuela means that Cuba needs to build new ties.
Enter Vladimir Putin, who is in his latest incarnation trying to show the world that he doesn't need the West and that Russia can forge its own global ties. The Moscow-Havana alliance is a sad setback because Cuba was actually on the road to reform. Since Raúl Castro replaced his brother Fidel as president in 2008, he'd begun a series of changes that point to liberalization.
In the past three years, parts of the economy were transferred from the state to the private sector, as Cuba slowly edged toward capitalism. For the first time in 50 years, Cubans were allowed to openly buy and sell homes and to set up restaurants. They could even purchase modern, foreign cars! Farmers can now work on land that is not state-owned. Cuba seemed to also be gaining traction in other areas. Remittances and travel have increased. Cuba had even renewed stalled relations with the European Union.
These are all positive steps, even if many of the reforms have been half-hearted and tepid. Of course, Raúl Castro is trying to do what so many autocrats do – reform fast enough to fix the sluggish economy, but slow enough for the Communist Party to maintain control of it.
Well now, Cuba's transition to openness may have suffered a major setback given the news of its renewed alliance with Russia. But the United States is guilty as well – of empowering the Stalinists within Cuba's government, who are making the road to capitalism hard and slow.
What is Washington doing? Maintaining its highly ineffective and outdated 50-year embargo against Cuba.
Every year for the past 22 years, the United Nations has demanded an end to the blockade, but to no avail. The embargo and exclusion from institutions like the World Bank have isolated Cuba from America and its influences and instead allowed countries like China – Cuba's second largest trading partner – and now Russia to make deals with Havana.
It’s not just Putin who's living in the Cold War past. It's Washington as well.