November 27, 2008
HAVANA -- Russia's president visited old Cold War ally Cuba on Thursday after meeting with his nation's new friends in Latin America in a tour aimed at reviving relationships that have frayed since the Soviet Union's collapse.
Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Havana from Venezuela, where he met with socialist President Hugo Chavez and agreed to help the oil-rich South American country start a nuclear energy program.
Russian officials deny that Medvedev's trip to Latin America - traditionally considered in the U.S. sphere of influence - is meant to provoke the United States, but the voyage included meetings with Washington's staunchest opponents in the region.
In Havana, Medvedev was greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Ricardo Cabrisas, the island's chief of foreign trade and investment. He was immediately sped away in a limousine without addressing reporters.
Medvedev later met with President Raul Castro, who was especially friendly with the Russians during the Soviet years. He was also expected to visit a newly consecrated Russian Orthodox cathedral in Old Havana before leaving Cuba on Friday.
The Soviet Union was Cuba's chief source of aid and trade until its disintegration in 1991, and relations between the new Russian federation and the island soured. Former Russian President Vladimir Putin visited in 2000 to strengthen ties but reminded Havana it should pay its Soviet-era debt.
Shortly after Putin's visit, Moscow closed a Cold War-era electronic spying facility in Lourdes, Cuba, just outside Havana and it has since been converted into an elite computer sciences university.
Earlier Thursday, Medvedev and Chavez toured a Russian destroyer docked in a Venezuelan port, one of two large Russian warships that arrived this week for training exercises in the first deployment of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War.
Chavez saluted the captain, and while touring the vessel joked to reporters from the deck: "We're going to Cuba!" The warships will hold joint exercises with Venezuela's navy next week.
Business deals also were high on Medvedev's agenda: Russia pledged to help Venezuela with oil projects and building ships, while Chavez's government signed a deal to buy two Russian-made Ilyushin Il-96 passenger jets to add to the state airline's fleet for long-range flights.
Wednesday's accords included a pledge of cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy.
Moscow plans to develop a nuclear cooperation program with Venezuela by the end of next year, said Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency.
Chavez says Venezuela hopes to build a nuclear reactor for energy purposes.
Medvedev also said Russia is ready to "think about participating" in a regional socialist trade bloc led by Chavez, likely as an associate member.
Chavez launched the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, as an alternative to U.S.-backed free-trade pacts.
Medvedev pledged to keep supplying Chavez with weapons, saying Russia has a "pragmatic relationship" with Venezuela and the arms sales aren't meant to threaten any country.
Venezuela has bought more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.
Cuba is the last stop on a four-nation tour, which also included visits to Peru and Brazil and talks in Caracas with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.