Russia has been in the news a lot lately, especially after its intervention on the Crimean Peninsula. Both Cuba and Russia have had a complicated relationship over the last half century. Just after the revolution in 1959, Cuba asked for help from the U.S. Instead, President Kennedy activated plans from the Eisenhower Administration to invade Cuba, using many exiles from that country. Kennedy changed the invasion site for some reason from Trinidad to the The Bay of Pigs. This is a significant world historical site. Cubans view it as their “Pearl Harbor.” Hard-core exiles in Miami think of it as the site where President Kennedy stabbed them in the back by not offering more military support. American historians view it as the location of one of the most messed-up, totally-botched, poorly-researched, severely-pathetic invasions in the history of the world.
After that, plans were made for a full-scale, D-Day type invasion of Cuba. There was only one thing in the world that could have prevented this from happening–Soviet Russia’s nuclear missiles. They were secretly installed around Cuba. An American U-2 spy plane flying pre-invasion reconnaissance discovered the Russian missiles, and this precipitated the “Cuban Missile Crisis” (known in every other country simply as the “Missile Crisis” or the “Caribbean Crisis”—there never were any “Cuban” missiles).
To make a long, complicated story short, Soviet Russia agreed to remove the missiles if Kennedy canceled his invasion plans and pledged to never invade Cuba. This seemed reasonable, and it saved the world from a devastating nuclear war. Fidel Castro was not directly involved with negotiations. He flipped out when he heard about the arrangement—he believed that the return of the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba should have been included in the deal. After that, Fidel was not quite so enamored with the Russians.
Russians continued to remain in Cuba. It was a favorite winter assignment for various military leaders and diplomats. But the cultures were about as compatible as fire and ice. Cubans appreciated the Soviet government’s leaders for preventing the invasion, but they generally did not get along with their Russian visitors/occupiers. (Ironically, to this day, Cubans love Americans, but they don’t like our government’s leaders.)
The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, and Russian subsidies dried up almost overnight. This was followed by a massive economic depression. Russians trying to leave the country were threatened and beaten up. The 90’s marked the low point in Cuba-Russian relations. Cuba’s economy barely survived, thanks to massive infusions of cash into Cuba’s tourist industry by investors from America’s best allies, especially Canada. Tourists also began arriving from UK, Italy, Germany, France, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and more recently, China. Eventually the Russians started trickling back.
In the last few decades, Cuba seemed to embrace the philosophy that: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” at least on the surface. After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, flags were flown from half-staff in his honor all around the country. This fact alone has been used by some writers to “prove” how radical Cuba. In reality, most Cubans view North Korea the same as Americans—as a dangerous, goofy country run by dispicable dictators. On my tours, we ride right past the North Korean Embassy on our way to the American-Cuban Friendship House. Our Cuban guides never point it out, presumably because it is such an embarrassment to them. I always invite my group to come along on a short walk after lunch to see the front of the embassy–which has all kinds of antannas and satellite dishes jutting out from the roof. There are also photos of the boy wonder Kim Jong-Un and idiotic parades and ceremonies.
I mention this only to try to explain Cuba’s real connections to the world. Cuba’s government labels defectors who end up in Miami “worms” and other bad names, but they are painfully aware that it is remittance money from Miami that keeps the economy alive. In terms of North Korea, Cuba officially refers to it as an ally, while importing billions of dollars of products from North Korea’s mortal enemy—South Korea. As far as I know, there isn’t even an embassy for South Korea in Havana, but everywhere you will see Kias and Hyundais on the street. The TV in your hotel room will most likely be an LG or a Samsung. The most common refrigerators, washing machines, and smartphones in Cuba were imported from South Korea. (Please note that all these items could have been and should have been purchased from the U.S. and shipped a few hundred miles to Havana rather than 11,000 miles from South Korea, but that’s another story.)
Events this week bring us back full circle to Cuba and the Russians. Cuban officials encourage anything that riles the American government. They have been figuratively flipping off the C.I.A. and saying “neener-neener” to American presidents of both parties for over 50 years. This week a Russian spy ship arrived unannounced in Havana harbor and docked, much to the consternation of American government officials. The Viktor Leonov, a Vishyna-class intelligence ship, surprised a lot of Cubans and visitors alike by floating past the narrow harbor entrance. It docked at the most prominent spot for foreign cruise ships, directly across from Plaza de San Francisco. It would hardly be the dock of choice for a secret spy ship. Cuba has other highly secured bases it uses for its submarines and foreign warships. It was probably docked there at the last minute to irritate American officials, rather than being part of some serious geo-political plan.
I’ve got an idea—maybe they should offer tours to tourists who have already visited Hemingway’s homes and Cathedral Square! It can’t hurt to ask. Well—maybe it can. I don’t think President Putin would appreciate any humor involving his top-secret spy ship!