• Putin kicks off Latin America tour with Cuba stop
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     | July 12,2014
     
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    Cuban President Raul Castro, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Soviet Internationalist Soldier in Havana, Cuba, on Friday. Putin began a six-day Latin American tour aimed at boosting trade and ties in the region with a stop Friday in Cuba, where he was also expected to meet with former leader Fidel Castro.

    HAVANA — Russian President Vladimir Putin began a six-day Latin American tour aimed at boosting trade and ties in the region with a stop Friday in Cuba, a key Soviet ally during the Cold War that has backed Moscow in its dispute with the West over Ukraine.

    The visit focused on economic and commercial links as well as investment in projects including energy, transportation and civil aviation. Russia has cooperated with Cuba in recent years on offshore oil exploration, which the island hopes could ultimately yield a windfall.

    “Today, cooperation with Latin American states is one of the key and promising lines of Russia’s foreign policy,” Putin told Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina.

    Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that Putin met with retired leader Fidel Castro for an hour and discussed topics ranging from international affairs and the world economy to Russian-Cuban relations. Cuban government website Cubadebate published photographs of Putin and current President Raul Castro participating in a ceremony at Havana’s Memorial to the Soviet Internationalist Soldier.

    Amid the crisis in Ukraine, Cuba and some other nations in the region have been sympathetic to Russia’s position on the conflict or at least not overtly critical.

    Articles in Cuban official newspapers tend to characterize it as a struggle against right-wing extremism that threatens ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez criticized U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russian individuals and pro-Russian Ukrainians that sought to pressure Moscow.

    In March, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez accused the United States and Britain of having a double standard for criticizing a pro-Russian secession referendum held in Crimea while backing a similar vote in the disputed Falkland Islands on whether to remain a British overseas territory. Brazil was among several nations opposing Russia’s possible exclusion from an upcoming G20 summit in Australia due to the crisis.

    “We are grateful to South Americans for the support of our international initiatives, including outer space demilitarization, strengthening international information security and combating the glorification of Nazism,” Putin told Prensa Latina.

    Havana and Moscow have a shared history dating to the Cold War, when they were united by ideology and opposition to U.S. influence. However, they drifted apart somewhat in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    In December 2000, shortly after his first election, Putin visited the island and pledged to reinvigorate relations.

    Russia said in February that it was looking to expand its worldwide military presence, including asking permission for its navy ships to use ports in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. A Russian intelligence-gathering vessel has docked in Havana on multiple occasions in recent months.

    Moscow is nearing final ratification of a deal to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt, which totals more than $35 billion. The remaining 10 percent will be spent by Havana on local investment projects selected with Russian input.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also visited Cuba three months ago.

    Putin was scheduled to travel on to Argentina and then begin on Sunday a four-day visit to Brazil for a presidential summit of the BRICS group of nations in Fortaleza.

    He planned to be in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday for the final World Cup match and ceremonial handover of host duties for soccer’s marquee tournament, which takes place in Russia in 2018.

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