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Russian complex was once talk of city - Only debt and a few diplomats remain

HAVANA—It is still among the tallest, most sinister-looking structures in the Caribbean, but the Soviet-era tower that looms above the Russian Embassy in Cuba isn’t quite what it used to be.

Well, that’s no surprise. Russia isn’t quite what it used to be, either.
“The world has changed a lot since the 1960s,” says one of Moscow’s few remaining men in Havana. “The role of Russia is not as imperial as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s.”

The role of Russia is nothing like what it was in the 1970s and ‘80s — not in any part of the world and certainly not in Cuba.

The 7,000 Soviet troops that Moscow once stationed here?
Gone.

The legions of Soviet technical advisors who once swarmed over the island?

Also gone.

The profusions of boxy, little Lada sedans that once darted through the rabbit-warren streets of Old Havana? Well, they are still around, it’s true, and they are beginning to seem almost as antique as the countless 50-year-old Buicks, Pontiacs, and Chevrolets still chugging across the island, giving the impression at times that Cuba is just one great big automotive repair shop.

But most other signs of Soviet imperialism have vanished. Still, inevitably, a few mementoes remain. Debts, for instance.

The diplomat nods. “Debts, there are.”

He is chatting with a visitor in a windowless room lined by dark wooden wainscoting and located just off the Russian Embassy’s main reception area, where a large bust of Vladimir Lenin used to preside.

The bust is gone now, of course. But the building is here still, although its name has been changed.

This used to be the embassy in Havana of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and it was once the biggest deal in town, at a time when Moscow vied with Washington for world dominion, and when Cuba punched far above its weight in the international ranking of small communist satellite states.

Not anymore.

The U.S.S.R. broke up more than a decade ago. Russia is capitalist now, more or less, while Moscow these days is just another big city whose name starts with the letter “M.” And Cuba ó well, here is Cuba, still soldiering on, still holding high the tattered banner of communism in a world that doesn’t tend to rally around that flag much anymore.

As a staff member serves tea and Russian cookies, the diplomat reflects upon the somewhat paradoxical nature of his job ó representing a converted and downsized former imperial superpower in one of that former superpower’s former client states, whose rulers still insist upon believing in a political and economic system that even the former superpower gave up on, quite some time ago.

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`The policy of the current Russian government is to respect any political system.’

A Russian diplomat in Havana

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The diplomat says his government’s approach is a simple one.

Live and let believe.

“The policy of the current Russian government,” he says, “is to respect any political system.”

Meanwhile, there are all those debts. During the three decades that the Soviet Union served as Cuba’s international patron ófrom 1961 until 1991 ó Moscow left massive amounts of money here.

By one informed estimate, the Kremlin’s total Cuban largesse came to about $5 billion (U.S.) a year, or about $65 billion in total ó roughly 60 per cent of which was supposed to be repaid.

The Cubans have long maintained that they are willing to honour their commitments, the only problem being that they’re just a bit strapped for cash at the moment, as it were.

The diplomat knows this very well. He also knows that Washington tweaked its decades-old Cuban trade embargo in 2001, permitting U.S. food producers to sell their goods to the island ó but on a cash-only basis.

“This is a very interesting thing,” says the Russian, “very interesting. Cuba has a scarcity of foreign exchange but, in the case of the United States, they pay without saying a word. And yet, with other countries, there are problems.”

You can imagine the diplomat adopting just this tone ó befuddled, innocent, a little wounded ó when he addresses Cuban officials on the subject.

In the meantime, there are other matters to attend to.

About 4,000 Russian nationals still live permanently in Cuba, after having married locals during the Soviet years. Russian businessmen are poking around the island, on the lookout for trade or investment opportunities, and there is a modest but steady tourist traffic, amounting to about 15,000 Russian visitors a year.

That’s enough to warrant two direct flights a week between Moscow and Havana on the new, vastly improved Aeroflot.

The diplomat himself has been in Cuba for a couple of years, and he’s much impressed by in the accomplishments of the country and its people ó in sports, dance and music, not to mention biotechnology and medicine.

And, of course, education in Cuba is free, as is medical care.

The Russian notes that more than a million people in Havana alone thronged into the streets a few weeks back to march behind President Fidel Castro, in defiance of a recent toughening of U.S. sanctions against the island. “This was very significant, and just in Havana.”

The diplomat shakes his head and sips his tea, and for a moment you wonder if he isn’t thinking of maybe uncrating that old bust of Lenin, dusting it off, and putting it back in the reception hall.

It’s unlikely to come to that, of course. But it’s evident that this particular envoy has managed to detect certain subtleties about Cuba that have eluded a 45-year parade of U.S. presidents, who have instead preferred to dictate to the island’s rulers, so far without much success.

“I will repeat, we don’t want to impose our system in any other part of the world,” says the representative of what used to be an imperial power but that isn’t anymore. “We’re not cowboys.”

That job being taken at the moment, as it were.