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Cuban officials end Russia trip with accords on oil, wheat, tourism

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 14, 2023. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) — Cuba said Tuesday it is reaffirming its alliance with Russia through a series of agreements considered key for the island nation, including on the supply of oil, the sale of wheat and the resumption of flights between both countries that were halted by the war in Ukraine.

The agreements between two longtime allies facing economic sanctions from the United States were the result of a recent visit by Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero to Russia and were disclosed Tuesday by Gerardo Peñalver, Cuba’s vice minister of foreign affairs, in an interview with state-run Cubadebate website.

“There was progress in the high-level political dialogue, taking into account that both nations are strategic allies and are under the effect of unilateral coercive measures,” said Peñalver, who was in Russia with Marrero and other high-level officials from June 6-17.

It was the most recent in a series of meetings between Russian and Cuban officials seeking to reinforce their strategic ties.

Officials didn’t provide details on the content of the agreements signed in Russia or those signed in Havana in the previous months, but Peñalver mentioned some in key sectors, including the continuing supply of fuels and lubricants “in difficult moments” for the island, and the renewal of flights between Russia and Cuba starting July 1.

Peñalver also mentioned the expansion of MIR cards, a payment system in Russia that allows Russian tourists to make cash withdrawals and convert rubles to Cuban pesos.

MIR cards are accepted in other partner countries of Russia, including Turkey and Vietnam, and are operated by the state-owned Russian National Card Payment System.

Marrero’s visit included a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and to St. Petersburg to attend the international economic forum. According to Russian figures, the bilateral exchange in 2022 closed at about $451 million. Official Cuban statistics indicated that trade between both countries reached $633 million in 2021, up from $320 million in 2020.

The announcement comes at a moment of renewed tensions between Washington and Russia, with U.S.-backed Ukrainian forces seeking to expel Russians from their territory. It also comes as U.S. confirmed that China has been operating a spy base in Cuba since at least 2019, part of a global effort by Beijing to upgrade its intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Asked about covert Chinese action on the island, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday told reporters the U.S. will continue to take steps to thwart it.

“It’s not like we aren’t aware of it. It’s not like we haven’t been monitoring it,” Kirby said. “And quite frankly, it’s not like we haven’t taken steps — and we’ll continue to take steps —- to thwart it and to be able to protect our own secrets and our own national security.”

Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío denied reports of such operations in a Twitter post on June 10.

“The slanderous speculation continues, evidently promoted by certain media to cause harm and alarm without observing minimum patterns of communication and without providing data or evidence to support what they disseminate,” he wrote.

AP writer Aamer Madhani contributed from Washington.