Russian Recolonization of Cuba

The Russian project of reforming the Cuban economy has undergone a real diplomatic offensive in recent months, as highlighted by some independent media. In a short period of time, President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Deputy Prime Minister Ricardo Cabrisas have traveled to Moscow, as well as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernishenko, Kremlin economic advisor Maxim Oreshim, Duma leader Vyacheslav Volodin, and Boris Titov, President Vladimir Putin’s commissioner for “business rights” and head of the Stolypin Institute, to Havana. Since the beginning of the year, it became known that the Stolypin Institute was working on a plan to restructure the Cuban economy in order to make it capable of assimilating the growing Russian interests in the Cuban market. With the celebration this May of the Cuba-Russia Business Economic Forum at the National Hotel, where more than one hundred Russian businessmen participated, it has been possible to learn more about what this project consists of.

According to Titov and the Cuban Minister of Economy, Alejandro Gil, the purpose is to extend the collaboration with Russia beyond the energy and military fields. In principle, an attempt would be made to increase the import of wheat and other basic products, land would be offered in usufruct to Russian companies and the tourist flow from the Eurasian country would be encouraged, until reaching the figure of 500 thousand visitors per year.

In the agreements signed between the two governments, there is also talk of collaboration in communications, new technologies and Artificial Intelligence, all sectors which, in both countries, are controlled by the State Security apparatus. Exchanges between Cuba and Russia in these areas have been growing in recent decades to reach an intensity similar to that of the Soviet period. Precisely, what was missing from the bilateral agenda to reach the high levels of those days was the consolidation of Russian interests in the Cuban economy.

Parallel to the Business Forum at the Hotel Nacional, the Intergovernmental Commission, headed by Cabrisas and Chernishenko, met in Havana. There they talked about offering facilities for Russian banks to operate on the island and to make transactions in rubles. According to Cubadebate, Russia gives priority to infrastructure projects, such as the renovation of Antillana de Acero. The same media reports that the exchange between both countries, which reached just over 450 million dollars in 2022—not as significant if compared, for example, with the main source of income, remittances, which have reached 3.7 billion dollars annually—, could “multiply by nine” this year.

It is no coincidence that this relaunching of Russian-Cuban ties takes place in the midst of the invasion against Ukraine, which has provoked a broad rejection in the world, as verified in various UN resolutions, adverse to Moscow, in the last year and a half. The isolation of the Kremlin, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, where its presence was growing before the military escalation, encourages this mutual rapprochement.

On the Cuban side, the link with Moscow is also a useful response to the failure of the Obamist diplomatic normalization, boycotted from inside and outside the island. This time, with the advantage offered by the greater identification of sectors of the Cuban military and business leadership with an oligarchic and authoritarian capitalism, such as the one which characterizes the Russian system, in terms of a possible transition during the next few years.

Even so, this project, which could be defined as “recolonization,” if one takes into account that Cuba’s historical link with the USSR and the real socialisms of Eastern Europe during the Cold War did not lack colonial elements, will generate resistance within the power elite itself. There is an ideological contradiction, generally concealed or consciously postponed by that elite, between the traditional immobilist line of the Cuban regime, embodied in Article 5 of the 2019 Constitution, and Russian oligarchic capitalism.

One way to explore that contradiction would be through the historical figure of Pyotr A. Stolypin (1862-1911), the tsarist politician who gave his name to the institute that will elaborate the economic reform for Cuba. That name, which today circulates naturally in the official press of a State that claims to profess a “Marxist” and “Leninist” ideology, represented, in the work of Lenin, Trotsky and the main Bolshevik leaders, the sum of all the evils of capitalism and the authoritarianism of the Russia of the Czars.

A landowner himself, Stolypin was, between 1906 and 1911, chairman of the Council of Ministers and Minister of the Interior of the monarchy of Nicholas II. His accumulation of power, only interrupted by death, was deployed mainly through an economic reform favorable to the kulaks, or new rural bourgeoisie, and a parallel repressive policy against the workers’ movement and the Russian left, based on the death penalty (his necktie was a symbol of the gallows) and indiscriminate imprisonment and deportation. Lenin described the policy of “Stolypin the Executioner” as a reaction of tsarism to the 1905 Revolution. For the Bolshevik leader, the Stolypian strategy was a mixture of half-hearted modernization—anti-feudal agrarian reform, without industrialization or trade opening—and unbridled despotism against any form of domestic opposition. In 1917, Lenin will remind the liberals of the February Revolution (Kerensky, Guchkov, Miliukov…) that they too were victims of that authoritarianism.

Lenin appears in the Cuban Constitution of 2019 as a referent of the State ideology. But the economic reform promoted by the Stolypin Institute is inspired by a profoundly anti-Leninist vision of society. As Timothy Snyder, historian at Yale University, has well documented, Vladimir Putin’s worldview rests on the old Russian imperial nationalism, whose two tutelary figures would be the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, on the doctrinaire side, and the statesman Pyotr Stolypin, on the political side.

The Putinist regime itself is very close to the combination described by Lenin. According to The Economist, Russia ranks first in the world in the index of oligarchic or “crony” capitalism. Some 120 millionaires reportedly control 70 percent of the Russian economy thanks to government concessions for strategic enterprises including banks, casinos, media, extractive and defense industries, and construction and infrastructure development consortiums.

On the repressive and undemocratic nature of the Russian political system there would be little to add to the obvious. Months before launching his invasion of Ukraine, Putin promoted a law that allows him to remain in power until 2036, giving him more time at the helm of Russia than Stalin or any other leader of the USSR. His list of executed or imprisoned opponents—ex-agent Alexandr Litvinenko, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, activist Aleksei Navalny…—grows year after year.

The contradiction between the ideology of the Cuban state and the Russian model is undeniable. However, the ideological apparatus of the Communist Party, the media and the intellectual and academic field of the island do not seem to notice it. There are very few possibilities in the face of such inconsistency: either they perceive it and do not admit it publicly, for reasons of realism or convenience, or they simply do not care. If it is the latter, they would only confirm that ideology, in that regime, is less central than it is presumed to be and that it is primarily aimed at drawing the artificial and casuistic border between “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries,” the axis of its long exclusionary and repressive trajectory.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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