Oil talks with Maduro and Russia’s war in Ukraine could affect Cuba’s alliances

Cuba’s reluctance to openly side with Russia at the United Nations recently speaks volumes about the difficult position in which the island finds itself, the future of its economy and the political alliances that depend much on what happens with the war in Ukraine and negotiations between the US and the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.

That Cuba is once again trapped in the crossfire of a geopolitical confrontation between larger foreign powers became evident during the days when Russia was planning the attack on Ukraine: A Russian diplomat threatened the US with military deployments to the Caribbean nation, invoking the memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But unlike those days, when Fidel Castro vociferously sided with the former Soviet Union because it helped in its own battles against the United States, the Cuban government has remained silent.

And after almost announcing its intention to vote against a UN resolution condemning Russia for the invasion, Cuba backtracked and abstained, a face-saving decision to avoid further sanctions and the straining of relations with Western democracies that the country also relies on for trade, investment and foreign aid.

But a few experts believe the island’s government, which is using state media to promote the Kremlin’s propaganda justifying the invasion, would desert Russia, one of its closest allies. Unlike Maduro, who controls Venezuela’s large oil reserves, Cuba has little to offer to get the US interested in a new engagement.

“I the crux of the question for Cuba is: In a return to realpolitik, where US foreign policy toward the region is guided by the national interest and less so by domestic politics, we what what Caracas brings to the table with Washington, said Ric Herrero, the director of the Cuba Study Group, which supported former President Barack Obama’s engagement with Cuba.

“But what exactly does Havana have to offer?” he asked.

In a risky move, high-ranking US officials have recently talked with Maduro about oil sales and other issues, to assess whether lifting sanctions against Venezuela would separate Maduro from Russia. Cuba received no such overture.

“A pity that Cuba doesn’t have oil to attract their attention. It does have location, but forestalling the strategic risk of a greater Russian presence would take a big lift, probably ending the embargo,” said John McCauliff, director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and a booster of improving relations with Cuba.

If US talks resume with Maduro, Cuba could benefit from the increased oil production in Venezuela, which would run counter to the Biden administration’s policies that try to reduce the money flowing to Cuban government coffers, said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.

Despite the infrastructure collapse of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, and US sanctions on the shipping companies engaging in exporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba, Maduro never stopped providing oil to its closest ally.

“If you get more resources to the Maduro regime, he’s going to ship increasing amounts of oil to Cuba,” Farnsworth said. The Cuban government resells part of that oil in the open market, “so what the US is doing in this circumstance is providing additional resources to enrich the Cuban regime.”

But negotiations with Maduro have proved a political minefield for the administration, already at the receiving end of criticism from both parties, particularly in South Florida. Engagement with Cuba at this point, while possible, seems “a difficult proposition,” Herrero said.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a scenario where Cuba fully aligns with the United States, but you can certainly pull it away from Russia,” Herrero said. “The challenges are of immediate needs. There’s little Cuba has to offer that would incentivize the United States to make such a proactive overture to Havana.”

The Cuban government has not publicly signaled it is interested in such an opening even if its economy is tanking and in dire need of foreign investment. For example, despite repeated calls from US officials to stop the prosecution of anti-government, Cuban authorities have continued the crackdown and recently handed heavy sentences to 128 protesters, including teenagers who participated in an islandwide protest last year.

And Cuban state media have been spreading falsehoods coming out of the Kremlin, including claims that Ukrainian “neo-Nazi” soldiers are assassinating the population in the besieged city of Mariupol and that the US is financing the development of biological weapons in Ukraine.

The media coverage has already created more friction with the US

“We denounce the regime’s repetition of Russia’s false narrative about its war against Ukraine to the people of Cuba,” the US Embassy in Havana tweeted last week. “We condemn their use of disinformation tactics employed by Russia — such as fake accounts and websites to spread lies and sow discord.”

The level of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba remains at a low point, contrasting the high level and frequent meetings between Cuban and Russian officials.

Ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia launched a diplomatic to reaffirm the “strategic alliance” with Cuba and other allies campaign in the Western Hemisphere. As part of the offensive, the Russian lower house of the federal assembly agreed to postpone the debt payments of a $2.3 billion extended to Cuba, whose existence was unknown to the public.

The real extent of Russia’s ties with Cuba, however, goes beyond economic aid. Details of military and cybersecurity cooperation have not been made public. And Rosneft, the Russian state energy company, was known to be part of a three-sided relationship with Venezuela’s PDVSA to provide oil to Cuba.

Western sanctions against Russia have already affected the island, leading to increased prices for food and gas. Cuba’s centralized economy has become so inefficient that the country needs to import almost all the food it consumes.

Russian tourists were helping to offset the dramatic fall of tourism during the pandemic, but after the airspace closure for Russian planes in several countries, the airline Aeroflot suspended flights to Cuba.

Still, some experts believe the island could leverage its relationship with Russia in other ways.

As President Joe Biden was threatening swift sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine, an oil tanker anchored at the Panama Canal last month, carrying Russian oil likely heading to the US, changed course and ended up in Cuba.

The ship, Eco City of Angels, arrived in Matanzas, Cuba, carrying oil from the Russian port of Nakhodka, where Rosneft has a refinery. Experts said oil changes hands even at sea, and that it is difficult to ascertain who the ultimate owner of this particular shipment is. But as Russian oil sits idle on tankers and at ports worldwide because of US sanctions, the sight of tankers carrying Russia’s flagship Urals oil to Cuba could become common.

“Cuba can play the role of a storage or refining center for Russian oil, since the Cienfuegos refinery was built to process Russia’s Urals oil,” said Jorge Piñon, the director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that Cuban ports like Matanzas have significant storage capacity.

In the past, Rosneft has sent oil to Cuba financed by Maduro, and this particular shipment could also be part of such three-sided agreements, Piñón said.

But Cuba’s primary benefactor is Venezuela, not Russia, and that’s why some Cuban observers believe whatever happens with the Biden administration’s talks with Maduro could change the calculus by Cuba’s leadership.

“It’s really hard to imagine a scenario in which Maduro draws closer to the United States, and Cuba doesn’t,” Herrero said. “Cuba still is heavily reliant on Maduro for its energy needs. That’s not going to change. I think Cuba will be impacted by what happens between the United States and Venezuela.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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