Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Raul Castro arrives in Russia to boost ties

MOSCOW – Cuban leader Raul Castro arrived in Russia on Wednesday for a visit intended to boost ties between the former Cold War allies.

Castro is scheduled to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and other Russian officials during his eight-day trip.

The Soviet Union provided billions of dollars in trade and subsidies to Cuba before its 1991 collapse. Russia has sought recently to reinvigorate ties with Cuba and other Caribbean nations to challenge U.S. influence in the region.

Medvedev visited Cuba and several other nations in the region in November, and Russia also sent a navy squadron to the Caribbean. Russian navy ships held joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy and made port calls in several countries of the region, including Cuba.

Castro told the ITAR-Tass news agency before the trip that Cuba and Russia enjoy "wonderful relations" again after a lull in the 1990s.

In the interview, Castro backed Russia in its disputes with the U.S. over the Bush administration's efforts to place missile defense facilities in Europe and to put ex-Soviet nations Ukraine and Georgia on track to join NATO.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he expected Castro's visit to "mark an important milestone" in bilateral ties.

In an interview with the Cuban government press agency Prensa Latina posted Wednesday on the Russian Foreign Ministry's Web site, Lavrov said that that Castro and Russian leaders will discuss the global issues, including the situation in the Caribbean and efforts to increase economic ties.

Lavrov also reaffirmed Russia's call for the United States to lift its trade embargo on Cuba. "We intend to firmly pursue our course for lifting the blockade, which we see as a vestige of the long gone era," he said.

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