Russian President Vladimir Putin gave final approval on Friday to a measure that wrote off 90 percent of the more than $30 billion in Soviet-era debt Cuba owed Russia. The move came just hours before Putin touched ground in Havana, where he kicked off a six-day tour of Latin America aimed at boosting trade and ties in the region.
Putin's meeting with the Cold War ally of the former Soviet Union is expected to include meetings with President Raul Castro and former leader Fidel Castro.
The visit is Putin's second to the communist island in 14 years, Prensa Latina, Cuba’s official state news agency, reported. Moscow has sought to revive ties with the Caribbean country, whose economy has been saddled with a U.S. economic embargo since 1962. Cuba’s economy also plunged into a severe economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia's State Duma approved a deal last week to forgive 90 percent of Cuba's debt, or almost $32 billion, most of it originating from Soviet loans to a fellow communist state. The remaining 10 percent will be spent by Havana on local investment projects selected with Russian input, the Associated Press reported.
Putin's visit will feature commercial agreements, including a deal for Russian state oil companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft to explore offshore oil. Zarubezhneft has been involved in offshore exploration in Cuba in the past, and currently helps the country extract oil from onshore wells.
Cuba believes there may be 20 billion barrels of oil in its waters, although the U.S. Geological Survey has a more modest estimate of 4.6 billion barrels. A number of foreign companies, including Spain's Repsol SA, Malaysia's Petronas Bhd and Venezuela's PDVSA SA have drilled in Cuba without success.
A major oil find would inject new life into Cuba’s economy, which is desperate for foreign investment. The government has had difficulty meeting obligations to creditors.
Putin’s visit to the region will also include stops in Argentina and Brazil for bilateral talks. While in Brazil, Putin will participate in a summit of emerging market nations that include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Cuba and some other nations in the region have been sympathetic to Russia's position on the conflict or at least not overtly critical.
Articles in Cuban official newspapers tend to characterize the crisis as a struggle against right-wing extremism that threatens ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez criticized U.S. and EU sanctions on Russian individuals and pro-Russian Ukrainians that sought to pressure Moscow.
In March, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez accused the United States and the United Kingdom of having a double standard for criticizing a pro-Russian independence referendum held in Crimea while backing a similar vote in the disputed Falkland Islands.
Brazil was among several nations opposing Russia's possible exclusion from an upcoming G20 summit in Australia due to the crisis.
"We are grateful to South Americans for the support of our international initiatives, including outer space demilitarization, strengthening international information security and combating the glorification of Nazism," Putin told Prensa Latina.
Al Jazeera and wire services