Russian warship visit brings cold war frisson to sweltering Havana

<span>People watch a ship belonging to the Russian Navy flotilla arrive at the port of Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
People watch a ship belonging to the Russian Navy flotilla arrive at the port of Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Where once vast American cruise ships disgorged mojito-thirsty holidaymakers into the crumbling streets of old Havana, now lurks the eerie darkness of the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kazan.

“It looks like a dead whale,” says Adolfo García, as he queues under the scorching sun. The Kazan is off-limits, but García is hoping for a tour of the second of the four Russian naval vessels that have just docked in the Cuban capital, the frigate Admiral Gorshkov.

The warships sent a cold war frisson when they arrived shortly after sunrise on Tuesday: a demonstration of Russia’s ability to operate in America’s backyard just as Joe Biden, the US president, signs a 10-year security pact with Ukraine.

Related: Cuban missile crisis, 60 years on: new papers reveal how close the world came to nuclear disaster

“The Russians seem interested in sticking a finger in Joe Biden’s eye,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University, although he added that comparisons to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – when the Soviet Union’s attempt to place nuclear weapons in Cuba brought the world to the edge of Armageddon – are “ludicrous”.

The Cuban government insists this is a friendly visit, that these ships are carrying no nuclear weapons and “there is no threat to the region”.

On an island growing increasingly cynical in the face of economic hardship, the queue to visit the Gorshkov seems a quaint distillation of the affection many Cubans feel for Russia, which goes back to the early days of the communist revolution on the island.

The Soviet Union was the Castros’ staunchest supporter. Many Cubans, including García, were educated in the Soviet Union and many more speak Russian. “This visit is a symbol of the friendship of two nations,” said José Rodríguez, an economist also waiting in the queue.

Although money from Moscow dried up after 1989, it has started to flow again as global tensions mount over the war in Ukraine. When the first Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv, Havana attempted to remain neutral. Lately, though, the Cuban government has grown more supportive of Moscow as its moribund economy fails to recover from the pandemic, beset by ageing infrastructure and the equally aged if constantly rejuvenated US embargo.

A lack of fuel has seen power cuts across the island, leading to unrest – summer temperatures are well into the 30s, and food spoils easily. Cuban officials have been shuttling back and forth to any country willing to help, nearly all of them – Russia, Venezuela, Iran – anathema to Washington.

Russia has been sending tankers full of oil and tourists, if not enough. Meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May, the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz Canel, said: “We wish you and the Russian Federation success in conducting the special military operation.”

John Kavulich, who for the last 30 years has been running the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, believes the Russian fleet has been invited under duress. “When the Russian government says to Cuba, ‘we want this to happen’, Cuba really doesn’t have a choice,” he says.

In 2016, Barack Obama visited Havana “to bury the last remnants of the cold war”. Donald Trump swiftly reversed that policy, strengthening the 64-year-old embargo (including banning the cruise ships that once docked where the Kazan now sits).

The tragedy, Kavulich says, is that incremental moves forward have been made by the US government. “In the last three years, the Biden administration has made some very important regulatory and policy changes. But now, at least until the November 5 election, it’s going to be challenging,” he says.

Others feel it’s been far too little too late. Antonio Martínez, who is part of Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, was watching the fleet come in on Tuesday morning. When asked what it means for Cuba-US relations, he told a joke. “A man who has no hands or feet is using a skateboard to get around and he falls, cursing. A passing woman warns him that God will punish him. The man says: ‘Really? What’s He going to do? Take away my skateboard?’”

At the cruise terminal, the queue moves forward incrementally. The Gorshkov has visited Cuba before, but an offer of a tour is new. By the time the gates open, 400 are waiting.

Cubans are masters at queueing. During the pandemic it wasn’t unheard of to wait three days to buy chicken. But as the sun belts down, they begin to complain.

Pablo Rodríguez, a metal fabricator, has come, he says: “Because I really like military tech.” He doesn’t want to talk local politics, preferring to launch into a conspiracy about the perfidious British and the ill-fated Russian sub, the Kursk. The correspondent for Russia Today arrives, and is ushered to the head of the queue.

After three hours, we reach the front. A young Cuban officer in naval whites leads 20 visitors into the cruise terminal, handing us over to Russians in dress black. There will be no explanations, a Cuban officer says.

We are led past the submarine and up to the frigate, the two-headed eagle on its stern. A gangway climbs to the helicopter deck where the Cuban visitors start asking sailors for selfies. Some agree, others refuse with a curt “nyet”.

It’s apparent that this will be a no-frills visit, a one-deck walk from stern to stem with burly black-clad sailors guarding every door. Torpedo tubes point to each side, a lattice of lids cover the missile silos, and a 130mm cannon sits in the bow.

The ship is a 135m blue-grey weapon with no soft edges.

While we’re onboard, the US Southern Command announces that the USS Helena, an attack submarine, has entered Guantánamo Bay. The implication is clear – even if the US Cuban base is at the other end of the island, far further away than US Southern Command’s Miami headquarters (which is three minutes flight away on one of the Gorshkov’s new hypersonic missiles).

Asked if he is worried, García responds with a question: “Have you ever read [Cuban novelist] Antonio Benítez-Rojo? During the ’62 crisis he was completely terrified, until he saw two old women walking past, gay and gesturing. At that moment, he said, he knew that the Caribbean is not an apocalyptic world.”

He points to where people are still queueing. “Now do you remember, in the queue, that an ice-cream seller came past, calling out ‘bocadito de helado’? Well, right then I knew how Benítez-Rojo felt. Nothing’s going to happen.”