Russian warships visit Cuba

HAVANA: A Russian anti-submarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Cuba on Friday.

The arrival was non-military, an extension of a tour that has included stops in Venezuela and Panama and shows Moscow’s desire to flex some muscle in America’s backyard after Washington supported the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It also signals that Cuba is willing to hedge its bets and fall back on Cold War allies, even as President Raul Castro reaches out to the U.S., offering to negotiate directly with President-elect Barack Obama and proposing an unprecedented swap of political prisoners for five Cuban spies behind bars in America.

“That is Cuba’s diplomatic specialty, playing both sides, or all sides, on every issue,” said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank.

Russians sailors in white and tan dress uniforms stood at attention on the deck of the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer, which chugged into Havana Bay amid a cloud of gray smoke. The ships will be moored here until Tuesday and the crew planned a tour of Havana that includes a trip to a Cuban naval school.

A ceremonial Cuban cannon fired a 21-blast salute that rattled the windows of nearby buildings, and a naval band waiting on a cruise ship dock played the Russian and Cuban national anthems. Washington’s nearly 50-year-old trade embargo prohibits American tourists from visiting Cuba, but the U.S. has allowed cash-only sales of its agricultural products to the island since 2000 and has long since become the country’s largest source of food.

The Soviet Union provided billions of dollars in trade and annual subsidies to Cuba before its 1991 collapse. Friday marked the first time Russian military ships have visited Cuba since the end of the Soviet era. The Russian ships arrived as Mr. Castro returned from his first state visit to Brazil, where he said on Thursday he would consider releasing some jailed political dissidents as a gesture to opening talks with the Obama administration. Mr. Castro’s trip also included a stop in Venezuela. — AP