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Putin kicks off Latin America tour with Cuba stop

Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2014 at 02:53 AM

HAVANA (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin began a six-day Latin American tour aimed at boosting trade and ties in the region with a stop Friday in Cuba, a key Soviet ally during the Cold War that has backed Moscow in its dispute with the West over Ukraine.

The two countries signed about a dozen accords in areas such as energy, industry, health and disaster prevention. Russian companies will participate in petroleum projects around Boca de Jaruco on the island's north coast, and that cooperation will extend to offshore oil deposits, Cuban government website Cubadebate said.

Another agreement covered infrastructure at a big new port project that Cuba hopes will become a regional shipping center and attract much-needed foreign investment.

"We are talking about the possibility of creating in Cuba a grand transportation hub with a possible modernization of the maritime port of Mariel and the construction of a modern airport with its respective cargo terminal," Putin said, according to an official Spanish translation of his remarks in Russian.

Moscow is also forgiving 90 percent of Cuba's Soviet-era debt, which totals more than $35 billion. The remainder will be invested in education on the island, Putin added.

The debt agreement is "another great, tangible generosity of the Russian people toward Cuba," President Raul Castro said.

Cuban state media carried photos in the evening of Putin's meeting with retired leader Fidel Castro. Putin and Raul Castro also participated in a ceremony at Havana's Memorial to the Soviet Internationalist Soldier.

Amid the crisis in Ukraine, the countries on Putin's itinerary have shown themselves to be sympathetic to Russia's position on the conflict, or at least not overtly critical.

Cuban official newspapers tend to characterize it as a struggle against right-wing extremism threatening ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez criticized U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and pro-Russian Ukrainians.

"In the international arena, we agree with the current policy of strength and political intelligence that the Soviet Union I mean Russia is carrying out," Castro said.

Putin travels next to Argentina, whose president, Cristina Fernandez, accused the United States and Britain in March of having a double standard for criticizing a pro-Russian secession vote held in Crimea while backing a status referendum in the disputed Falkland Islands.

After that, he goes to Brazil, which 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 said in an interview with Prensa Latina before the trip.

On Friday he reiterated Russia's opposition to the 52-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, which aims to isolate the communist-run nation economically and financially.

Havana and Moscow have a shared history dating to the Cold War, when they were united by ideology and opposition to U.S. influence. They drifted apart in the 1990s, however, as the collapse of the Soviet Union ended billions of dollars in trade and subsidies for Cuba.

In December 2000, shortly after his first election, Putin visited the island and pledged to reinvigorate relations.

Russia said in February that it was looking to expand its worldwide military presence, including asking permission for its navy ships to use ports in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. A Russian intelligence-gathering vessel has docked in Havana on multiple occasions in recent months.

Putin plans to attend a presidential summit of the BRICS group of nations in Fortaleza, Brazil, in the coming days. He is to be in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday for the World Cup final and ceremonial handover of host duties for soccer's marquee tournament, which next takes place in Russia in 2018.

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi

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