Putin in Cuba to rekindle Latin America ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Soviet Soldier Monument in Havana on July 11, 2014

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Havana (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin visited Russia's Cold War ally Cuba on Friday, launching a tour that will see him cozy up to Latin America amid newly frayed relations with the West.

Putin's six-day trip will also take him to Argentina and Brazil, where he will take part in a summit of the BRICS group of emerging countries -- an agenda that neatly aligns with his push for a multi-polar world at a time when the Ukraine crisis has brought Moscow-Washington relations to a post-Cold War low.

Putin said before his trip that he has his eye on Latin America's oil and bauxite, and plans to woo regional leaders with offers of increased Russian investment and trade in return.

Analysts say he will also use the tour to thumb his nose at Brussels and Washington, which have slapped sanctions on some of his closest allies over Moscow's takeover of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Before departing, Putin -- who has sought to drive a wedge between the Western allies -- condemned the cyber-spying revealed by fugitive US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who is in Russia on asylum.

"As for the facts of cyber-espionage, this is not just blatant hypocrisy in relations between allies and partners," Putin said in a joint interview with Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency and Cuba's Prensa Latina.

"It is also direct infringement of a country's sovereignty and a breach of human rights, an invasion of privacy."

The remark came after Germany expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin on Thursday over alleged spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

- Fidel Castro talks -

Putin arrived early Friday at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, then joined Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to visit a small cemetery that holds the remains of Soviet soldiers who died of illness or accident while serving in Cuba during the Cold War.

The Russian strongman then met Castro's older brother Fidel, the 87-year-old father of the Cuban Revolution.

According to Russian sources, Putin said they had a "long and very interesting conversation" of about one hour on international politics and bilateral relations.

In recent years Moscow has sought to revive ties with the Caribbean island, whose economy has been saddled with a US embargo since 1962 and is growing less than the government expected, despite recent free-market reforms.

Ahead of the visit, Russia wrote off 90 percent of Cuba's Soviet-era debt of more than $30 billion.

Havana for its part has sided with its old ally Russia in the Ukraine conflict.

Russian and Cuban media said the countries were expected to sign a series of economic deals during the visit, including one on oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

- Argentine shale -

After his one-day stop in Havana, Putin will fly to Buenos Aires, where analysts say he will likely seek a stake in Argentina's Vaca Muerta shale formation, an oil and gas field estimated to contain the equivalent of 22.8 billion barrels of oil, potentially one of the largest finds in history.

Argentina, locked out of capital markets since defaulting on its debt in 2001, desperately needs foreign investment.

President Cristina Kirchner will be keen to tap Russian capital at a time when her government is fighting to stay solvent in the face of a US court order to pay more than $1.3 billion by the end of the month to "holdout" hedge funds refusing to take part in the restructuring of the country's defaulted debt.

Putin has also invited Argentina to take a seat at the table when Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- the so-called BRICS group -- hold a summit next week in Brazil.

But first he will attend the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

At the end of the tournament Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will officially hand over World Cup responsibilities to Putin, whose country hosts the next edition in 2018.

Moscow says he will likely also meet Merkel on Sunday.

The Kremlin has sought to play Germany against the US in the Ukraine crisis, leveraging Berlin's dependence on Russian gas in a bid to fend off more Western sanctions.

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