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Russia ends Cold War chapter by quitting Cuban spy base
By Richard Balmforth
October 18, 2001

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia was closing its Lourdes electronic spying centre in Cuba, heralding the end of four decades of Russian military presence on the communist-ruled Caribbean island.

Putin told military top brass that the decision to close the costly eavesdropping centre outside Havana had been reached after "deep analysis and long talks with our Cuban partners".

His wording suggested that the decision to shut the huge listening post, a Cold War relic 90 miles (150 km) off the Florida coast, had met resistance from veteran Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed Russia's decision, saying it was a sign of an improving U.S.-Russia relationship.

"This decision is another indication that the Cold War is over," Bush said in a written statement issued at Travis Air Force Base, California. "President Putin understands that Russia and America are no longer adversaries."

Putin also confirmed an earlier decision that Russia would leave its military base at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, once used by Americans and Japanese and which Moscow had used rent-free from its former Communist ally since 1979.

The Cuban move dramatically thrust forward Russia's relations with Washington, already on a high since Putin threw his country's support behind Bush's "anti-terrorist coalition".

"It is the first real step towards a real partnership with the U.S....If you wanted a symbol of the Cold War, it was Lourdes," said independent military expert Alexander Golts.

Putin, quoted by Interfax news agency, said Russia remained in favour of "a full lifting" of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, indicating Moscow would still offer Castro political support.

A final Russian military pullout from Cuba will mark the end of a 40-year chapter in the Cold War in which Moscow sent troops and equipment across the world to America's doorstep to shore up Castro, its new young communist ally.

The presence there of several thousand Soviet troops and military advisers over the decades was a constant irritant to the United States, provoking one crisis after another.

In 1962, the world held its breath as U.S. President John F. Kennedy confronted Kremlin chief Nikita Khrushchev over the installation of Soviet missile bases on Cuba.

At the height of the relationship, scores of Soviet tankers shipped oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban sugar.


Cuban officials in Havana could not confirm the announcement or comment on its implications. But Western analysts said the Russian pullout might not spell the end of the base.

"From a prestige point of view, it is a small slap for Fidel, but from a practical point of view, the Cubans can continue to run it if they want, alone or with Chinese help," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies.

Putin set the closure of the Cuba and Vietnam bases in the context of military reform which he said had taken on a new aspect in light of the "war on terrorism". And he said making the armed forces more effective would mean spending more cash.

Chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, said the closure of the bases was linked to "changes in the military-political atmosphere in the world and with the need to free up financial resources for the army and the fleet".

"The annual rental of the electronic surveillance centre is $200 million without counting the upkeep of personnel. For this sum we can buy and put up into space 20 spy satellites and also acquire for the army up to 100 radar stations," he said.

But, tipping his hat to the past, he said the Cuban base "successfully fulfilled the task of ensuring the defensive capability of our country in the Cold War period".

The Lourdes base, built in 1964 and bristling with antennae, satellite dishes and cables, has latterly been home to about 1,500 Russian military and their families.

It has long been a source of controversy between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last year to try to stop the administration rescheduling hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian debt unless Moscow shut it down.

The Lourdes base alone provided Havana with 75 per cent of its intelligence material, a senior Castro aide once said.

Putin's oblique suggestion that its closure had been the subject of difficult negotiations was in line with Russian press reports following his visit to Cuba last December which said he had not seen eye-to-eye with Castro on several issues.

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