HAVANA – 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, where he was expected to meet with President Raul Castro and former leader Fidel Castro.
The visit was focused on developing economic and commercial ties as well as investment in projects including energy, transportation and civil aviation.
"Today, cooperation with Latin American states is one of the key and promising lines of Russia's foreign policy," Putin told Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina.
Amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Cuba and some other nations in the region have been sympathetic to Russia's position on the conflict or at least not overtly critical.
Articles in Cuban official newspapers tend to characterize it as a struggle against right-wing extremism that threatens ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez criticized U.S. and EU sanctions on Russian individuals and pro-Russian Ukrainians that sought to pressure Moscow.
In March, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez accused the United States and the United Kingdom of having a double standard for criticizing a pro-Russian independence referendum held in Crimea while backing a similar vote in the disputed Falkland Islands. Brazil 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 told Prensa Latina.
Havana and Moscow have a history of ties dating to the Cold War, when the two countries were united in opposition to U.S. influence. After a distancing in the 1990s under then-president Boris Yeltsin, the nations have been rebuilding economic, political and military ties.
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.
Moscow is nearing final ratification of a deal to forgive 90 percent of Cuba's Soviet-era debt, totaling more than $35 billion. The remaining 10 percent will be spent by Havana on local investment projects selected with Russian input.
Putin arrived before dawn and was greeted at the airport by Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also visited the island three months ago.
Putin was scheduled to travel Saturday to Argentina and then from July 13-16 to Brazil for a presidential summit of the BRICS group of nations.
He was also to attend the final World Cup match and ceremonial handover of host duties for soccer's marquee tournament, which takes place in Russia in 2018.