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Russia looking for Arab partner to construct new mega airport in Cuba

Passengers walk away from a Continental Airlines Boeing-737 at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)

Passengers walk away from a Continental Airlines Boeing-737 at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)

The Russian government is hoping to find investors in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, for a major airport-construction project in Cuba – a move that comes as relations between Washington and Havana thaw and Moscow faces increasing isolation and sanctions over its role in the conflict in the Ukraine.

According to reports, the proposed airport would serve as a hub for all of Latin America.

Speaking to Abu Dhabi's English language newspaper, The National, Russian trade and industry minister Denis Manturov said that Vladimir Putin's government is willing to invest at least $200 million in the airport project - which could also include redeveloping a port and building a railway line – and that the country was talking with Mubadala Development Company, the wholly-owned investment company of the government of Abu Dhabi, to become a partner in the project.

"We are deeply involved in these negotiations," the minister told the National. "[Cuba has] only one international airport, and they are planning to use one of their ex-military bases to build a big airport hub for Latin America." 

A spokesperson for Mubadala remained elusive when questioned by the newspaper, but granted that the company "is regularly reviewing a number of different investment opportunities with its Russian partners."

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The news of Russia's interest in a new Cuban airport comes as its Cold War foe, the United States, will sit down on Friday in Washington with officials from the island for a second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations. The thaw between the two countries has many American investors eyeing possible opportunities in Cuba, but it could also pose an economic challenge to Russia – Cuba's Cold War-era ally – as it faces bottomed-out oil prices and international sanctions for its role in the Ukraine uprising

For Russia, the support of friendlier nations outside the sphere of influence of the U.S. and Western Europe is increasingly important.

Earlier this month during a meeting held in the Ecuadorian embassy in Moscow, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Serguei Lavrov, called for the "strengthening of mechanisms of political dialogue, cooperation and agreements with regional integration structures, in particular the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac)."

Few details – like whether the new airport would replace the aging José Martí International Airport in Havana or if it would accommodate military planes as well as commercial ones – have been made clear about the possible project, but Russia' involvement in the airport is part of Putin's plan to effectively write off about $32 billion of Cuban debt left over from the Soviet era that he agreed to last summer when he visited with Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana.

Under Moscow's new terms, Cuba must now pay Russia $3 billion over 10 years.

During his visit, Putin and Raúl Castro also signed a package of 10 agreements and memoranda to expand bilateral cooperation, including accords on oil exploration signed by Russian state oil company, Rosneft, and its Cuban counterpart, Cupet.

The visit by Manturov to Abu Dhabi was part of a Russian push to boost military exports to the UAE and coincided with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatenening to increase sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine.

"It is useless to use fear against us because we know what fear is," Manturov said. "Nobody has ever managed to receive a positive result from the use of force and pressure on our country."

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