Raft of Deals Before Castro's Visit

Russia and Cuba signed a raft of agreements Friday, including some on oil, nickel and car servicing, in preparation for a visit by Cuban President Raul Castro on Jan. 30.

Closer ties with Cuba are a springboard for advancing Russian interests in that part of the world, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said after the agreement-signing ceremony.

"Of course, we are happy that the position of Cuba in Latin America -- the authority that it has there -- helps Russian companies to work on issues in the other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean region," Sechin said.

Castro will hold talks with President Dmitry Medvedev this coming Friday, he said.

A Gazprom-led consortium that Russia's largest oil and gas companies created last year to develop fields in Venezuela signed a cooperation agreement with Cuba Petroleum on Friday. The sides will work together in exploration, production and refining, Sechin said. In addition to Gazprom, the consortium comprises Rosneft, LUKoil, TNK-BP and Surgutneftegaz.

Norilsk Nickel agreed Friday to fund exploration of ore reserves in Cuba with the prospect of mining them in the future. Carmaker AvtoVAZ signed a deal to organize the servicing of its cars in Cuba. Other agreements included joint work in developing vaccines and letters of intent between Cuban telecom company Etexa and telecom operators VimpelCom and Rostelecom, respectively.

The chief of the Cuban delegation, Deputy Prime Minister Ricardo Cabrisas, said work was under way on more agreements that will be ready for Castro's visit.

Sechin said the potential deals would be in the areas of fisheries and transportation. He added that Russia and Cuba would continue to remain partners in the arms trade.

The latest intensified contacts with Havana come after a long freeze that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a generous aid supplier. Sechin stressed that Russia never meant to neglect Cuba but was consumed with its own hardships.

"When they say that the Russian Federation left Cuba without help 20 years ago, I can't agree with that," he said. "The Russians were humiliated and hungry."

Russia suffered the most after the Soviet collapse, Sechin said. As evidence, he referred to a decision by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who worked as St. Petersburg deputy mayor in the early 1990s, to unseal the city's contingency reserves to hand out canned food to people.

Commenting on plans to merge several Russian metals producers, Sechin said the goals of this move would be to improve the companies' financial positions, to capitalize on synergies and to create a world-class mining giant. The final decision rests with the shareholders of these companies, he said.