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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President: Cuba an Ally by Tradition

HAVANA Ч When President Vladimir Putin walks into MoscowТs vast embassy in Havana this week, the first thing he will see is a portrait of himself hanging on a green velvet case opposite the entrance.

He may not realize it, but behind the case is a large, marble bust of Vladimir Lenin Ч too bulky, or in Cuba perhaps too politically sensitive, to cart away after the fall of the Soviet bloc and the dismantling of such symbols elsewhere.

Wherever he turns Wednesday when he arrives in Havana for his first visit to Latin America, Putin will find much to remind him of the influential role the Soviet Union once played in Cuba during three decades of close ties cemented by a shared communist ideology.

The trip to Cuba is a bid to rebuild those ties.

Putin said in an interview with Cuban media this week that the cooling in post-Soviet relations with Cuba had been a mistake.

"I donТt think this was done properly," Putin said of post-Soviet ties with Havana. "I will say again that Cuba is our traditional partner in the world and, in the first instance, in Latin America.

"Russia is right to be paying more and more attention now to the Latin American aspect of its foreign policy," he said. "CubaТs role has been great and extremely important for us because it always had an independent position Е favoring the development of democratic principles in international relations."

Putin also called for the removal of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, calling it "groundless from any standpoint Ч that of international law, that of general reasonableness or that of justice and democratic principles of the search for peace."

The U.S. economic embargo was imposed in October 1960, four months after President Fidel Castro confiscated U.S.-owned oil refineries without compensation.

The Soviet Union once supplied nearly all CubaТs oil and oil products, basic foodstuffs and machinery while accepting most of its sugar, citrus fruits, nickel and cobalt in subsidized deals.

Russia now is CubaТs fourth trading partner after Spain, Venezuela and Canada.

Despite the Lada and Moskvich cars that dodge potholes on HavanaТs streets and the steady diet of Soviet culture Cubans were once fed, to many it is remarkable how quickly Russian influence has dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Cubans and Russians are people with a culture and idiosyncrasy so different that a total fusion was impossible, and the influence ended up being minimal," said a Russian businessman who has lived in Cuba for 13 years, one of a small community of some 1,500, a fraction of the previous numbers.

Hundreds of people once filled the cavernous Russian Embassy in what one worker there called "the happy Soviet times." Now barely a dozen diplomats are stationed in the building. Its huge central tower is closed off, and footsteps echo eerily in the empty spaces.

Built near HavanaТs coastline during the 1980s, the Soviet-style embassy, which neighbors compare to a space ship or missile tower, has now become a virtual tourist attraction, a souvenir of the Cold War era.

It is not the only symbol of Soviet presence in Cuba in the decades after Castro turned to Moscow for support.

During his visit, Putin may visit an sophisticated electronic intelligence center that Moscow leases from Cuba.

From the street, the Lourdes center, which has been a source of controversy between Washington and Moscow, looks like a mass of antennae, cables and electronic equipment in the middle of tropical vegetation and agricultural fields.

Despite its abandoned appearance, the Lourdes complex, built in the 1970s, still has great strategic importance for Russia and the world, said Andrei Dmitriyev, MoscowТs ambassador to Cuba.

"It gives Russia a means of observing U.S. compliance in the agreements to limit and reduce strategic arms," Dmitriyev said. "The United States has various centers like this around Russia. Е It also serves as a communication tool for our Latin American representations and for shipping."

Viewed by some in the United States as simply a spy station, Lourdes is thought to house dozens of Russian intelligence officers using satellites and other high-tech surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on the United States.

Lourdes is one of the few major Cuban-Russian projects still functioning. Others Ч like the Juragua nuclear plant, the Cienfuegos refinery and the Las Camariocas nickel plant Ч remain half-built and in need of fresh investment.

Beyond these Socialist-era constructions, however, there will be plenty else for Putin to see and hear of the old Soviet presence, before the withdrawal of the last troops in 1993.

When Putin meets Cubans, he will find numerous people with names like Boris, Vladimir and even Lenin. He could even discuss his nationТs literature and cinema in Russian with many of them if he wants to.

Not only did thousands of Cubans study in the Soviet Union Ч and vice versa as Soviet citizens came to Cuba as technicians and soldiers Ч but those Cubans who remained at home were fed a steady diet of Soviet culture.

However, times are changing, and some Cubans confess they feel more affinity for American than Russian culture now.

"ThereТs nothing left," said one Havana housewife. "We donТt dance like the Russians. We donТt eat like the Russians. We donТt even drink vodka."