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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Line Up for Putin at Mystery Base

HAVANA, Cuba - Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro paid a rare visit Thursday to a mysterious intelligence center, where hundreds of Russian soldiers lined up to greet them as patriotic songs blared.

The 1,500 inhabitants of the Russian-operated Lourdes base, situated just outside Havana but almost never seen by foreign visitors to Cuba, waited on parade for over an hour before their visitors arrived, according to Russian journalists who were allowed inside the controversial base.

From a road nearby -- which is the closest Western journalists ever get -- the Lourdes center looks like a mass of antennae, cables and electronic equipment in the middle of tropical vegetation and agricultural fields.

Kept by Russia on land leased from its former Cold War ally in exchange for crude oil and other supplies to Cuba, Lourdes has been a source of controversy between Moscow and some political quarters in Washington.

Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to try to prevent the United States from rescheduling hundreds of millions of dollars in debt owed by Russia unless Moscow shuts down what critics label its "spy station" in Cuba.

FLOWERS FOR CASTRO, PUTIN

Moscow, however, argues that the intelligence center is needed to observe U.S. compliance with nuclear treaties, in the same way that Washington has various bases around Russia.

The military camp's 1,500 inhabitants include around 500 children, some of whom presented flowers to Putin and Castro during Thursday's unusual visit to the base built in the 1970s.

The trip had been announced on the official Russian program for Putin's visit, but Cuban authorities had kept it off their version of the schedule and refused to confirm the visit.

"What about Lourdes?" one Western journalist asked a Cuban official. "I suppose you are talking about the (Catholic) Virgin Lourdes," he joked in reply.

As the two leaders arrived, the witnesses said, music from an amateur band of local Russians, played stirring tunes including Russian-language verses like: "An officer's wife is his faith and hope" or "An officer's wife should be worthy of his career, and she serves Russia as her officer-husband."

In a speech to the Lourdes residents, Putin praised their work and sympathized with possible homesickness.

"I am glad to see how you live here, and I know that it's difficult to be far away from the motherland. But besides minuses, there are many pluses," he said, according to the Russian journalists present.

"You have a great advantage, that you are based at our friends' land ... The results of your labor are important, not only to the military command but also to the political management of Russia. Your labor is not lost at the time when Russia is on the rise."

CASTRO LAUDS RUSSIANS' ENDURANCE

Castro, who seldom mentions Lourdes in public, praised the Russians' "spirit of labor and discipline" and urged them to consider Cuba their own "motherland", according to the journalists who heard his speech translated into Russian.

The Lourdes post reportedly uses satellites and other high- tech electronic equipment to monitor the United States.

According to some U.S. intelligence reports cited by the Republicans, Moscow pays Castro's government some $200 million a year to run the Lourdes facility. Cuban authorities have declined to comment on such details.

Lourdes is one of the few major Cuban-Russian projects still functioning on the island, although officials on both sides have been discussing the possible revival of other major works in the nuclear, oil and metal sectors.