Russian Foreign Minister Visits Cuba on the Heels of Surprise Havana-Seoul Ties Announcement

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov arrived at Havana Airport on February 19, 2024. Screenshot of footage from Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Российская газета)

SEOUL – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Cuba’s President and Communist Party First Secretary, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in Havana Monday at the start of a Latin American tour that appears designed to shore up Moscow’s declining influence in the region.

Lavrov is scheduled to travel to Venezuela Tuesday and will be in Brazil Wednesday and Thursday for the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

Although the regional tour is timed for the G20 meeting, it is also significant that the visit to Havana follows so quickly on the unexpected announcement on February 14 of the establishment last week of diplomatic relations between Cuba and South Korea.

Skipping intermediary steps such as consular relations, the two countries immediately established relations at the ambassadorial level and agreed to open resident embassies. 

Cuba becomes the 193rd diplomatic partner for South Korea, leaving Syria as the only UN member state without formal ties.

The announcement followed discussions between the two countries that were kept highly confidential. It is assumed, given Cuba’s status as a communist state and close ally of North Korea, that this was to preempt interference from Pyongyang.

The South Korean government had been pursuing diplomatic relations with Cuba since the 2000s. Back in 2016, then-Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se made the first official visit to Havana, but there was otherwise no progress. Discussions accelerated last year under the presidency of Yoon Suk-yeol. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited active cultural exchanges contributing to the spread of mutual goodwill between the two countries. It said ties now have laid the institutional groundwork for economic cooperation between the two countries and will allow Seoul to provide consular assistance to Koreans visiting Cuba.

In connection with this, the South Korean presidential office said on February 15 that the establishment of relations was the final chapter of Seoul’s diplomacy towards the socialist bloc.

A senior official from the presidential office told reporters, “This establishment of diplomatic relations ultimately shows clearly in the flow of history what the trend is and who it belongs to.”

North Korea, meanwhile, appears to be keeping news of the development under wraps. 

“There is concern that if citizens become aware of this, their disappointment with the leader and their fantasy about South Korea will grow,” one source inside North Korea told us.

“North Korean residents consider China and Cuba as the only socialist countries left,” said Kim Mo, a defector who arrived in South Korea in May 2022. “They think these countries are more akin to North Korea than any others.” 

“This perception somewhat relieved the agony of North Koreans living in a country that is isolated from the international community, which is why Cuba-South Korea will be a considerable shock,” he said, adding, “It is a significant political and diplomatic victory for South Korea against North Korea.”

North Korean sensitivity was apparent in its reaction. When the day after South Korea and Cuba announced ties, diplomats attended a birthday event for Kim Jong Un, the Cuban envoy was mentioned by his name only

As if to provide some tit-for-tat balance, Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, at the same time sent a signal to Japan, saying that there is a willingness on the part of Pyongyang for a summit.

It was in this context that Russia, seemingly aware of its declining influence in Latin American countries, swiftly announced Lavrov’s plan to visit the Latin American countries, choosing Cuba as his first destination.

Moscow expressed appreciation for Cuba’s support in the military sphere regarding the conflict in Ukraine. The communication quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who said, “Our Cuban friends have shown an understanding of our attitude towards our country, including why we started special military operations in Ukraine.”

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