Russian Involvement in Large-Scale Cuban Transportation Projects

On September 28, 2015, Russian media reported that President Putin met with Cuban President Raul Castro after his speech at the UN General Assembly to discuss the future of a transportation hub project in Cuba.  The project under consideration includes additional modernization of the Mariel port as well as the construction of an international airport on the site of an old Cuban military base in San Antonia de los Banos, for which Russia has already pledged $200 million.  Russia plans to help fund its work through collaboration with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and has been in talks with the UAE, specifically regarding the airport project, since February 2015.

The Mariel port has already been through one round of modernization following a $1 billion development project undertaken by the Brazilian company Odebrecht, for which the Brazilian government provided $682 million in financing.  This project included the creation of a refrigerated terminal, dredging to allow port access to larger ships and a 180 square mile special economic zone.  Mariel will soon replace Havana as Cuba‘s primary port, as the latter cannot be dredged any further to accommodate larger ships due to an automobile tunnel that runs beneath it.

It is unclear what potential future a modernized Mariel port will have, as there are already a number ports competing for shipping in the region, but the modernization project, if fully implemented, would make Mariel the largest port in the Caribbean.  Russia‘s involvement in Cuba in recent years has seen a significant uptick, from the forgiving of $28.8 billion of Soviet era debts in July 2014 to the reopening of a military intelligence installation that same month to agreements signed with Russian oil majors to explore Cuban offshore energy assets.  As yet, there has been no mention of any military facilities being part of the port expansion or construction of the airport, but past behavior indicates this to be a likelihood.