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Cuba's new president reaches out to an old ally

Cuba's new President Miguel Díaz-Canel will begin an official trip to Russia on Thursday, a visit that will have historic resonance.

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Nathan Hodge
(CNN) — Cuba's new President Miguel Díaz-Canel will begin an official trip to Russia on Thursday, a visit that will have historic resonance.

It's the first time a Cuban president will be visiting Moscow since leadership there passed to a generation not old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And it comes as Cuba casts about for support amid tighter sanctions and travel restrictions imposed last year by the Trump administration.

Ties between Moscow and Havana have traditionally been strong. The Soviet Union was Cuba's main patron during the Cold War, and the Soviets once maintained an important electronic listening post at a base near Havana. And the Russians have long been an important trade partner: Cubans may excel at keeping their 1950s American cars going, but they also love their Soviet-era cars.

Díaz-Canel was only an infant when Fidel Castro made his famous visit to Red Square in 1963. And while the island may no longer be an arena for a military confrontation between superpowers, military cooperation between Russia and Cuba is likely to be front and center during the Cuban president's visit.

Speculation in particular has focused on potential new arms deliveries to Havana: The Russian business daily Kommersant recently reported about a possible $50 million loan to Cuba to buy Russian military hardware. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the subject of possible military cooperation "will be prominently featured on the agenda" when Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Díaz-Canel, but declined to comment specifically on that report.

The Russians will be throwing other lifelines to Cuba. Ahead of Díaz-Canel's visit, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov told reporters on a visit to Cuba that Russia had signed "serious contracts" worth a total of around $260 million for the modernization of Cuban infrastructure, state news agency RIA-Novosti reported Wednesday.

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Perhaps equally important, the visit gives Russia a platform to express solidarity with a country that is also in a confrontation with the US. Russia has been under US and European sanctions after the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014. In addition to facing tighter US sanctions, Cuba has disputed claims that US diplomats in Havana have come under deliberate sonic attack.

The Russians are already rolling out the red carpet. In a show of support for Cuba, Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, adopted a statement Wednesday on the need to end the US economic and trade blockade of Cuba, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.

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