MOSCOW -- Cuban President Raul Castro says Havana currently enjoys "extraordinary" relations with Russia and that his visit here next week will consolidate bilateral cooperation.
After a pause for most of the 1990s, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2000 journey to Havana opened a "second phase" in ties between the two countries, Castro said in an interview with Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.
"Several accords were re-established that are now being put into practice," the Cuban leader said, going on to stress the crucial role played by the former Soviet Union in supporting Havana through the 1960s and beyond.
"Cuba by itself could not have confronted the monster of imperialism," he said, referring to the United States, which made a number of attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro - Raul's older brother - and has maintained an economic embargo against the communist island since 1962.
Fidel, now 82, effectively stepped down in July 2006 after being stricken with a serious gastrointestinal illness. He formally resigned the presidency a year ago in favor of Raul Castro.
Raul said that he expects to sign new cooperation accords during next week's visit to Moscow, which follows a November trip to Cuba by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
On broader foreign policy issues, Castro condemned the idea of expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia as well as U.S. plans to position elements of a missile-defense system at bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
He also called "the rebirth of Russia" a positive factor in global politics, noting that Havana and Moscow "actively defend the idea of a multipolar world."
"And that is not a whim," Castro said. "Security in the world can be guaranteed only in a multipolar world. We know what happens on the planet when the balance is shattered: wars, aggressions begin, and injustice appears in relations."
He said Havana plans to become more insistent in demanding the closure of the U.S. Navy base at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.
"Sometimes I read dispatches from news agencies (that say) 'U.S. Base in Guantanamo closes'. I keep reading. It turns out they propose closing its prison, created to torture citizens of other countries," Castro said.
He said that while he was confident new U.S. President Barack Obama would keep his promise to close the detention center for suspected terrorists, "we think that would be insufficient, since the existence of the base on our territory is a great injustice."
"Return the annexed territory to its legitimate owner, that is, the Cuban people," Castro said. "The base has no military importance."
Both Moscow and Havana say bilateral ties are the best they have been since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Medvedev government extended a $20 million loan to Cuba in November within the framework of 10 economic accords and a Russian naval flotilla made a port call in Havana last month.
The Soviet government was Cuba's staunchest ally, buying 63 percent of the island's sugar, 73 percent of its nickel and 95 percent of its citrus - all at inflated prices as part of Mosco
w's massive subsidies to the Communist regime in Havana.
Cuba's economy went into a tailspin with the loss of that help, prompting Fidel Castro to allow Raul, then defense minister, to embark on an experiment in liberalization that included turning over management of state enterprises to military officers trained at European business schools.
Fidel called a halt to the initiative in the late 1990s, but Raul Castro has renewed those efforts at reform since taking the helm in Havana. EFE