Russia and Cuba have taken one more step toward tightening their relationship, allowing Russian tourists to use their MIR cards in the Caribbean Island to make transactions at ATMs, and pay for goods and services in commercial and retail businesses. The MIR cards have so far been accepted in popular tourist locations, including Havana and the resort town of Varadero.
Russia’s National Card Payment System (NSPK) launched its MIR payment cards in Cuba in early December 2023, making the small island nation one of only a handful of countries to use the Kremlin’s alternative to Visa and Mastercard.
MIR payment cards have become more important since Visa and Mastercard suspended operations in Russia following the start of the war against Ukraine. Moscow vowed to expand its MIR payment system in “friendly countries,” as sanctions attempted to shut it out of international finance.
The move highlights the extent of Russia’s reach in Cuba and the growing rapprochement between both countries in the last two years.
The year 2023 was marked by visits to the island by senior Russian government officials and business representatives. The two countries signed several agreements to resume relations in the construction, digitalization, banking, sugar production, transport, and tourism sectors. In an unusual concession, in May, Cuba offered Russian companies the right to make use of Cuban land for 30 years. Then, in July, the Russian Navy ship Perekop docked in Cuba, marking the first official visit by a Russian warship to the island in years.
Yet the renewed Russian-Cuban economic and commercial relations could also pose new threats to Latin America, as experts fear this could mean an expansion and reinforcement of dictatorial regimes in the region.
“At this time of war in Ukraine, Russia is seeking to project its diplomatic power through rapprochement with ideologically close countries like Cuba. This will also happen with Venezuela, with which it has agreements, including military agreements, training agreements, and great proximity between the two governments. Moscow is also taking advantage of this moment of competition between the great powers, with the rise of China and the European Union, to provoke the United States,” José Niemeyer, coordinator of International Relations at the Brazilian Institute of Capital Markets in Rio de Janeiro, told Diálogo.
For researcher Leonardo Paz, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s International Prospecting and Intelligence Center, the two countries will take advantage of this moment to reinforce their role as victims in an attempt to gain sympathy in the region. “Naturally, in this context, it’s part of their discourse to take advantage of this by saying, ‘look, here we are, two countries helping each other, both victims […] of unfair bilateral sanctions or something like that,’” Paz told Diálogo.
The war in Ukraine, which contributed to the renewed relationship, could also affect it, Stella Christina Schrijnemaekers, coordinator of the International Relations, Foreign Trade, and Logistics courses at the University Center of United Metropolitan Colleges in São Paulo, said.
“Russia didn’t expect the war against Ukraine to take on the proportions it did in terms of economic and human costs and international notoriety. Any project involves high financial costs and Russia’s war against Ukraine has bled the Russian coffers dry. Cuba also has a very fragile economy and what it can offer the Russians in a partnership is its strategic geopolitical position […] rather than financing grandiose projects,” Schrijnemaekers concluded.