(Recasts with details of oil exploration)
By Alexei Anishchuk and Daniel Trotta
HAVANA, July 11 Russian President Vladimir Putin
pledged to help revive Cuba's struggling offshore oil
exploration on Friday at the start of a six-day tour of Latin
America as Russia aims to reassert its influence on the
Putin was joined in Havana by close ally and so-called
Russian oil czar Igor Sechin, the chairman of state oil company
Rosneft, to finalize a deal to explore for oil off Cuba's
The Russian president also promised to reinvest $3.5 billion
of Cuban debt with Russia into development projects on the
island, part of a deal in which Russia forgave 90 percent of
Cuba's debt, or almost $32 billion, most of it originating from
Soviet loans to a fellow communist state.
Both measures inject much-needed foreign investment into
Cuba and demonstrate an act of defiance against the United
States, which maintains a 52-year-old economic embargo that
effectively shuts out many Western companies from doing business
"We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome
the illegal blockade of Cuba," Putin said.
Putin's journey to the back yard of the United States comes
as he is under pressure from the West to help restrain
pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and urge them to find a
Sechin is one of the Russian executives the United States
has targeted for economic sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. The
United States has blacklisted individuals believed to be part of
Putin's inner circle, and Sechin is among the most influential
people in Russia.
Putin will also visit Argentina and Brazil for bilateral
talks, and while in Brazil he will participate in a summit of
the so-called BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and
South Africa on Tuesday and Wednesday.
On his first stop in Cuba, the Cold War ally of the former
Soviet Union situated only 90 miles (145 km) from the United
States, Putin met with former President Fidel Castro and current
President Raul Castro before receiving the Medal of Jose Marti,
Cuba's highest decoration.
Fidel Castro, 87, stepped down in favor of his brother for
health reasons in 2008 after 49 years in power. For an hour he
and Putin discussed international affairs, the global economy
and Russian-Cuban relations, the Kremlin said.
Any major oil find would radically improve Cuba's economic
Cuba produces about 55,000 barrels per day (bdp) through
aging onshore wells and imports about 110,000 bpd on favorable
terms from socialist ally Venezuela.
Following a number of foreign companies whose wells have all
come up dry, Russian oil company Zarubezhneft last year began
drilling in Cuba's Boca de Jaruco area. That project has been
suspended. Zarubezhneft also has been helping Cuba extract from
existing onshore wells.
An aide to Putin in Moscow said on Thursday that
Zarubeznheft would sign a new deal in Cuba along with Rosneft,
but in the end only Rosneft was present.
"Developing new blocks on Cuba's offshore shelf is
(expected) in the very near future," Putin said.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Daniel Trotta;
Editing by Mohammad Zargham)