By Victoria Macchi
July 18th, 2014 (VOA) Russian President Vladimir Putin is denying media reports that he will reopen a Soviet-era base in Cuba used to spy on the United States.
Putin said Thursday there are no plans to resume operations at the Lourdes signals intelligence facility near Havana, after Russian media first reported a day earlier that the two countries provisionally agreed to the deal last week.
“Russia is capable of fulfilling the defense capacity tasks without this component [Lourdes],” Putin told state-owned ITAR-TASS news agency toward the end of a six-day tour of Latin America.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman declined Wednesday to comment on the news report because a formal agreement had not been officially announced.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and vocal opponent of Cuban leadership, told VOA that reopening the intelligence base would show “the Castro regime has only malevolent intentions toward the United States.”
The jointly operated Soviet-Cuban base in the Havana suburbs started conducting electronic surveillance in 1964 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the Soviet Union’s largest foreign base, with approximately 3,000 employees.
Diaz-Balart noted the facility’s proximity to vital military installations in Florida like the Tampa-based Central Command, which oversees U.S. operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The Florida congressman said, “By inviting one of America’s adversaries to a spy facility only 90 miles from our shores, the Castro [government] is actively working to harm key U.S. national security interests.”
Until Putin closed the base in 2001, Moscow used it to intercept voice and data telephone transmissions relayed from the U.S. by satellite.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant, which broke the story Wednesday, quoted Cuban President Raul Castro as saying that up to 75 percent of Moscow’s intelligence on the United States came from the base.
The newspaper did not specify details of the most recent alleged deal.
After talks with Castro in Havana at the start of a Latin America tour late last week, Putin unveiled plans to write off $32 billion of old Soviet debt — 90 percent of what Cuba still owes. He said the other 10 percent would be reinvested in Cuban development projects.
In the 1990s, Russia agreed to give Cuba approximately $200 million worth of goods like fuel and timber, and military equipment parts, to keep the joint operation open annually.
With the escalation of the Ukraine crisis since February, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia, leading Moscow to try to bolster ties with other countries, including in Asia and Latin America, to ensure Russia is not isolated.
Talk of the Lourdes base reopening came shortly before the U.S. announced fresh sanctions against Russia in response to an uptick in violence between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces over the weekend.
“We have to see concrete actions, and not just words that Russia in fact is committed to trying to end this conflict along the Russia-Ukraine border,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.
VOA’s Scott Stearns contributed to this story, along with reports from Reuters and AFP.