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On board the Russian warship visiting Cuba


By Patrick Oppmann, CNN

Havana (CNN) — In twelve years of living in Cuba, I have waited in all kinds of lines.

Lines to buy food, lines to pay bills, lines just because people were lining up for something maybe worth lining up for.

But now I was in a line for something unexpected: to board a Russian warship docked in Havana’s harbor.

When a Russian diplomat told me that starting on Thursday, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate would offer tours to the public for three days, I was somewhat skeptical.

The Gorshkov is one of the most modern vessels in the Russian fleet, capable of firing hypersonic missiles that travel at more than 6,000 miles per hour. I had trouble imagining that President Vladimir Putin’s prized ship would be opened for anyone to see.

When the Gorshkov arrived in Cuba on Wednesday, it fired a deafening 21-shot salute. The Cubans answered with cannon fire from an 18th century fortress overlooking the harbor that the Spanish had built to protect the city from pirates. With the frigate came a rescue tug, a fuel ship and the Kazan, an imposing nuclear-powered submarine.

Cuba’s Ministry of Defense said that none of the ships were carrying nuclear weapons and that they did not represent “a threat to the region,” clearly meaning the US, Cuba’s neighbor 90 miles to the north.

But for many Cubans, the visit of the largest convoy of ships in years from their old Cold War ally seemed like a return to the past, particularly as Moscow and Washington increasingly spar over the war in Ukraine.

“I never thought I would see a Russian submarine so up close,” said a Cuban man next to me as we waited in line in view of the four vessels. We were standing outside the port terminal in Havana which, just years earlier, had been full of US cruise ships, until then-President Donald Trump banned their visits to the island in 2019.

Even though a line had formed, it was not clear if any of us waiting there were going to get aboard. An hour passed in the broiling Cuban sun.

“We are roasting out here,” a woman carrying a small baby next to me said. Cubans are champion line-waiters and I worried that I would have nothing to show for my interlude outside the port other than a worsening sunburn.

Finally, a Cuban Navy official in a sparkling white uniform came out to speak to us, resting his hand on my shoulder.

“You can go aboard but need to leave any sharp objects like knives, scissors or hair clippers behind,” he said.

Two plainclothes state security officers began to run everyone’s identity card numbers through a database on their phones.

I handed my carné, or ID card, that lists my birthplace in the US to one of the officers who appeared too young to shave. He looked at my carné and turned to his older colleague for advice.

“Are we letting foreign residents on board?” he asked.

The older officer, who was wearing a New York Yankee’s baseball cap, nodded and then ran my card information through the database.

“You can go ahead,” he said.

Inside the port, past officials manning a metal detector, Russian sailors in dark blue unforms waited to take a group of about 20 of us aboard the Gorshkov.

In front of the ship, the sailors had posted a sign in English that declared the Gorshkov’s “main purpose” was “combat operations against enemy surface ships and submarines.”

The Russian sailors spoke more English than Spanish and I occasionally translated to help the other members of our group, who were all Cuban. We were told we could film and everyone immediately took out their smartphones to snap videos and selfies.

We started out on the ship’s massive helicopter pad and then walked through the ship to the bow. Every few feet a Russian sailor stood keeping watch.

At the front of the ship, one of the sailors showed me an anti-rocket system to be used in the unlikely event we came under attack. I asked about the massive cannon and the sailor replied that it could fire shells a distance of 23 kilometers, or about 15 miles.

A level up, where there appeared to be sensitive communications equipment, a Russian soldier in tactical gear with an assault rifle at his side looked down at us.

Just off the bow we could see an unobstructed view of the Kazan, the 430-foot long submarine that stretched out into the harbor.

I noticed one of the Russian sailors taking in the blue skies and calm waters around us.

“Cuba good?” I ask him.

“Cuba good,” he laughs in reply and gives me a thumbs up.

The war in Ukraine has severely degraded the Russian fleet and once again pitted the US and Russia on opposite sides of a bloody conflict. For a Russian sailor, Cuba could be as good as it gets these days.

I disembarked the Russian warship in Havana feeling that the Cold War did not seem like such a distant memory, when I saw an alert flash across my phone.

It was an announcement that the Pentagon had just dispatched its own nuclear powered attack submarine to the other side of the island: the US Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, slightly more than 500 miles away from the where the Russian ships are docked.

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