UPDATE 2-Putin pledges to help Cuba explore for offshore oil
(Recasts with details of oil exploration)
By Alexei Anishchuk and Daniel Trotta
HAVANA, July 11 (Reuters) - 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 communist-ruled island.
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 northern coast.
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 in Cuba.
"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 negotiated solution.
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. Continuación...