Russia in Latin America: The Problem We Have Chosen to Ignore
As Russian control of Crimea consolidates and the fear of a potential invasion of continental Ukraine increases, Russian activities closer to home in the Western Hemisphere have been largely overlooked or perhaps just disregarded.
There have been reports of increasing Russian military cooperation with countries in Latin America that are hostile to the United States, mainly Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. This includes agreements between Russia and the above named countries that would enable Russia to place their naval logistic facilities in Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan territory.
According to Russia’s Secretary of Defense, those facilities could serve long-range aircraft. The motive, according to Russia expert, Stephen Blank is that Russia seeks access to ports and air bases for refueling purposes as well as great power influence.
The Russian invasion of Crimea raises the question of whether or not the old cold war logic remains relevant.
Russia may have given up communism, but it did not give up the pride of being an empire with a broad sphere of influence that they, namely Vladimir Putin, consider belongs to them and to them alone. It seems this was the reasoning behind Russia’s 2008 aggressive attempt to prevent Georgia from joining NATO. This was followed up by Russia’s military invasion that successfully detached South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, making them politically independent but subject to Russian authority.
The same logic applies to the current crisis in the Ukraine.
Indeed, the focus of US polices in the cold war was to contain the expansion and influence of the Soviet Union (and communism in general) throughout the globe. The United States fought communist attempts at dominating countries, often through proxies, occasionally supporting opposition forces (including the local armed forces) and sometimes by directly intervening with US troops on the ground.
By the same token, there was a tacit recognition of what the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence was and there the United States did not really interfere, except by using some empty rhetoric. Such was the case of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
By the same token, US polices in its own sphere of influence, especially in Latin America, were more aggressive, particularly after the Cuban revolution. The United States felt entitled to be concerned with the pro-Soviet tendencies of the government of the Salvador Allende regime in Chile in the early 1970’s. The same applied to the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in the later part of that decade.
Today, almost a quarter of a century after the end of the cold war, such tacit mutual containment does not apply.
While Russia views the former Soviet republics as naturally belonging to Russia’s traditional area of domination, the United States views this concept as being antiquated. Moreover, US policy in its former sphere of influence, namely Latin America, is based on catharsis, in a sort of apologetic mood for its past support of coups d’etat and other former aggressive policies.
This feeling of guilt still haunts the United States, in spite of the fact that in the last three decades the United States has supported democracy in Latin America while repudiating coups d’etat. Likewise, the United States has supported a policy of free trade aimed at reducing barriers to commerce between our markets and Latin America, making it easier for Latin-American countries to place their products in the US market.
Furthermore, as the United States was presenting a clear, benevolent post-cold war approach, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and similar governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua emerged. Their political agenda was quite clear as they became openly hostile towards the United States, with aspirations of reducing US influence in the region and, if possible, in the world.
This did not go unnoticed by Vladimir Putin and his Machiavellian circle. In my book Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era, I warned that Russia may use Latin America as a card to prevent the further advance of the West and NATO in the former Soviet sphere of influence. Thus, I concluded Russia’s presence in the region could have negative geopolitical consequences.
Indeed, in 2008, Russia offered Venezuela US$1billion in credits to buy Russian weaponry and nuclear cooperation. At the same time, the Russian and Venezuelan navies conducted joint exercises.
Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mocked these steps and dismissed the Russia-Venezuelan weapon agreements as inconsequential business deals. Yet, not only did that lead to an enemy of the United States and its closest ally Colombia being armed by Russia, but many of these weapons ended in the hands of the subversive Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
By the same token, in October of 2010, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and then Russian president Dmitry Medveded reached an agreement to build two 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors similar to the one built in Iran, also with Russia’s help and completed in August of that year while the West was concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
Medveded, himself, acknowledged that his 2008 trip to Latin America was out of geopolitical considerations. According to a recent article by Joseph Humire, it is estimated that the sale of Russian weapons in Latin America over the next decade will add up to $50 billion dollars. To date, Venezuela has bought the bulk of that weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles now positioned in Caracas.
Despite having a set of hostile countries in the region, and an increasing presence of Iran, China, and Russia, US policies remained restricted to trade and trade only. These developments did not raise concern among policy makers. No strategy was ever developed to counteract these geopolitical challenges.
Between US self-criticism and guilt and its consequent passivity and the increasing number of anti-US countries in the region, Russia, like Iran and China, knows how to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Bolivarian Alliance.
As the United States abandons its desire to be involved in international affairs, Russia and China aspire to increase their influence in areas of the world that have traditionally been part of the US sphere of cultural and political influence. Simultaneously, Iran cultivates its own political alliances and terrorist networks in the region.
The Bolivarian Alliance is a threat to democracy and stability in the region. Russia, China, and Iran will do anything to reinforce these regimes.
Is the United States going to follow Pat Buchanan’s reasoning that what is happening in the world is not our business and does not affect us, and therefore we should not be involved? Or is the United States the leader of the free world that understands that we represent a force of good by virtue of being a mighty democracy, and that our job is to work with our allies to provide a counterbalance to harmful influences?
On the pages of the Americas Report, we have stressed many times the importance of having an active US role in the region aimed at confronting these challenges. This included an active pro-democracy policy and more attention to challenges that affect our national security. Not even once did we suggest anything like military intervention.
As the world is watching, a laissez-faire foreign policy can be as nefarious as going to war, because it is a sign of weakness that makes us more and more vulnerable.
This article first appeared in the Americas Report.