Russia Direct asked a panel of experts to interpret Russia’s recent signals that it was interested in becoming a more active political and economic player in Latin America.


During his visit to Cuba Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Memorial to Soviet Internationalist Soldiers in Havana on July 11, Cuba. Photo: RIA Novosti

Much like the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America has become another region receiving increased attention from Russia’s foreign policy elite amidst the Ukraine crisis. In July, Russian president Vladimir Putin is paying a visit to Cuba, Argentina and Brazil, where he will participate in the 2014 BRICS Summit. 

Moscow appears to be pinning its hopes on stepping up military, political and economic collaboration with Latin American countries that have been willing to demonstrate their independence from the U.S. over the past decade. Russia may primarily target the countries of the so-called “Bolivarian Axis,” the socialist union formally known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), founded in 2004 by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Its long-standing anti-American rhetoric may resonate with the Kremlin’s new foreign policy priorities.

This willingness to collaborate is showing some initial results. Latin American countries were split in their vote in the UN on the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, meaning that Russia’s image in the region is not as negative as it is in North America and Europe. Of the eleven countries that voted against the UN resolution outlawing the Crimea referendum, four were in Latin America: Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Moreover, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Ecuador publicly abstained from voting.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko

All this indicates that Latin America is ready for cooperation with Russia –a fact that cannot go unnoticed by the Kremlin. Given Moscow’s increasing interest in Latin America, there are several questions that need to be answered: Could this region become a new Cold War battlefield between Russia and the West? How would Washington respond to a possible increase of Russian influence in Latin America and what are the consequences?

Russia Direct interviewed American and Russian experts to find out if Russia’s expansion in some countries of Latin America might somehow turn Latin America into a new Cold War battlefield.

Diana Negroponte, nonresident senior fellow with the Latin America Initiative under Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, focusing on Mexico and Central America.

Russian influence in the Americas has existed since the 1950s, most prominently in Cuba, but to a lesser extent, in Nicaragua and more recently, in Venezuela. Despite the severe reduction in loans and oil to Cuba in 1991, the political commitment and friendship remained.

Today that commitment is demonstrated by the renegotiation of prior loans and the sale of aircraft with a view to turning Havana into an airline hub for Russian visitors seeking to enjoy Caribbean tourist spots. This economic relationship, together with the multiple visits of Russian tourists, is not seen as a threat to the United States. Nor is it considered to be a dangerous remnant of the Cold War.

In Nicaragua, Russians are now discussing a maritime base and the sale of boats suitable for coast guard duties. These discussions are open and not perceived as an immediate threat to the United States. However, the U.S. government monitors their development. So long as they remain for commercial and coast guard purposes, they present no threat.

Given the rhetorical hostility of the Venezuelan government to the United States, Russian activities in Venezuela continue to be observed. Russian commercial activities present less of a threat than the Iranian presence during the presidency of Ahmadinejad and are money losers for Russian investors, except for the oil rights in the Orinoco. 

For the governments of Brazil and Argentina, Russian investments are welcome and offer diversification. Brazil is also interested in heavy equipment for its energy industry, but its high national content rules impede international investors, including Rosneft. 

Overall, the size of Russian investments in the hemisphere is not significant and is considered neither a threat to the United States, nor a return to the tensions of the Cold War.

[Read full version of Negroponte’s opinion here]

Eugene Bai, expert in Latin America and international journalist, contributor to The New Times, Novaya Gazeta and Expert magazine

Unlike the Cold War times, Latin America won’t become the battlefield of a new U.S.-Russia confrontation. There are no longer any guerilla movements in Central America supported by Moscow and Havana. The largest countries of the continent – Brazil, Chile and Argentina – have political forces at the helm that can be regarded as “left” with a proviso.

They are firmly sticking to the principles of democracy, actively engaged in the world economy and bound with the U.S. via important agreements.  Moreover, U.S. President Barack Obama claimed that he was not concerned with Moscow’s presence in Venezuela and other countries of the continent during the heyday in the Russian-Venezuelan relations, during the time of Hugo Chavez’s presidency.      

Currently, Russia’s economy is not in the best shape and it doesn’t have the potential for the large-scale development of economic collaboration with Latin American countries. In trade, Russian weapons are still important countries like Peru, Chile and others are still buying them. The prospects of collaboration in the atomic energy field are so far on paper.

Likewise, there is no ground for beefing up Russia’s presence in Latin America. Russian Defense Ministry Sergei Shoigu’s claims about the construction of Russian bases “from Singapore to Argentina” are nothing but the declaration of intentions. Even such “time-tested allies” as Cuba and Venezuela were – to a certain extent – against Russian bases on their territory.

Laura Carlsen, director of Americas Program in Latin America Rights and Security at Center for International Policy

[The response of Washington] would certainly depend on what type of "Russian influence" we are talking about. The U.S. government has said little about the vast expansion of both Russian and Chinese investment in Latin America, but kept a close on eye on shifting alliances and sponsored initiatives to consolidate its allies – nations that have close ties and Free Trade Agreements with the United States – in the Pacific Alliance and others since the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas effort to bring the entire continent into a U.S.-regulated economic sphere.

Russian arms sales in the region have raised a few eyebrows in the Pentagon, no doubt. However, the center-left governments that have purchased these arms have done so primarily for pragmatic reasons and precisely because the Russian arms generally come with fewer strings attached than U.S. weapons and equipment.

These nations had such a low and aging arsenal to begin with that its modernization is far from detonating a new arms race or coming remotely close to challenging U.S. superpower in that area. Although the Ukraine conflict set off warnings of a new Cold War, Latin America has grown into an autonomous actor in the world and is in a position to resist playing the fatal role of staging ground for a Cold War.

They learned the hard way how a Cold War scheme of alliances attracts US intervention, with the bloody and tragic consequences of the dirty wars and dictatorships of the 70s and 80s.

Boris Martynov, Deputy Head of the Institute of Latin America at the Russian Academy of Sciences

First, it’s out of the question to talk about a new “Cold War” [in the region]. Times have changed. And we have to understand it. Latin America – as an emerging region of the modern world, the civilizations in its development – is important for us as an ally to build a new world order, but not as an ally to be in confrontation with the U.S. (no matter to what extent the U.S. may want it).

Let’s say, it’s our asymmetric response! Russia and other countries (including China, India, South Africa and others) are sort of becoming part of an emerging world, while the U.S. is not.

Second, the major field of Russia’s collaboration with Latin American countries is not even the economy, but policy and security. Please, pay attention to the fact that all signed recently documents between Russia and these countries confirm similar approaches and unity in positions on the most relevant problems of the global economy and geopolitics.  And this is very valuable, especially now, when Russia lacks allies.

And what is most important of all is the traditional respect of Latin American countries to international law and the fact that we together with them are the countries that have the richest natural resources (oil, gas, fresh water, rare metals). All of this causes a serious rivalry [in the world]. That’s why we are in one boat with Latin America. We have no choice – we have to collaborate.

Third, the U.S has already lost Latin America and pretends that they didn’t. They won’t be able to prevent Latin American countries from becoming independent players in the world economy and politics.  

UPDATE: This article was updated on July 11, 2014 to include commentary from Laura Carlsen, director of Americas Program in Latin America Rights and Security at Center for International Policy.

Read Russia Direct’s Brief, “Russia in America’s Backyard” that looks at the prospects for collaboration between Russia and Latin American countries, as well as the potential for rivalry with China and the U.S. in a region that was once a key battleground of the Cold War. Subscribe and download the full version of the Brief to find out. If you are already an RD subscriber, download the Brief "Russia in America’s Backyard" here