The global reach of the Ukraine crisis means its effects are starting to be felt by Latin America, showing the region to be yet another pawn in Russia’s grand strategy to weaken the international influence of the US.
At its heart, the Ukraine crisis is a conflict between Russia and the West (defined by the Kremlin here as the US, NATO and the EU). However, it is throwing into sharp relief profound changes in the international order and poses a threat to Western influence. In Latin America, various powers from outside the region –notably China, Russia and Iran– are vying for a presence. Its countries face the tough decision of whether to strengthen their ties with the West (the political and cultural space to which they theoretically belong) or to seek closer relations with these other powers, which dangle promises of new trade opportunities and alternative sources of financing that are of vital interest to Latin American states. The choice is made all the more difficult by the current economic climate in the region, which has led its countries to place particular emphasis on the latter. And lastly, there are the countries that are once again trying to straddle the divide created by this latest geopolitical conflict. All this, together with the existing fractures and divisions in the region, makes a unified and coordinated response to international challenges impossible. Instead, Latin America is condemned to the status of a secondary player, a pawn to be used by the major powers, in a dynamic reminiscent of the times of the Cold War.
As the tensions over Ukraine continue to rise between Russia and the West (defined by the Kremlin here as the US, NATO and the EU), Moscow has hinted at plans to deploy military forces in Latin America, specifically in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Ryabkov, recently remarked that ‘I don’t want to confirm anything… or rule anything out’. The Kremlin’s thinly veiled threat to send troops (or perhaps even a more substantial deployment) highlights the importance of understanding the role played by Latin America in Moscow’s strategy.
Such declarations can be interpreted as a way of setting boundaries for Washington, sending a clear signal on the need for mutual respect and to refrain from meddling in each other’s respective sphere of influence. If the US continues its expansion in the former Soviet republics, Russia will respond by increasing its presence in Washington’s own back yard. Against the backdrop of rising tensions with the US and the EU, in January 2022 the Russian government announced it was strengthening strategic cooperation with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua ‘in all areas’. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, communicated that Vladimir Putin had agreed to reinforce bilateral ties in recent conversations with the three countries’ leaders, citing Russia’s ‘close relations and strategic cooperation in all areas: economic, cultural, education and technical-military’.
The rivalry between Russia and the US in their respective geographic neighbourhoods shares the same underlying dynamic, based on a strategy of ‘supporting resilience’. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has cultivated relations with countries in the post-Soviet space, supporting their sovereignty and independence from Russia. For its part, Moscow has sought to preserve and increase its influence among the historic allies of the USSR (Cuba and Nicaragua) and –much to Washington’s chagrin– has become a fundamental source of support for the regimes of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
Even if the Biden Administration believes Russia lacks the military capacity to follow through on its threats in the region (National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has accused the Kremlin of grandstanding), there are nonetheless historic and modern precedents that mean they must be taken seriously. During the 2008 conflict in Georgia, for the first time, Moscow sent two nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela, alongside four warships, including the nuclear battlecruiser Peter the Great. This pattern was repeated in 2013 and again in 2018, when the Russian government declared its intention to establish an air base on the Venezuelan island of La Orchilla.
In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, it is impossible to ignore events on the other side of the globe, especially when one of the parties involved (in this case Russia), threatens to deploy troops in Cuba and Venezuela, alongside other ‘technical and military measures’. Going by past experience, such measures could range from the deployment of military specialists and technical experts (as has been the case in Venezuela) through support for new hybrid forms of warfare (including cyber-attacks) and even the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Venezuela or potentially Nicaragua, mirroring the situation in Kaliningrad and other border zones. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 shows this threat must be taken seriously, even if the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1967 sought to avoid a repeat of the crisis by transforming Latin America into a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Moreover, this is not the only nuclear option available to Moscow: another, less costly alternative (in financial terms) would be to deploy its Zircon hypersonic missiles in submarines stationed off the US coast.
The spectre of a nuclear deployment in Latin American territory would bring an end to over half a century of regional consensus on the need to avoid the presence of nuclear arms. If there is one lesson that can be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is that when two major powers negotiate to avoid war, the associated allies –voiceless players like Castro’s Cuba– have no say in the final outcome. Castro was incensed when he discovered that the USSR had agreed behind his back to withdraw its missiles in exchange for the US doing likewise Turkey.
However, governments in the region should not need the materialisation of a nuclear threat to spur them into action. They must stand up and be counted on their immediate concerns, a case in point being rising energy costs, which –except in producer countries– increase the burden on families and are forcing governments to increase fiscal spending via subsidies. The truth is that a coordinated regional response is simply not feasible at present, not only because it would be unprecedented, but also because of the level of fragmentation and divergence, the broad spectrum of positions on the crisis, and the preferences of the parties involved.
Familiar faces and emerging powers: China, Russia, Iran, India and Turkey on the Latin American chessboard
Latin America plays a bit part on the global chessboard. Even if it is not fully removed from the Ukraine crisis, it nonetheless occupies a peripheral position. This can primarily be attributed to the paralysis of the regional integration process, limiting Latin America’s presence on the global stage and preventing it from speaking up with a single voice in multilateral forums. Let us not forget that the majority of countries in the region do not have a robust and coherent foreign policy (Brazil, Chile and Mexico are a few rare exceptions). In general, foreign policies are focused on regional relations, especially with neighbouring countries, largely leaving Latin America’s international presence to be scripted by the world’s major powers. This was particularly evident during the Cold War, from the 1950s to the 1980s. Latin America was a key stage for the conflict between the US and the USSR (Guatemala in 1954, Cuba since 1959, South America in the 1960s and Central America in the 1980s) but in the bigger picture the region was just another battleground in the clash between capitalism and communism.
Its role in this global struggle was driven by historical continuity and its relations with the various international centres of power. However, since the 1990s, particularly in the wake of the 2007-08 Financial Crisis and repeated signs of weakness in the US presence in the region, powers from outside it have sought to bolster their role and even challenge US hegemony. The process has been facilitated by the anti-imperialist and post-colonial policies of the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA, Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) and its partners.
The consolidation of a multipolar world, particularly in the aftermath of 2008, has had a number of consequences for Latin America. In economic terms, the region has diversified its markets, allowing China to consolidate its position as a major trading partner since the start of the 21st century. In geopolitical terms, some emerging international players have spotted the opportunity to gain influence, economic power, prestige and allies at the expense of traditional powers like the US, the EU and Spain. This gradual erosion of the presence, influence and reputation of old powers has allowed the rise of new ones (China), as well as the resurgence of familiar faces (Russia).
Beginning in the first decade of the 21st century, and intensifying in the second, China and Russia have both expanded their presence in Latin America, alongside Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. India is also present, with its own agenda, for now less pronounced but with greater capacity for expansion in the medium term. Almost all these countries are acting in support of a multipolar world, challenging US hegemony and trying to displace it economically, technologically, militarily and commercially. China’s strategy was consolidated under the presidency of Hu Jintao, when the country produced its first White Book on regional policy. Xi Jinping has furthered its Latin American projection, presiding over a quantitative and qualitative leap forward in Beijing’s presence in the region, transforming the Asian Giant into its second trade partner overall and the main partner of some countries.
Despite its limited ties to Latin America, Turkey has also sought to expand not only its economic and commercial projection but its political one too. An increasingly authoritarian President Erdoğan is seeking allies to counterbalance his isolation on the global stage. El Salvador, which is also opposed to the US, has made advances to Ankara in search of support for its decision to make Bitcoin an official currency. Turkey is following the path of Iran, which has had a strong trade and political presence in the region since the 1990s, including murky links to terrorist attacks.
Iran has become a key international ally for Venezuela under the presidencies of both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. In January this year, the two countries’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Denis Moncada and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, agreed in a phone call to strengthen ties between their governments. Latin America has provided Iran, whose shadow has hung over the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), with space to break free from its international isolation. A key factor has been its entente with regimes such as that of Chávez in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua. Venezuela has signed over 270 agreements with Iran and the death of Chávez in 2013 prompted Ahmadinejad to label him a messiah. It is an unlikely alliance, forged in the first decade of the 21st century between the ultra-conservative regime of the ayatollahs and the ‘Bolivarian socialists’, grounded in oil and the rejection of US hegemony. Shared anti-imperialist sentiment has also led to close relations between the Iranian regime and Bolivia.
Putin’s objective: key aspects and methods of the international strategy of post-soviet Russia
In stark contrast to China, the Kremlin’s Latin American policy is linked to the personality-driven and authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin. Since his rise to power in 1999 and particularly over the past decade, one of Putin’s objectives has been to restore Russia’s status as a global power, lost with the collapse of the USSR. His path to restore this status has gone beyond his country’s immediate neighbourhood comprising the former Soviet republics to seek out new strategic niches. The countries of Latin America have offered fertile ground for this expansion. However, Russia’s strategy lacks the ideological conditioning of the USSR and is more pragmatic in its approach to diversifying the country’s foreign relations. Its roots can be traced back to the Primakov Doctrine (named after Yevgeny Primakov, who served first as Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999). Primakov was highly critical of Boris Yeltsin’s idea of ‘abandoning’ regions like Latin America, where Russia had exerted significant influence during the Cold War, in favour of closer ties with the West. His ideas constitute a common thread running through Putin’s ‘assertive’ strategy in Syria, his rapprochement with Beijing and his support for Maduro and Ortega.
Russia’s influence in Latin America is different from China’s. One of the key factors that explains this difference is historic precedent. In some senses, Russia is the heir to the USSR, whose presence in the region grew during the Cold War, especially after the Cuban Revolution. Although its behaviour may have changed –more in form than in substance– there is nonetheless a certain continuity. The ideological factor of communism may no longer be present but other elements remain, such as the geopolitical rivalry with the US and a longstanding Soviet aspiration to be a world power, first by the tsars and now by Russia.
Moscow is using Latin America to counter US influence in other areas. If Washington seeks to expand its presence in zones of Russian influence, such as Ukraine, the Kremlin will increase its military presence in the Caribbean. The region is just another part of Putin’s global strategy. As a revisionist power, Russia is challenging the idea of a ‘unipolar’ world, led by the US and backed by the EU. Together with NATO, the US and the EU are the main obstacles to rebuilding Russian influence in its hinterland (Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) and restoring its status as a regional and global power.
This has led the Kremlin to seek out foreign partners to build other alliances, both geopolitical, to counter US hegemony, and economic and commercial, to offset the sanctions imposed by Washington and Brussels following the crises in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and 2022).
Three main reasons explain why Latin America is important to Russia: (1) the potential of alliances with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to undermine US hegemony; (2) as a tool to allow Putin to present himself as a global actor (instead of just a local one), using Latin America as a platform to build a new, multipolar order (for example, Nicaragua was the first Latin American country to bestow diplomatic recognition on South Ossetia and Abkhazia following their separation from Georgia in 2008); and (3) as part of a strategy of deterrence towards further US advances into Russia’s hinterland. The Ukraine crisis has shown how US imposition in zones that are key to Russian interests, such as Ukraine, will be met with shows of strength or threats to do likewise in Latin America.
Through its pragmatic, non-ideological stance, Russia is seeking to expand its presence in Latin America, strengthening its position in various areas, including trade, energy and arms sales. The Kremlin initially sought to take advantage of Bolivarian regional integration initiatives, such as ALBA, to forge alliances against the US. In 2014 Putin sent a message to the ALBA summit, expressing his desire to deepen ties and expand ‘our dialogue and practical interaction, both bilaterally and multilaterally’. However, like Bush’s attempts to push the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005, he soon discovered how regional division, lack of leadership and patchy integration prevent the achievement of regional goals. Similarly, the paralysis of ALBA following the loss of Chávez’ leadership and Venezuelan petrodollars laid bare its limitations.
Nonetheless, Russia has maintained strong ties with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños), sharing its geopolitical objective of building a multipolar and multilateral world. This resulted in the signing of a Permanent Mechanism for Political Dialogue and Cooperation in 2015. CELAC provides Russia with a way to gain a foothold and increase its global weight and visibility through an international organisation outside its theoretical sphere of influence. As a forum that excludes the US and that was established as an alternative to the Organisation of American States (OAS), ties with Russia allow CELAC to boost its autonomy with respect to Washington.
However, over the past five years, Putin has concentrated on bilateral relations, cultivating strategic ties with governments directly opposed to the US, such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Kirchnerist Argentina, as well as with those able to act as counterweights to US hegemony, such as Brazil and Mexico. These are relationships of mutual convenience, especially when it comes to the Cuban dictatorship and the authoritarian regimes of Venezuela and Nicaragua. Moscow is indifferent to human rights violations in Cuba, attacks on the opposition in Venezuela and the drift towards dictatorship in Nicaragua (with which it collaborates on military matters and intelligence). These countries have toed the Kremlin line when it opposes the US, for example, during the Ukraine crisis, and in Nicaragua and Venezuela’s automatic alignment with Russia (and vice versa) in international forums.
Russian support for the governments of Ortega and Chávez has been unwavering. Following the repression of students in Managua in 2018, it used the United Nations as a forum to insist that the US ‘refrain from its efforts in the colonial tradition to influence the situation in Nicaragua’. In 2021, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution against Nicaragua, condemning the repression and urging Ortega to allow peaceful protest against his regime. Twenty countries voted in favour, with 18 abstentions and eight votes against (including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Russia and China). In 2019 Russia and China vetoed Washington’s push for the Security Council to call for free presidential elections in Venezuela and for humanitarian aid to be allowed to enter the country. In 2020 Russia used the Security Council to denounce US actions against Venezuela, which it described as ‘provocations’ and ‘threats’ that went against the rules of the UN. For their part, Latin American countries close to Putin have shown their support on repeated occasions since 2008. The handful of countries that followed Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 included Nauru, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In 2014 a UN resolution declaring the referendum in Crimea invalid was approved by 100 countries, with 58 abstentions and 11 votes against (including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua). Similarly, Venezuela and Nicaragua have publicly shown their alignment with Russia in the current crisis in Ukraine on multiple occasions.
Beginning with the presidency of Chávez and continuing under Maduro, Venezuela has been Putin’s strongest link with Latin America. The new millennium saw the Kremlin go from being all but absent from the country’s affairs to one of its biggest investors, through its investments in the military and hydrocarbon sectors. It has sold arms worth over US$17 billion and the Russian state company Rosneft has signed a series of strategic gas and oil agreements with PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned hydrocarbon company.
At the height of his Bolivarian regime (2004-12), Chávez modernised the Bolivarian National Armed Forces through the acquisition of Russian arms. This made Venezuela the largest buyer of arms in Latin America, jumping from 46 to 15 in the ranking of the world’s biggest arms importers. Over three-quarters (76%) of Russian exports of arms and military services to Latin America were destined for Venezuela.
Non-military trade, while limited, has risen sharply in recent years. Russia has shored up Maduro, despite Venezuela’s new President having less purchasing power than his predecessor. Its military presence in the country is largely based on staff providing technical support for Russian equipment operated by the country’s air force. It also has special forces units and military contractors who train members of the Venezuelan military and police. In 2020 eight Russian drone specialists supported the Bolivarian forces in ‘Operation Shark’ to repel a rebel invasion on the Venezuelan coast.
Putin has spoken by telephone with Maduro during the Ukraine crisis, similarly to with Cuba. According to the Russian news agency TASS, ‘Putin has signalled his unshakeable support for the Venezuelan authorities’ efforts to strengthen the country’s sovereignty and ensure its social and economic development’, while Caracas has stressed exchanges at the highest level on ‘issues related to cooperation in different strategic areas’. Maduro has also rejected provocation and manipulation campaigns against Russia.
Moscow has rekindled the close ties between the USSR and Cuba during the Cold War and the alliance forged with Fidel Castro in 1960. In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Presidents Putin and Miguel Díaz-Canel made a commitment to deepen ‘strategic cooperation’ and strengthen bilateral ties. They agreed to intensify contact in order to expand ‘cooperation on trade, the economy and investment’. Just days before, a 20-tonne shipment of medical aid had landed in Havana, the fifth of its kind since 31 December 2021, taking the total to 80 tonnes in a single month, compared with 200 tonnes in 2021. Russia’s strategy is the result of a decade-long approach whose landmarks include a 2014 decision to write off US$30 billion of Cuban debt going back to the Soviet era and a deal to allow the reopening of the Lourdes electronic listening post.
In terms of Nicaragua, until Managua’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China, Russia had remained its main ally outside of Latin America, in addition to Taiwan. Moscow gave its unequivocal backing to Ortega’s recent re-election, which reaffirmed the drift towards dictatorship of a country largely isolated in the region and in confrontation with the White House. Putin offered his ‘unwavering support’ for Nicaraguan efforts to ‘guarantee national sovereignty’ and reaffirmed his ‘willingness to continue supporting [its] social and economic development’. This marks the latest chapter in the partnership between the two authoritarian regimes. Ortega made a rare overseas trip to Russia in 2008 and Putin included Managua in his Latin American tour in 2014. For its part, the Kremlin has bankrolled the modernisation of the Nicaraguan military and intelligence. Since 2016 this has allowed the creation of military training centres and the procurement of tanks under an agreement covering ‘technical and military cooperation’ and air defence systems. In return, Ortega has backed Putin on Ukraine in both the previous and current crises, as well as on his stance against Western sanctions on Moscow. Ortega has enjoyed Russian support since 2018, when he crushed a protest movement against him. Putin also sent him a card in 2019, addressed to his ‘dear friend, brother’, assuring Ortega that Nicaragua would always be able to count on his support. Most recently, in 2021, Russia was one of the few countries to recognise his re-election following widespread arrests of opposition figures, including a number of potential presidential candidates.
Russia also has a strong presence in other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. At the height of tensions with the US and NATO, the Argentine President, Alberto Fernández, visited Moscow, as did the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, in February 2022. Ties with Argentina, which were re-established in 2010, are wide reaching, including geopolitical (as shown by Fernández’ trip in January 2022) and economic (given the interest of Gazprom and other companies in Argentine gas). Fernández’ visit took place following the agreement reached on the renegotiation of Argentina’s debt with the IMF, in which the US played a key role. He offered to make Argentina Russia’s ‘gateway’ to Latin America, viewing Putin as a counterweight to the US: ‘I am determined that Argentina will break its significant dependency on the IMF and the US’, he vowed, before adding that ‘the country needs to look elsewhere, a process in which Russia must play a key role’.
Brazil is Russia’s main economic and geopolitical partner in Latin America. This was true under the Lula presidency and it has remained so under Bolsonaro, Proof of an approach that values pragmatism over ideological criteria. Since 2010 Brazil has remained Russia’s main economic partner in the region, with 33% of the regional total. Under Lula’s presidency, the two countries formed part of the BRICS group of nations, together with China, India and South Africa. The group has held 12 summits to date, most recently in Brazil (2019) and Russia (2020). Relations have remained strong under Bolsonaro. In addition to their common international interests, the two countries share a similar approach to politics: both lead illiberal and authoritarian governments. At the height of the Ukraine crisis, Bolsonaro announced a visit to Russia, which, according to reports in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, ruffled feathers in the US. For the Brazilian President, however, visiting Moscow was a way of signalling his autonomy on foreign policy: ‘Brazil is Brazil; Russia is Russia. I have good relations with all countries. If Biden invited me, I would happily visit the US’.
In Bolivia, the Kremlin has nurtured its relationship with Evo Morales, whom it supported when he was forced out of office in 2019. Following the return to power of Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS, Movimiento al Socialismo) in 2020, Russia has strengthened its ties through projects in strategic areas like gas and lithium. In October 2021 the Bolivian Foreign Minister visited Moscow, where his counterpart Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed the country’s status as one of Russia’s priority partners in Latin America. In Bolivia, Russia’s geopolitical and economic interests converge. Gazprom, which was already active in the Incahuasi gas field, participated in the tender for the extraction of lithium. Similarly, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, is building a nuclear research centre in El Alto.
Moscow’s regional presence is also apparent in the tensions between Venezuela, its main arms client in Latin America, and Colombia, an ally of Washington and NATO partner since 2017. In the midst of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the Colombian Minister of Defence, Diego Molano, denounced prolonged ‘foreign interference’ (by Russia) on the country’s border. Colombia’s concerns go beyond the fear of Russia’s presence on its border and cooperation with the Venezuelan air force. The country is also concerned about the final destination of Russian arms, which could easily find their way into the hands of criminal gangs and guerrillas operating from Venezuelan bases under the tacit approval of the Maduro regime. In the context of the weakness and corruption of the Venezuelan state and the financial capabilities of these gangs, Colombia has accused Maduro’s government of harbouring Colombian armed groups. The tensions have resulted in a meeting between the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marta Lucía Ramírez, and the Kremlin’s representative in Bogota, Nikolay Tavdumadze, with Russia pledging to prevent the misuse of its military cooperation. It has also repeated its assurances that its assistance to Venezuela is technical and not military in nature.
The deployment of soft power
Despite being a minor player in Latin America in economic and trade terms, Russia has used other strategies to increase its projection and prestige, including ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and information/disinformation campaigns. In the case of the former, Russia’s status has been boosted by its Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19, which was made available to Latin American countries while the EU and US actively hoarded supplies. Despite logistical setbacks that delayed its arrival and despite not being recognised by the WHO, Sputnik V has been rolled out in Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela.
On a recent trip to Moscow, the Argentine President, Alberto Fernández, expressed his ‘profound gratitude’ for the supply of vaccines at a moment when they were ‘running scarce’, stressing Russia’s status as a ‘highly valued country’ on account of its support for the continent at the start of the pandemic. Argentina, which began manufacturing the vaccine in 2021, has provided supplies to Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. For his part, Putin reiterated that Argentina was the ‘first country in the Western Hemisphere’ to register the vaccine and signed the first contract for its supply.
When it comes to soft power, Russia is also seeking to use propaganda as a means to bolster its presence in Latin America and other parts of the world. The Spanish version of its state-controlled broadcaster RT and the expansion of its online news portal Sputnik are among the Kremlin’s most ambitious tools to boost its image and influence. The Spanish version of RT has sought to strike a chord with viewers in the region by tailoring its content to a Latin American audience. The success of these attempts is clear, with the growing numbers of followers providing a new platform for attacking the US and the EU, which are portrayed as corrupt, failing to respect human rights and only too willing to turn a blind eye to war crimes. RT presents Russia with a friendly face, as a country able to offer a successful and efficient alternative model to the ‘decadence’ of Western democracies.
The role of certain countries in Latin America in the Ukraine crisis is symptomatic of a recurring problem facing the region, whereby it witnesses and even partakes in disputes that are foreign to it and over which it wields no control or influence. This role is not new: it repeats the pattern of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and Nicaragua in the 1980s, and recurs periodically. The root cause lies in the weakness and divisions of its countries and the need for a system of regional governance effective enough to prevent foreign interventions, aggressions and interference. There is no forum to provide a unified voice for the region in multilateral bodies and no specific weight or capacity to influence global governance. Latin America’s uninterest in global problems is deeply rooted in regional idiosyncrasies. Governments and public opinion are only concerned about issues that directly affect them and ignore others, particularly when they are untouched by them (Islamic terrorism being a case in point). For the majority of Latin American countries, foreign policy is limited to regional relations, with an emphasis on neighbouring states.
This intrinsic weakness has left the door ajar for the interventionism of old powers (the US) and is allowing re-emerging players like Russia to use their relations with countries in the region to transform them into pawns in a larger game, where their interests are nowhere to be seen. Latin American countries provide the Kremlin with a tool to weaken the influence of the US and partners for its global strategy.
Despite the region’s exposure to rising tensions over Ukraine between the US and NATO, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, few voices are sounding the alarm in the face of Moscow’s threats to deploy its powerful arsenal. Despite not being directly threatened by the crisis in Ukraine, the region must nonetheless take a stance. It is the Kremlin that benefits most in the relationship between Russia and Latin America: while Moscow has increased imports from Latin American countries (sanctions have forced it to replace imports of fruit, vegetables and meat from EU countries with those of MERCOSUR) and arms sales make up a significant share of its exports, Latin America is also important to the Kremlin for other reasons. These include the geopolitical perspective linked to its rivalry with the US and its diplomatic interest in diversifying its relations to bolster its support in the United Nations. Trade may have grown by 50% throughout the Putin era but the baseline is extremely low: Russian imports from Latin America make up less than 5% of the country’s total trade, with the figure for exports averaging around 2%.
Russia’s presence in Latin America helps Moscow to style itself as an actor with international interests and a global presence, pursuing its project for a new international order backed by allies both in its immediate hinterland (Belarus) and from further afield, beyond the Euro-Asian area (Latin American countries). In exchange for this geopolitical support, Russia offers its backing for dictatorial and authoritarian regimes (Cuba and Nicaragua, in the case of the former, and Venezuela, in the case of the latter), allowing them to sidestep international attempts to ostracise them for their persistent violations of freedoms and human rights. While Moscow is implementing measures such as ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and the use of soft power to gain support in Latin America, it will still struggle to match the US and China as a market for the region’s products, notwithstanding President Alberto Fernández’ pledge to turn Argentina into Russia’s ‘gateway’ to Latin America.
The Kremlin’s direct allies, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, coexist with others (Peru, Argentina and even Brazil), whose positions are less well-defined, albeit with some proximity to the Kremlin. And there are the other countries that remain silent (Mexico) or are clearly allied with the US (Chile, Uruguay and Colombia). So long as this situation and others like it persist, not only will the region lack weight on the global geopolitical stage, with limited negotiating capacity and a secondary role, its countries will continue to do the bidding of others. In the absence of an integration process and for as long as its countries continue to stand alone, there will be no chance to influence international conflicts, even those that directly affect them.
Image: Russian Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Clara Sanchiz (CC BY-SA 2.0).