The New Cold War with Russia in Latin America

US Neglect of Cuba, Venezuela Leaves Critical Flank Uncovered

Russia-Latam

Russia has been extending its influence in the region, especially with the autocratic regimes of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. (Flickr)

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On January 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov revealed the possibility of deploying the nation’s military to Cuba and Venezuela. This was in response to increasing tensions between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian frontier. The Kremlin is hinting at Soviet-style conflict to gauge Washington’s reaction and look for weaknesses.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States would face this threat decisively if Russia were to move in that direction. However, Sullivan did not pay much heed to the topic due to its supposed implausibility. He dismissed Ryabkov’s declarations as rants.

Russia Is Already Here

Russia’s military presence is not new in Latin America. The nation has been extending its influence in the region for 15 years, especially with the autocratic regimes of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. These dictatorships see the Eurasian giant as a key ally that helps them stay in power. Hugo Chávez initiated the partnership with Russia by negotiating $11 billion worth of weaponry. Since then, the bilateral relationship has only strengthened, now influencing the Venezuelan military. Venezuela has signed around 200 agreements with Russia, which have allowed an extensive soft-power and logistical presence in the country.

Across various missions, Russians have deployed nuclear-capable bombers in Venezuela while violating the airspace of Colombia—a crucial ally for the United States. Curiously, Russian raids into Venezuela coincided with the Georgian (2008) and Ukrainian (2014) conflicts. This sends a clear message to Washington: if you meddle in my backyard, I will meddle in yours.

By 2017, Russia had installed the GLONASS satellite system in Nicaragua with the alleged objective of fighting drug trafficking and preventing natural disasters. This set alarm bells ringing since the project was a façade to cover for military operations in Central America rather than rule-of-law cooperation. Since then, Putin’s support for Daniel Ortega’s regime has grown, not only by assisting with his fraudulent reelection but also by donating weapons.

Russia will struggle to establish a relationship with Cuba like the one they had during the Soviet era. The island was at that time a protectorate and recipient of economic contributions from Moscow. Nevertheless, bilateral cooperation continues to be a key tactic for their geostrategic interests against the United States. Let us not forget that Cuba is the nursing mother of all socialist governments in Latin America.

United States Losing Ground

The Joe Biden administration should be acutely concerned about the perilous situation in Colombia. There is a presidential election this year in the South American country, and Gustavo Petro—a socialist and former guerrilla member—is Russia’s clear favorite. A Petro victory would expose another US vulnerability. Losing one of its pivotal allies would be a serious blow to its influence in the region and a gift to Russian diplomacy.

The Russians are eager to improve their diplomatic relationship with Colombia after tensions climaxed in 2020. Russian planes had invaded Colombia’s airspace, the Colombian army had confiscated Russian weapons in the hands of guerrillas. Finally, two Kremlin representatives abandoned the country after being accused of espionage.

Colombia may be the next casualty in the region resulting from deteriorating democratic institutions. In 2016, the Colombian government surrendered to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorists with the endorsement of the Barack Obama administration. In addition, the Biden administration removed the FARC from the US terrorist list. These two actions paved the way for instability in the country.

The ongoing activity of criminal groups and drug traffickers on the Venezuelan frontier has given the green light for dictator Nicolás Maduro to militarize the zone with the help of Russia and China. The Venezuelan narco-state backs many drug traffickers in exchange for funds to keep Maduro in power. With Petro as the Colombian president, traffickers would have an easier route to the United States.

The Venezuelan dictatorship, like that of Cuba, depends on Russia’s presence for security and survival. Consequently, a Chavista Venezuela will always have an anti-American and anti-Western bias.

We cannot ignore the statements made by Argentine President Alberto Fernández during his recent visit to Russia. He declared that his country should be a Russian entry port to the continent, even though Venezuela already serves that function.

Russia’s power lies more in its military than in its economy. Its total GDP does not rank in the world’s top 10, and this limits its ability to afford a large-scale military deployment in Latin America. Simultaneously, the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, so we can infer that Ryabkov’s declarations about intervention in Latin America are more provocation than immediate threat. Their rhetorical and symbolic effect, however, should not be underestimated.

The United States has neglected its established sphere of influence, and Russia and China have used this to their advantage. The statements from the Russian deputy chancellor have confirmed this. They demonstrate the level of control that Russia has over its protectorates and the serious security risk the country poses for the entire hemisphere.

Will Washington stand by and watch as the entire region succumbs to the dominance of anti-Western rivals? Washington must act decisively to restore its preeminence and support stability in the region.

Andrés Sebastián Díaz Ponce

Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.

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