The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!

(Note: I was forced to take a very long break to take care of my newborn preemie son, Daniel Armando. I can now dust off the blog and return to my posting.)

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Peruvian president Ollanta Humala’s photo-op with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Photo source: peruviantimes.com

Back in February, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it was negotiating an increase in Russian military presence in a number of countries, including several in Latin America. The announcement from Minister Sergei Shoigu indicated that Russia would seek permission for its long-range bombers to land in Latin American military airfields for refueling and for its warships to dock in Latin American ports; so far, a few Russian warships and bombers have been welcome in Nicaragua. Shoigu’s announcement also gave the impression that Russia was actively negotiating for military bases, but Olga Oliker, a RAND Corporation analyst, opines that the US should not overreact because Shoigu only outlined general guidelines for establishing bases and any effect they will have on US interests would depend on a number of variables. Even the US government has shown skepticism to the idea of Russian military bases in Latin America.

What occurred – at least according to Spanish-language reports from Russian news agency RIA Novosti – was not the actual establishment of bases. In April, Nicaragua declared that it was modernizing its military forces with Russian assistance, the parameters of which were outlined between the Nicaraguan and Russian military chiefs of staff. In addition, there are military cooperation agreements with Venezuela and Cuba already in the books, and the Russian government invited Venezuela to participate in a tank biathlon to be held in Russia this coming August. Russia has been friendly with other Latin American countries on military matters, selling military equipment to Brazil and Peru. Indeed, arms purchases from Latin America resulted in a $1.5 billion profit for Russia in 2013. Russia-Latin America cooperation also extends to energy (oil, nuclear power) and several countries have either agreed with Russia to suspend visa requirements (Honduras and Uruguay) or signed cooperation agreements (Chile). In all, Russia-Latin America cooperation points to interesting angles for Latin American foreign relations, especially with the US.

In his book Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World, Peter Smith mentions that Latin America has attempted a number of strategic options to preserve its political independence from the US, including the search for protection and patronage from extra-hemispheric powers. Although that option gave Argentina, Brazil, and Chile some breathing space during the turn of the 20th century, it was not available for countries in the Caribbean Basin (including Venezuela and Colombia), which were the eventual targets of some of the most notorious episodes of US intervention. During the Cold War, the only extra-hemispheric patron available to Latin America was the Soviet Union, but to court favor with them was politically dangerous. To be sure, only Cuba has been able to withstand the resulting backlash to an extent. Most importantly, between 1991 and 2001, there was no way to go in the region other than the US way – that is, liberal democracy and neoliberal economics. It was the flaws of both what precipitated the vaunted “pink tide” of the late 1990s, which brought to power governments with clear designs of turning their countries into global heavyweights (Brazil) or diametrically opposed to the US (Venezuela).

Then came 9/11 and everything changed. For Latin America to open its arms to Russia is part and parcel of the shift in US priorities after that day because attention is now being placed in the Middle East and Central Asia, and Latin America took full advantage of the lapse for blazing its own diplomatic path. The US does not seem to be excessively concerned about these Russian moves (even the Pentagon defended Russia’s right to build military relationships in the same way the US does), but whether the US is justified in displaying this attitude is another question, depending on whether one theory – Russia responding in kind to American penetration into its Eastern European sphere of influence – holds true. If it does, it will not make sense, as Secretary of State Kerry declared last November, that the Monroe Doctrine is dead. Gregory Weeks is certainly correct when he mentions in his book US and Latin America Relations that realism makes sense as a theoretical foundation for studying US-Latin America relations because, after all, nothing beats existential security in an anarchic world. For that specific reason, the US would prefer for Latin America to never seek any friendship with countries like Russia to drive home the idea that the latter should change their ways if they want to take part in the concert of civilized nations. In the present state of affairs, for Latin America to court favor with Russia is tantamount to giving a blessing to – or just ignore maliciously – what Russia has been doing in Ukraine, or perhaps approve Vladimir Putin’s master plan to turn Russia into the next global hegemon.

Which brings us to what motivates Latin America to seek a relationship with Russia. It is not surprising to see Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua accepting Russian aid and even taking Russia’s side on the Ukraine issue; all three are critical of the US and what may motivate them is the proverbial desire to “stick it to the man” and get payback from 100+ years of US intervention. Ironically, Nicaragua and Venezuela are trade partners of the US – Nicaragua through CAFTA-DR and Venezuela by way of oil exports. In the case of Nicaragua, there is a second theory: to give Costa Rica, with whom it has border disputes, a hard time. On the other hand, it should be more unsettling for the US to see Honduras, Peru, and Chile – with which the US has much better relations – being friendly to Russia, although Chile and Peru’s continued support of the US and their respective votes against Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the UN are said to be a hurdle for deeper relations. In general, the reasons for seeking Russian attention vary (ex. economic investment, deals with Gazprom), but deep down what all Latin American countries dealing or being friendly with Russia have in common is that they are now at liberty to explore other avenues to get what they want, whatever that may be.

Does it mean that Latin America is playing the Superpower and one of its biggest rivals against each other for its own interest? Or could it mean instead that the region is exchanging one overbearing Big Brother with another? Only time will tell. We do know for sure that it sounds like the region is following the same strategic option Argentina, Chile, and Brazil followed at the turn of the 20th century and the post 9/11 world provided the best possible incentive for doing so. After years of doing the bidding of the US, Latin America now wants to be seen as a collection of states with enough sovereign power to deal with whom they please. Latin America still treats the US as a partner for a number of important things, but that does not mean the relationship should become one of complete dependence.

In short, Latin America has options and it is not afraid to choose.

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