With Trump as President, Russia Finds Opportunities in Latin America
Either by design or happenstance, President Donald Trump's isolationist international approach and his apparent disdain for traditional allies fit in well with Vladimir Putin's global ambitions. As the United States disengages in parts of the world, Russia seems to be there to pick up the pieces. This is the case in Latin America.
While some countries in Latin America have been firmly on the side of Russia for many years, openly expressing their enmity toward the United States, others are beginning to read the tea leaves and are trying to hedge their bets by courting Putin.
In this article, we will discuss how some Latin American countries are forging military and economic bilateral relations with Putin's Russia. These countries are:
- El Salvador
Latin America—a Region of Strategic Importance
Whether for good or bad, the United States has always had a great deal of influence in Latin America. The case can obviously be made that throughout the last 120 years, this country has not been the best of neighbors to those countries south of us or in the Caribbean basin. Our gunboat diplomacy, military, and regime change approach in this region, have over the years become ill-famed occurrences of which many people have never forgotten.
However, due to its proximity to the U.S., this region is of great strategic importance economically as well as militarily. Because of this, during the cold war, the U.S. was heavily invested in this area as it attempted to push back on Russia’s financed insurgencies. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these insurgent groups began to dismantle. Overall, Latin America began a period of relative calm.
With all this as a background, newly elected President George W. Bush made an important overture to then-president of Mexico Vicente Fox, by inviting him to the White House prior to doing the same with his European and Canadian counterparts. During the welcoming ceremonies, Bush declared the U.S./Mexico relationship to be the most “important relationship in the world,” a comment American presidents usually reserve for Britain.
At the time it seemed plausible that President Bush would reverse the years marked by the U.S. policy toward Latin America that oscillated between interventionism and benign neglect. Unfortunately, the September 11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers occurred, and the U.S. focus shifted to al-Qaeda and the Middle East.
Some eight years later, during Obama’s administration, Latin America was again pushed to the back of the line as priorities shifted along with the now-famous expression “strategic pivot toward Asia,” which came as a result of a rapidly rising China and the need for a nuclear deal with Iran. Other issues that helped to deflate any potential effort that would lead to better alliances with our southern neighbors included a misguided attempt to re-set relationships with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
As Trump Angers Latin American Leaders, Putin Cultivates Diplomatic Ties
Since Donald Trump ascended to the U.S. presidency, our relationship with Latin America has deteriorated even further and it is now at one of the lowest points it has been in decades. From his first salvo at Mexico during his candidacy for president, in which he called Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, until now, Trump's rhetoric regarding Latin America has been hostile.
His approach to Venezuela has been filled with threats of military intervention and oil embargoes. His protectionist instincts led him to treat NAFTA in a way described by many as a punching bag. Consequently, he tied up valuable resources in what many consider a mere re-branding of the agreement with a new name—USMCA—all the while concentrating on immigrants at the border and diverting attention and resources to the building of the wall and the separation of immigrant families.
Dramatic cuts in foreign aid have been proposed by the Trump Administration, many of which would affect countries in Latin America. These cuts could undermine humanitarian and development programs, as well as funding to combat gang and drug trafficking activity in countries like Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These cuts could also dramatically reduce the State Department’s diplomatic activities, forcing the U.S. to rely on military solutions to foreign policy issues.
While Congress has so far been successful in blocking these budget cuts, the Trump Administration has substantially slowed down the disbursement process of the funds. Undoubtedly going forward, these aid programs are at risk of being completely slashed during next budgetary negotiations—not a good message to send to our Latin America allies.
At an October 16th meeting at the White House, Nancy Pelosi pointed her finger at Donald Trump and asked in front of lawmakers and aides, do “all roads lead to Putin?” Although Speaker Pelosi was referring to Trump’s announcement regarding the pull-out of American troops from Northern Syria, it seems many of the actions the current administration has taken in most parts of the world, directly benefit Russia’s geopolitical ambition. This seems to also be the case in Latin America and the Caribbean, where a vacuum is being created which Russia’s Putin seems very willing to fill.
The following are those countries that are either firmly on Russia's side or have entered into a dialog with Vladimir Putin as a way of creating a back-up plan for bilateral relations with a country they feel is gaining momentum in the world stage.
Russia has been working hard to expand its presence in Latin America, mainly at the expense of Washington. In Cuba, one of Russia’s most advanced warships - Admiral Gorshkov - entered the Havana harbor in June of this year and docked at the port used until this month by U.S. cruise lines no longer travelling to Cuba due to the new travel ban imposed by the Trump Administration in its reversal of Obama re-engagement policy with Cuba.
Armed with cruise missiles, air defense systems and other weapons, the Admiral Gorshkov is a frigate intended to project power far away from its home base in Russia. It is accompanied by the multi-functional logistic vessel Elbrus, a sea tanker named Kama and a rescue tug by the name of Nikolain Chiker.
Considering Cuba’s proximity to U.S. territory - less than 100 miles – a compliment of Russian naval vessels such as this could not have docked in Havana’s harbor absent some sort of diplomatic push-back from the U.S. Today, not much has been heard from the White House regarding the Russian naval visit.
On Tuesday, October 29, Vladimir Putin hosted Cuba’s new President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Moscow for talks on expanding cooperation between the old allies. During their meeting, Miguel Diaz-Canel expressed to Vladimir Putin his government’s top priority of developing ties with Russia and praised Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Cuba, by saying: “We observe the growing role of Russia that resists the U.S. attempts at domination.”
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was largely dependent on Russia for economic support. In turn, it acted as a forward operating base in the Americas for the USSR. Shortly after the beginning of 1992, it withdrew from Cuba causing a near economic meltdown of the island’s economy. Today however, Cuban and Russian observers see a significant warming between the two former allies, mostly induced by the Trump Administration’s reversal of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba.
In spite of U.S. sanctions, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) continues to sell oil in world markets. It is accomplishing this through the aid of Russia’s state-owned energy company, Rosneft, which has been accepting Venezuela’s crude as a form of loan repayments, therefore keeping the Nicolas Maduro government afloat. With this action, Vladimir Putin is rendering U.S. sanctions ineffective in forcing any meaningful change in Venezuela. It is also allowing Putin to continue to create the image of the defender of regimes facing U.S. aggression.
Most experts agree that Putin is contemplating not only financial ties, but military linkages as well. An August agreement between Russian and Venezuelan defense ministers concluded that warships from each nation could visit the other’s ports. This, as an obvious prelude of a territorial defense agreement. Such collaboration would create a dangerous situation in the event the U.S. decides to initiate a naval blockage against Venezuela, potentially kicking-off a naval battle.
Complicating matters, Russia’s current naval arrangement with Nicaragua, in which it provides training and equipment in exchange for port access, could become an impediment to deployment of U.S. naval operations in the southern Caribbean. Cuba, in turn, sees this as an opportunity to continue to bring in oil from Venezuela, as it has requested Russia to escort tankers of free oil from Venezuela to the Island nation.
According to Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Russian troops have integrated themselves into garrisons around Venezuela. As in Ukraine, Russian soldiers have started wearing Venezuelan Army fatigues as they attempt to blend in. Additionally, as a way of supporting ground troops, an AK-47 plant is being assembled in the city of Maracay, as well upgrading a Russian made missile defense system it sold to Venezuela. Making matters worse, low level threats have been made by Russia that the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty would allow the stationing of cruise missiles in Venezuela, threatening the repetition of the nuclear missile crisis of 1962.
Putin’s efforts in creating an ally that can be used as vassal state against the U.S. has even gone in the direction of allowing non-state actors to work hand-in-hand with Venezuelan forces. Collaboration with Syrian security personnel in protecting former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who allowed Hezbollah inside the country; giving a safe haven to the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN); and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are further indication of an approach of disrupting regional security and stability.
And of course, the news that two Tu-160 nuclear capable bombers landed in Venezuela in December of last year, reverberated throughout all U.S. media outlets. To the credit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he said it amounted to "two corrupt governments squandering public funds." Unfortunately, not a single utterance from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Shortly after Somoza was overthrown by the Sandinistas in July 1979, Nicaragua joined Cuba as another client states of the Soviet Union. Daniel Ortega, who officially became leader of Nicaragua shortly after the Sandinista take-over, worked closely with Cuba’s Fidel Castro to export Communism throughout Latin America. However, as in the case of Cuba, once the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Kremlin quickly disengaged from Nicaragua. Little over a couple of decades later, Vladimir Putin is re-engaging with former Communist cold warrior Daniel Ortega as he attempts to project Russian power throughout the American continent.
In fact, it did not take long after Donald Trump moved into the White House for Vladimir Putin to create a more visible footprint in Nicaragua with the construction of a structure suspected of housing a GPS satellite tracking system capable of conducting electronic espionage on the United States. While Russian officials deny the structure is meant for anything other than tracking its system of 24 satellites in space known as Glonass, the building in Managua sits on the rim of a volcano with a clear view of the U.S. Embassy.
Since Daniel Ortega’s reelection in 2006, after being out of power for 16 years, Russia began to court Nicaragua once again. Initially strictly based on trade, humanitarian aid and the building of a vaccines manufacturing facility, Russia’s true intention was always to re-establish an active military presence. To this end, in the last few years the relationship between the two countries has taken a more a militaristic profile.
This is evident by the recent agreement to allow Russian warships to dock in Nicaraguan ports as well as patrolling in coastal waters; the supplying of armored personnel carriers, aircraft and mobile rocket launchers; the delivery of 50 T-72 tanks; an agreement to train military personnel in Russia; the presence of an undetermined number of Russian military personnel; and the sale of Russian helicopters to Ortega’s government.
On May of 2019, Alba Torres , minister-counselor of the Nicaraguan embassy in Moscow and Sergey Riabkov, her Russian counterpart, signed the “Memorandum of Intent on Matters of Consultative Cooperation.” The document is meant as a vehicle to solidify international security agreements and for Russia to thank Nicaragua for its support in Crimea, Donbass and the Caucasus. At the same time guaranteeing Russia would not interfere in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, making veiled references to the recent crackdown on the anti-government demonstrations that took place all throughout the country.
The renewed relationship between Nicaragua and Russia should be of concern to the United States and to other countries in the region. Nicaragua represents an important base of operations for Russia to conduct intel operations, disinformation campaigns and election meddling on the U.S. as well as other countries in Latin America. Additionally, Putin could not ask for a better partner in Latin America than Daniel Ortega; a cold warrior and revolutionary who thrives on the struggle against the United States, which he considers his nemesis.
The Russian military buildup has coincided with decaying relations between Washington and Latin America as well as with Nicaragua in particular.
Time to rethink the U.S.’s disengagement with Latin America is becoming long overdue.
Other Latin American Countries Visit Putin in Moscow to Forge Alliances
Considering the rhetoric that has come from Donald Trump from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, it is no wonder many Latin American leaders have begun to hedge their bets and are starting to look toward Russia as a viable partner. Trump's protectionist approach to trade and isolationist foreign policies as well as an obvious disdain for former allies has given a great deal of pause to leaders in this region.
The following are countries, other than the previous three, that have made overtures to Vladimir Putin in the hopes of establishing cultural, political, economic and perhaps military interchanges with Russia.
As per a Kremlin announcement, Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez visited with Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017. The news release reads:
"On the agenda were various bilateral cooperation matters and prospects for expanding trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian ties and developing foreign policy cooperation in various international organisations, primarily the UN, and in regional integration organisations.
Following the talks, the two presidents signed a Joint Declaration and witnessed the signing of a package of cooperation agreements, particularly dealing with customs regulation and defense."
On October 13, 2017 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s met with President of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador Guillermo Gallegos and Foreign Minister Hugo Roger Martinez Bonilla. A press release from The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation reads in part:
"As we reviewed our progress today, it became clear that we have laid a solid foundation for expanding our cooperation in various spheres: from political dialogue, trade, economic and humanitarian ties to contacts and the coordination of steps in the international arena."
"We appreciate the fact that the delegation led by Salvadoran Foreign Minister Martinez Bonilla is interested in using this visit to advance our economic ties. The delegation has already been in contact with a number of Russian companies, in the course of which prospects for cooperation in various spheres, including energy, transport and pharmaceuticals, were discussed. We understand that our companies are preparing a business mission to El Salvador. We will actively assist its effective organisation."
On January 23, 2018 Argentina's President Mauricio Macri visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin in order to discuss bilateral cooperation. The Kremlin issued the following statement:
"The Joint Statement that we have just signed includes a number of important agreements on expanding cooperation in key areas such as the economy, foreign policy, defense industry cooperation, and culture, to name a few."
"Rosatom is proposing a nuclear power plant of Russian design in Argentina based on the latest and safest technological standards. Russian Railways is ready to join the programme to modernise the railways of Argentina, and to supply modern rolling stock. Transmashholding and Sinara plan to invest in the construction of service facilities and the production of railway equipment. With Gazprom-Bank participation, a major logistics complex will be built at a port in Buenos Aires province. Power Machines services power units at five Argentine hydroelectric power plants and plans to participate in the bidding for the supply of equipment for six more HPPs."
Bolivian President Evo Morales visited Moscow on July 18, 2019 and met with Vladimir Putin in order to discuss the forging of deeper ties between the two countries. The following are parts of statement released by the Kremlin:
"The two leaders discussed current matters pertaining to Russian-Bolivian relations, including trade, economic, investment and humanitarian cooperation, and also exchanged views on key international and regional affairs.
A number of bilateral documents were signed following the talks.
The signed documents include a joint statement by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia Evo Morales on stepping up coordination in international affairs."
Update - Bolivia
In 2016 Evo Morales held a binding referendum that would allow him to stay in office indefinitely. The referendum was voted down by the majority of Bolivians. However, Morales pushed the proposal through a tightly controlled constitutional court. On October 20 he ran for president for a third time. Based on a constitutional mandate, he needed to win a majority of the vote, or lead his closest opponent by at least 10%.
On election day, when it became obvious the majority of the voters were not voting for him, the vote tally was frozen by the electoral commission for 24 hours. When it was finally unfrozen, he was announced the winner by majority. This did not sit well with the people of Bolivia as millions went out into the streets to demand fair elections. The protesters were threatened and beaten by pro-government gangs. The people however, remained firm. Finally the police and military declared they would no longer do Morales bidding, and he was forced to resign on November 11.
Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua immediately made statements calling the events in Bolivia a coup and blamed the US. The true events say otherwise.
Altering election rules to favor a populist as Evo Morales is a tried and true strategy for unscrupulous presidents to stay in power indefinitely and one that has been used by Vladimir Putin himself. Fortunately for the people of Bolivia, it did not work this time.
On June 14, 2018, Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela visited Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, during his visit to Moscow to attend the opening of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The visit is notable in that Panama has had a close relation with the United States since 1903. Its geographical location as well as management of the Panama Canal make this Central American country militarily important as well as key in the maintenance of free navigation and interdiction of illegal drugs coming to the U.S.
While no particular bilateral agreements were signed, it is obvious that President Varela is keeping his options open.
Potentially, one of the most troubling developments for the United States in Latin America would be for Mexico, our closest neighbor to the south and one of our biggest trading partners to fall within Putin's influence and enter into bilateral military and political agreements with Russia. For Putin, this would be a major coup, not only because of Mexico's proximity with the U.S., but also due to massive oil reserves our neighbor possesses.
Recent interactions between Mexico and Russia do not bode well for the United States.
In a February 7, 2019 meeting between Mexican lawmakers and a Russian delegation, investment opportunities in the energy sector of the former country were discussed. Immediately following the conclusion of the meeting, Mexico's Congressman Manuel Rodriguez, chair of the lower chamber's energy commission praised the Russian delegation by saying:
“It’s a great honor to be here among members of the Russian legislature and a group of businessmen from Russia, a great nation and a friend of Mexico,”
The same sentiment was echoed by other colleagues of Rodriguez.
Making the Russian delegation particularly alarming was the fact it was led by Sen. Alexander Babakov, deputy chair of the Russian Federation’s Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, who has been implicated in massive corruption related to Russia's oil industry. Additionally, Babakov has been sanctioned by the United States and the E.U. for his role in the Crimean annexation and the financing of Marine Le Pen's National Front party in France.
Also troubling is Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador 's announcement of a yet to be scheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin. The inevitability of a future relationship between Putin and Lopez Obrador cannot be underestimated as Russia has been accused of meddling in Mexico's election through the usage of thousands of bots.
Further suspicions of a potential hidden Putin - Lopez Obrador relationship has come due to the naming of university professor Irma Eréndira Sandoval to the position of Mexican Minister of Public Administration in charge of leading the fight against government corruption. Sandoval's new position raises suspicion among Mexico observers as she is married to John Ackerman, a fellow professor known as a frequent contributor of Russia Today (RT), one of the Kremlin's many publications involved in Russian propaganda and disinformation.
Should we worry about Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning populist, developing deep ties to Russia à la Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro? Only time will tell.
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- Bilateral agreements: Nicaragua and Russia
- Russia accused of meddling in Mexico's election