Bear in the Backyard?
During the Cold War the Soviet Union sought to expand its influence into the Western Hemisphere and its main ally was Cuba. Indeed, having Cuba less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland was regarded as a strategic asset as it created Soviet leverage on the U.S. This was well noted by Tim Ashby in his classic book on the Cold War in the Caribbean, The Bear in the Backyard (1987). Cuba also put the two superpowers on a collision path when the Soviet Union attempted put nuclear weapons in Cuba in the 1960s. At the end of the day, the Cuban Missile Crisis almost brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to nuclear war, something that both countries sought to avoid in the future. While Cuba was the beneficiary of Soviet aid up until 1992, other Soviet efforts in the Americas amounted to little long-term strategic gain, including Moscow's assistance to left-wing guerilla movements in Central America and some flirtation with the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. Ultimately, Moscow's non-Cuban ventures really amounted to little beyond the nuisance level. It would appear that Moscow still likes to have some nuisance ability in the Western Hemisphere. Efforts to improve relations with Cuba have been re-engaged, but whom better than Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to pal up with for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and help return the bear to the U.S. backyard in a more meaningful fashion?
Venezuela's President certainly likes to poke at the United States. In the past he has made friends with Iran (who could forget the photo opp of Chavez and Iran's president driving together from Tehran's airport?), signed a number of deals with China on the energy (while nationalizing local and European-owned businesses), and providing assistance to Colombia's Marxist rebels. Russia is a natural partner for Chavez. After Russia launched its 2008 5-day war with its neighbor Georgia (with a population of 4.3 million), Moscow sent the signal that the Bear was back and unwilling to take any more encroachments on its sphere of influence from the West. Those encroachments included American support for democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine as well as encouragement from Washington to those two countries for NATO membership. Along these lines, Venezuela offers a strategically placed ally in the Western Hemisphere, much as Georgia offered the West an ally right in Russia's soft underbelly.
The Russian-Venezuelan relationship has improved considerably since Chavez came to power 11 years ago. Since that time, the Venezuelan leader has been to Russia eight times and the Latin American country has spent more than $4 billion on Russian rifles, helicopters and fighter jets (to protect the country from a possible U.S. invasion). A consortium of Russian oil companies - Gazprom, Surgutneftegaz, Lukoil, TNK-BP and Rosneft Oil - are minority partners to the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA and will help develop the Junin 6 heavy oil block in the Orinoco belt. Furthermore, Venezuela and Russia are set to open a bi-national bank to finance development projects. Rounding things out, other agreements signed during Putin's Venezuelan trip included memoranda of understanding to build oil tankers, a plan to construct a power plant with a capacity of as much as 500 megawatts powered by petroleum coke, and aid from Russia to help resolve an electricity crisis, encompassing the leasing of generators. Venezuela has also indicated that it is willing to work with Russia to build a nuclear power plant for a peaceful energy program (makes you think a little of Russia's other recipient of nuclear technology assistance - Iran).
While in Caracas, Prime Minister Putin also met with Bolivia's left-leaning President and Chavez ally, President Evo Morales. The Bolivian leader stated: "Relations with Russia have always been good. I asked in this meeting with the Russian prime minister for there to be a greater Russian presence in Latin America, for Russia to return strongly to Latin America." The Bolivians are soon to be off to Moscow from April 25-28 to begin talks about future Russian investment in Bolivia in the energy sector, seal a deal on a $100 million loan requested by the Morales government to outfit and modernize the country's military and the purchase of a new presidential jet. Bolivia's Russian shopping list also includes the possibility of the Russians building an international airport in central Bolivia and a maintenance center for Russian-made aircraft that fly in South America (with a price tag of $5 million).
Russia's growing presence in the Western Hemisphere is not limited to Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. Russia and Brazil maintain a strategic partnership oriented to technology and space explorations and Argentina and Peru have acquired military equipment. Although the Cold War is over, great power politics remain. With the decline in U.S. power and a relatively untested U.S. President, Russia is signaling its desire to re-emerge as a strong power in the global scene, in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it occasionally flexed its muscles during the Cold War.
Russia is hardly alone in developing a stronger presence in Latin America. China has been very active in developing trade relations with much of the region, especially in terms of natural resources needed to fuel its economy and markets for its goods. China's penetration into Latin America and the Caribbean is also cast in its ongoing push to have most countries recognize it as the sole representative of China as opposed to Taiwan (also know as the Republic of China). While Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela represent a leftist and anti-U.S. bloc of sorts, Russia's higher level of involvement reflects two things - (1) it represents an opportunity for the region to diversify trade and investment linkages beyond the traditional ties to the U.S. and Europe and (2) U.S. policy vis-à-vis Latin America and the Caribbean during the Bush years was one of benign neglect while the Obama administration is heavily focused on domestic U.S. political issues and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan and Iraq. The world is changing and the emerging multi-polar system increasingly allows for more players in traditional spheres of influence. It cannot be said that Russia is a leftist power seeking to rebuild old ideological alliances; it is rather an old power seeking to regain its standing in the global pecking order and willing to make some commercial gain in the process. The U.S. has left the backdoor open and the bear has returned to the backyard, but this time the international environment is far less black and white than many perceived it during the Cold War.