We Did It! Russia Is Back to Latin America

Nil Nikandrov - http://en.fondsk.ru
December 3, 2008
We Did It! Russia Is Back to Latin America
It would be naive to think that the US establishment is viewing Russia's increasing activity in Latin America and the Caribbean indifferently. The US position is defined clearly: there are parts of the world where Russia is not welcome, globalization notwithstanding.

Washington urged the puppet Georgian Administration to launch the recent snap offensive against South Ossetia exactly with the purpose of getting Russia overwhelmed with complex problems. The Latin American factor was among those pertinent to the Georgian provocation. The idea was obvious: there would have been no place for Latin America on Russia’s agenda if the bloody conflict spread over the Caucasus.

The plans of G. Bush's Administration failed to materialize. Georgia was defeated, and Russia saw the additional advantages of cultivating relationships in the economic, military, and other spheres with all the interested countries. The Russian Administration made the right decision – no self-isolation, no getting bogged down on conflicts the US is instigating all along Russia's borders.

As for the countries interested in stronger ties with Russia, quite a few in Latin America actually are. I heard Latin American politicians as well as ordinary people complain on various occasions that the collapse of the USSR left them facing the egoistic “empire” practically alone.

In the early 2000ies Russia did make desultory incursions into Latin America, but no coherent concept loomed behind the picture. All we saw were ad hoc moves and separate visits of Russian officials – in some cases mostly interested in local beaches - to Latin America, a total lack of break-through initiatives, and the Eltsin-style surrender of positions for nothing. The tendency is exemplified by Russia's abandoning the Lourdes electronic surveillance center which it formerly used to collect valuable intelligence data about the US.

The ascension of the charismatic Hugo Chavez, a former air-born forces officer and a nationalist proponent of socialism, revived Russia's interest in Latin America. In order to secure his regime against the US imperial ambitions (Chavez believes the US needs control over the Venezuelan oil at any cost) he started to diversify the country's foreign relations and adopted the multi-polar world strategy, mainly seeking to ally China and Russia.

Currently the relations between Venezuela and China are blooming. Recently China has launched the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar satellite. The two countries pursue a number of joint energy projects, plus China is modernizing the Venezuelan railroad network. China's strategy – in Venezuela and elsewhere – tends to be pragmatic and resolute, and Beijing does not seem to worry about Washington's reaction. Already in November, 2004 Hu Jintao toured Latin America for two weeks visiting Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Cuba. He promised that China would invest $100 bn in the region's economy over the next decade, and the plan is gradually being fulfilled. No doubt, the increasingly active Russian policy in Latin America was largely inspired by China.

During his first visit to Latin America on November 22-28, the Russian President toured Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba. His not-so-distant plans include new visits to the region as many of its countries are inviting the Russian leader.

In Lima, Russian President D. Medvedev and President Alan Garcia discussed international and regional politics as well as various aspects of the arms trade between Russia and Peru which has been relying on Soviet weaponry since the Soviet era. President Medvedev promised that Russia would help to modernize the Peruvian army and air forces. As the first step, the two Presidents signed an agreement between Russia's Oboronprom Company and the Peruvian defense ministry to set up a maintenance center in Peru for the Russian-made Mi-8, Mi-17, and Mi26T copters. This is the deal Peru tried to secure for quite some time. The two countries also penned a treaty to jointly fight against the drug business.

The first-ever visit of the Russian President to Peru was marked by a solemn ceremony. President Garcia awarded President Medvedev the Sun of Peru Order which is the Supreme Peruvian award. He said that his country is interested in deepening the relation with Russia and described Russia as a source of inspiring experience and also at times a laboratory of a fairly painful experience. President Garcia said the entire mankind is indebted to Russia as throughout the XXth century its people faced tremendous challenges with dignity despite great sufferings and losses. President Garcia mentioned the Russian revolutions and the defeat of fascism.

President Medvedev went from Lima to Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is one of Russia's main partners in Latin America. Forecasts show that by 2010 the trade between the two countries will pass the $10 bn mark. In Brazil, President Medvedev signed the agreements on the visa-free regime for short-time visits and on the military-technical cooperation.

Venezuela is a showcase for Russia's cooperation with Latin American countries. Moscow launched a broad program of cooperation with Caracas after several Chavez's visits to Russia and a successful realization of massive arms sales deals totaling $4 bn. The trust-building process helped to advance the cooperation in other areas and at the moment the plans span oil and gas production and processing.

Importantly, at Chavez's banquet for President Medvedev and the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America) the Russian leader shook hands with his colleagues Evo Morales (Bolivia), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras), Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, and Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. Hopefully, his meeting the Latin American and Caribbean politicians who are mostly “populists” will help Russia become the ALBA associate member in the nearest future. Anyhow, President Medvedev expressed interest in the option.

Presidents Medvedev and Chavez went aboard the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer docked in the La Guaira port. The majestic silhouette of nuclear-powered cruiser Petr Veliky loomed on the horizon. The Russian squadron sailed across 14,000 km and arrived at the Latin American seaport while the US officials launched spiteful verbal attacks against the Russian Navy.

US Secretary of State C. Rice said the US had nothing against the Russian and Venezuelan navies engaging in joint maneuvers but would "keep a watchful eye" on the exercises. She did not refrain from adding that “there is no doubt of whom the region is following in political, economic, diplomatic terms, as well as the military power is concerned”. The US stages shows of force in direct proximity of the Venezuelan shore on a regular basis. The activity peaked in 2006 when the US launched massive maneuvers involving aircraft carriers in the Caribbean Sea four times in March-June, Aruba and Curacao Islands serving as bases.

Following the classic Cold War schemes, the US media reactions to President Medvedev's tour ranged from irony to intimidation attempts. The Russian Navy's visit was described as a bluff. It was alleged that Moscow teased B. Obama on the eve of his inauguration and that the nuclear engines of Petr Veliky posed an environmental hazard. The very feasibility of developing the relations with Russia as an “imperialist” country was questioned. In the past allegations of “imperialism” used to be leveled at the USSR, and these days the same cliché is applied to Russia.

No matter what, the cooperation between the Russian and the Venezuelan navies has begun. Now the Russian flag will be often seen in Latin American seaports.

In Cuba President Medvedev met with President of the Cuban Council of State Raul Castro and with Fidel Castro on the personal request of the latter. The meeting took place in Fidel's residence on November 28. For protocol reasons it was limited to just 1 hour and 15 minutes, which Castro regretted in his Reflections regularly published in Granma. On November 29 the paper featured Castro's article entitled Dmitri Medvedev. It read: “In his speeches the Russian President speaks precisely, clearly, and briefly. There are no themes he would avoid and no questions he would leave unanswered. He is broadly learned and knows how to convince his listeners. Those who disagree with him also respect him... I was deeply impressed by the meeting with him. I got a high opinion of his intellectual capabilities which I expected to see in him from the start. He is the youngest among the most influential world leaders....”

No doubt, the US is playing the main role on the continent though G. Bush and his Administration have inflicted serious disgrace on their country. Therefore, we should not expect immediate and sensational results after President Medvedev's Latin American tour. The visit was well-prepared in line with the '”realpolitik” tradition and bore no visible anti-US character. Now that B. Obama is about to take over in the US, such stance would hardly have been timely. The Latin American leaders are expectant – a lot depends on what kind of signals Washington will be sending in the nearest future. Even Chavez is refraining from verbal attacks against the US imperialism. Cuban leaders are watching carefully the formation of Obama's team. Raul Castro indicated being ready to meet the new US President on a “neutral territory” - for example in Guantanamo - to discuss urgent problems. Actually, the place is not exactly a neutral territory as it belonged to Cuba but was usurped by the US in accord with an “unlimited” lease deal.

For the US, a shift of the course in Latin America is long overdue. The mid-term and long-term tendencies on the continent will largely depend on the character of this shift. One thing is clear – reliance on financial, economic, political, or military repressions would merely contribute to the hostility to the US on the continent.

When asked at a press conference in Havana whether the tour should be regarded as a manifestation of Russia's efforts to return to the continent, President Medvedev replied ”We are already back. It was a serious geopolitical decision”.

I can imagine the rejoicing now going on in the corridors of the Institute for Latin America of the Russian Academy of Science. For years its experts have been reiterating that Russia should maintain its presence in continent. They churned out memos, submitted reports to the government, issued recommendations, wrote books and business guides. At last their efforts have reached the goal. Now it is their time to celebrate – with Rum, Tequila, Pisco, and Singani – as the experts kept in touch with Latin America on the personal level even in the epoch when irresponsible officials who claimed the continent was “unimportant to Russia” reigned in the Russian Foreign Ministry.