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2 March 2016

Russia is losing Latin America

Offering a dead end of strife and backwardness, Moscow’s position throughout the region is visibly declining

Recent articles in the United States have charged that Moscow is strengthening its position in Latin America. Moscow undoubtedly seeks naval and air bases in Latin America, and has cultivated many Latin American states like Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Argentina through arms and energy deals, not to mention gun running to support insurgents and terrorists against U.S. allies like Colombia. However, Russia’s position throughout the region is  visibly declining.  Russia’s capacity to fund these various projects and compete with China and the U.S. has declined due to its own withering economic crisis that has even led some observers to argue that its own stability is in doubt. But developments in Latin America itself, particularly the egregious mismanagement by Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil’s governments of their economies, and the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, opened the way to the decline of leftist regimes in Latin America, and their support for Russia.  Specifically, the huge election victories by opposition forces in Argentina and Venezuela; Venezuela’s economic crisis that threatens the country’s stability; corruption and economic stagnation in Brazil; and the announcement by Ecuadorian President Correia, a noted pro-Russia figure, that he will not run for a fourth term, all signify the discrediting of these experiments in leftism and their accompanying pro-Russia foreign policies.

In Argentina for example, Russia may continue to import Argentine beef and invest in its hydroelectric sector, but it is likely to lose the competition to sell arms to Argentina, and its privileged position in Argentine TV where RT (formerly Russia Today) has strategic positions in Argentine broadcasting media, are likely to be cut back. Moreover, Argentina is likely to incline towards anti-leftist regional organizations in Latin America as well as to the Trans-Pacific Partnership sponsored by the U.S., rather than the Bolivarian Revolution or Alba league of pro-Russian states.

Venezuela, even before the smashing opposition victory was in severe crisis, the Maduro government, distinguished by obduracy, massive corruption, and incompetence, was refusing to deal with the opposition, all but ensuring a bigger crisis.  Brazil is mired in recession, corruption scandals, and even an impeachment attempt against President Roussef.  In Cuba, Moscow’s position remains strong.  Nevertheless, the long-term influence and power of U.S. and Western economies, especially once the Castros are gone, dwarfs anything Moscow can bring to the table and the rationale for a Russian air and naval, base or for electronic intelligence facilities like those Putin surrendered in 2001 at Lourdes, as well as the incentive for provoking Washington, will undoubtedly diminish.

Although Russia’s diminishing resources and own domestic crisis will tell against it in Latin America and elsewhere, this does not mean that Russia is finished in Latin America.  It will continue its efforts to support anti-American movements and governments, including the running of guns to insurgents and drug dealers. Indeed, it may have anticipated problems in Venezuela after Hugo Chavez died in 2013. The focus of Moscow’s attention and military-economic investments has shifted to the much more solidly entrenched and durable ex-Sandinista regime of President Daniel Ortega.  Russia here seeks bases, arms sales, and even possibly participation in a Chinese-financed scheme to create a new trans-oceanic canal for which it would provide security.        

But in fact, Russia has no answers to its current quandaries across Latin America.  In a recent interview with RIA Novosti, Aleksandr’ Shchetinin, Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Latin America Department, invoked the tired canard that Venezuela’s problems are due to U.S. meddling, and continued to profess optimism based on the fact that Latin American governments did not support sanctions on Russia, and also increased trade with Moscow after 2014.  Shchetinin also cited enhanced Latin American interest in the Eurasian Economic Union.  But he refused to say anything other than Moscow expects new governments to continue cooperation as before with Russia, and that this cooperation is based on a rejection of U.S. intervention.  Nevertheless, President Obama’s normalization with Cuba demonstrates that the specter of American intervention is illusory, while the benefits of liberal capitalism are not.

This kind of rhetoric is absolutely a commonplace of Russian diplomats when facing a situation that is turning against Moscow. It involves the invoking of ancient enemies, an assertion of common interests generally based on history and ideology, and public optimism that other states will recognize their interest in cooperation with Russia. But in fact, as Moscow well knows, the tide, at least for now, is running strongly against Russia and its clients in Latin America due to the combination of the bankruptcy of their shared economic model, Russian economic weakness, and enlightened U.S. policies.

This diminution of Russian influence is occurring not only in Latin America.  We arguably see the same thing happening in parts of East Asia, where Moscow’s economic weakness tells against it in its effort to persuade other Asian governments to take it seriously as a great Asian power.  But in both these venues we can also see that Russia will not simply retreat, but continue using every instrument of power at its disposal to regain and assert its great power standing and influence.  In Latin America, apart from diplomacy, trade, arms sales, and investments, its efforts have involved support for insurgencies in pro-Western states, a quest for military bases against the U.S. in an attempt to implicate Latin America in a renewed superpower rivalry, and even efforts to establish intelligence cooperation with like-minded governments so that Moscow can then try to subvert those and other regimes across Latin America. Nevertheless the visible failures that we now see show the limits of Moscow and its allies’ capabilities in this regard.

None of this warrants complacency, but these trends show us that it is possible through determination and sound strategy, as well as the inherent bankruptcy of these kinds of corrupt statist economic policies to thwart Moscow’s ambitions that inherently tend towards conflict, corruption, and economic stagnation.  Neither the alarmism cited at the beginning of this article nor passive complacency that 'we are on history’s side' (a fatuous and meaningless slogan) is needed.  As the trends highlighted here show, Latin American countries can, particularly if they are helped by Washington, save themselves by their own exertions, and serve as an example for other governments that Putinism offers nothing but a dead end of strife and backwardness.

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