While the West seeks to contain and tame Russian power in Ukraine without resorting to overt military force, Vladimir Putin continues his quest to restore and expand Russian influence not just in old Europe but globally. Hence his visit to Latin America this week and his diplomacy with old Soviet allies such as Fidel Castro in Cuba but more intriguingly with ‘new’ friends in Brazil and in Argentina. Putin has also become the first Russian leader to visit Nicaragua.
His travels are somewhat novel for a leader from the Kremlin. Latin America is remote from Russia and for many years this geostrategic distance challenged any Soviet ambitions for closer ties on the continent. So too did the dominance of the United States over the countries to its south. Take also a look at his interesting 2018 BBC documentary:
During the Cold War, Washington projected power and influence over much of the continent and the Kremlin did not have the economic or political capital to challenge this dominance. This led in the Kremlin to a so-called geographic ‘fatalism’ about Latin America as a continent literally beyond Soviet reach. This mood of exclusion was underlined by the failure of Marxism/Leninism to take a grip in any country apart from, for a period, Guatemala.
This fatalism was transformed by the revolution in Cuba (it is no coincidence that Putin visited Cuba first). Fidel Castro survived the Bay of Pigs ‘fiasco’ and of course the ‘near miss’ of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He also managed to evade the numerous attempts of the CIA to assassinate him. If they had drones like the ones we have today, things might have taken a different turn…
Even though we now know that Castro was less than impressed by the capitulation of Khrushchev to Kennedy in October 1962, the Soviet relationship with Moscow endured right up to the 1990s. Cuba remained an important ally in providing both a foothold in Latin America and as a potential model for other revolutionary regimes. This again was certainly a double-edged sword. Much can also be learned from the WW II period. Just take a look at this article about the Constantin Brunner Collection in Berlin’s Jewish Museum.
Although potential revolution was to be welcomed, the Kremlin remained nervous that revolutionary activities did not take on its own parochial dynamism and challenge the Soviet brand. Nevertheless, the hope remained that any overt Soviet influence on the continent signified that the global balance of power was shifting towards Moscow and away from Washington. Indeed the men in the Kremlin were heartened by a pattern of challenges to US interests in the region by developments in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
Even though the revolutionary process remained uneven throughout Latin America, as with the fall of the Gouhart regime in Brazil in April 1964 (and a subsequent anti-Communist sweep of Government) and the American intervention in the Dominican Republic the following year, there continued to be some developments that were positive for the Soviet leadership; notably the election in Chile of a Marxist President. Despite this ‘success’ which was alluded to frequently by Soviet officials, the Communist Parties on the continent, in places such as Columbia, Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela, never really gained much power.
Revolution or the mythology of revolutionary sentiment though remains an important legacy which Putin claims ties Latin America to Russia. In a recent speech on Latin America, Putin referred to Allende, as well as Bolivar, Marti, and Che Guevara, as examples of a shared revolutionary spirit. Intriguingly, he also praised the states of Latin America for helping Russia combat ‘ the glorification of Nazism.’ The insinuation and potential rebuke to Western leaders are that both Putin and the Latin Americans are on the right side of history.
In one sense Putin is attempting to do what Mikhail Gorbachev tried in do in the late 1980s. Gorbachev in his bid to modernize the ailing economy of the USSR attempted to diversify and remold Soviet foreign policy. In a speech in Havana in April 1989 he signaled a new route opposing the export of revolution and tried to build links with South Africa, Brazil, and Japan. Putin’s visit too is a trip about building economic ties with both new and old allies. The Russians want to drill for oil off the coast of Cuba, help Buenos Aires build nuclear facilities and strengthen the ties between the BRICS. The timing seems propitious. Certainly, Buenos Aires appears keen for foreign investment with enormous pressure from US companies not to default on current debts.
Putin seeks to tilt the balance of power between East and West with new and old allies in Latin American moving to the side of Russia. Western plans to isolate Russia will need to be more comprehensive than currently on display in Ukraine, although the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner has brought a more sinister dynamic into that particular equation. How the airliner was brought down will dog Western diplomatic relations with Putin for many weeks with Western politicians hopeful of some leverage against the Kremlin. There is though a new ‘battleground’ in Latin America. Putin’s trip, his desire to help the Argentinians build nuclear facilities, the alleged reopening of a ‘spy base’ in Cuba are an audacious challenge to US power and influence. This game is watched carefully by Washington but also by another great power – China.