SIMON ROMER / MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ / ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
The New York Times
November 21, 2008
This article was reported by Simon Romero, Michael Schwirtz and Alexei Barrionuevo and written by Mr. Romero.
CARACAS, Venezuela — When President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia planned his upcoming trip through Latin America, Russia seemed poised to present one of the most visible challenges in years to American influence in the region. With oil prices high, Russia was flush with cash and planning a variety of measures, including helping Venezuela build a nuclear reactor and strengthening military ties with Cuba, a former cold war ally of the Soviets.
But when Mr. Medvedev reaches the region next week, he will find it drastically altered by events — and in some cases less receptive to his overtures. Plunging oil prices and the global financial crisis, which have hammered Russia particularly hard, have raised questions about Russia"s reliability as an economic partner, while Barack Obama"s victory in the presidential race has raised hopes throughout Latin America of a new era of improved relations with the United States.
In this rapidly changing landscape, most Latin American countries are recalibrating their political interests, frustrating Russia"s efforts to deepen regional ties as China did in the last decade.
"Russia"s elites, including President Medvedev, look on China"s rising diplomatic and economic successes in Latin America and in Africa with envy," said Stephen Kotkin, the director of Russia studies at Princeton University. "They also perceive an opportunity, much exaggerated, to send the U.S. a message in its supposed backyard."
But throughout the region, Mr. Medvedev faces a hard sell. In Cuba there are lingering suspicions over Russian intentions, after the Cuban economy collapsed when the Soviets withdrew in the 1990s, as well as a reluctance to alienate an incoming Obama administration that might push to end the trade embargo.
Brazil, Latin America"s largest country, which also places a high priority on relations with an Obama administration, wants to engage Russia not as a source of weapons or military assistance but as an equal partner.
"We are not interested in buying defense products off the shelf," said Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil"s minister of strategic affairs and the architect of a new military strategy set to be officially unveiled in December.
"Unlike other South American countries we don"t go around buying things, and we are not interested in some kind of balance-of-power politics to contain the United States," said Mr. Mangabeira Unger, a former Harvard law professor who taught Mr. Obama when he was at Harvard Law School. "We have friendly relations with the United States, and with the incoming administration intend to make them even more friendly."
By contrast, in Venezuela, itself battered by falling oil prices, Mr. Medvedev can expect a warm welcome. President Hugo Chávez has long sought closer ties, traveling to Russia seven times and forging deals to buy more than $4 billion in arms. Until recently, however, Russia showed little interest in expanding ties with Venezuela beyond weapons sales and a handful of energy deals.
But Russia"s position evolved in recent months, and it is now seeking a beachhead with a raft of oil, as well as mining, banking and military contracts . Yet in choosing to invest in Venezuela, energy executives and foreign diplomats say, Moscow is becoming involved in one of the most problematic countries in the region. Countries like China and Iran have faced a morass of corruption and institutional disarray while seeking to expand their presence here.
The Russian foray into Latin America has been viewed in many quarters as payback for what the Kremlin sees as an aggressive United States infringement in its sphere of influence. Moscow has been angered by American plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as well as by Washington"s support for Kosovo"s independence and Georgia in the August war, which the Kremlin claims the White House helped provoke.
In neighboring Colombia, where there is fear over Russian-made weapons in Venezuela finding their way to leftist guerrillas, Russia"s moves are partly seen as tit-for-tat for the growing NATO presence in former Soviet bloc countries. "In a sense, Venezuela is becoming Russia"s Ukraine," said Román Ortiz, a security analyst in Bogotá, the capital.
Two Russian strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons made a visit to Venezuela in September, a few weeks before Russia announced a $1 billion loan to the country for weapons purchases. And a contingent of the Russian Navy"s North Sea Fleet is now en route to the Caribbean to take part in training exercises with the Venezuela military, maneuvers scheduled to coincide with Mr. Medvedev"s visit here.
"If the country has stood on its feet and is beginning to extend its economic and political roles, then it cannot remain locally focused," said Andrei A. Klimov, the deputy head of the International Affairs Committee in Russia"s Parliament. He emphasized that Russia"s policies in Latin America were not "directed against a specific country."
"It is simply that Russia has developed defined interests, and we want to realize those interests, particularly in business — in oil, gas, in new technologies, in weapons sales," Mr. Klimov said.
Russia has also been seeking to rekindle cold war-era ties in countries that are now allies of Venezuela, like Nicaragua, the recipient of Soviet military aid in the 1980s. With the left-wing Sandinistas back in power in Nicaragua, Russian officials have traveled recently to Managua, the capital, to discuss grandiose projects like a new canal to rival the Panama Canal.
But for now, Russia"s foray into Nicaragua remains limited to the training of about a dozen Nicaraguan military personnel, a shadow of the once prominent role played by the Soviet Union during the first government of President Daniel Ortega, when Soviet military specialists helped build Pachito Air Base, now badly in need of repairs.
Russia has carved out a presence in other small countries with limited economic clout in the region, like Bolivia, where Russia is extending offers of military and antidrug assistance. In Guyana, Russia has cultivated warm ties with President Bharrat Jagdeo, who studied economics in Moscow when Guyana was ruled by socialists with close ties to the Soviet Union.
But elsewhere in the area, the Kremlin is having a harder time. In Cuba, where the Soviet Union once focused the bulk of its military presence in the region, concerns persists over the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The abrupt withdrawal of billions of dollars of aid devastated Cuba"s economy, which has yet to completely recover despite receiving large subsidies from Venezuela.
Under President Raúl Castro, the Cuban government may be looking to capitalize on the change in leadership in Washington by seeking to loosen America"s costly embargo, said Brian Latell, a former C.I.A. analyst and author of "After Fidel."
"Raul and the Cuban leadership are much more pragmatic than Fidel and are less inclined to poke Washington in the eye," he said. "Why antagonize American interest groups now by cavorting," with the Kremlin?
Cuba backed Russia"s military incursion into Georgia, but it has been unwilling to recognize the two separatist enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to which Russia unilaterally granted recognition of independence following the August war. That action was strongly condemned by the international community, with Nicaragua being the only country to offer official recognition.
Meanwhile, skepticism persists even in Venezuela over Russia"s ability to expand ties that mainly involve weapons sales into a relationship that involves greater amounts of investment and diplomatic coordination.
In diplomatic circles in Caracas, a joke is making the rounds comparing China"s Latin American strategy, which views market-oriented economies like Brazil, Chile and Mexico as gateways to the region, with that of Russia, which is largely focusing on Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In Brazil, for instance, Russia"s trade of $5.2 billion in 2007 was dwarfed by China"s $23.4 billion.
"The Russians have picked the most erratic and unreliable partners in the region," said a Bush administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity following normal diplomatic procedure.
And even in areas where Russia and Venezuela are starting to cooperate, like offshore natural gas exploration, the new alliance belies the resilience of ties to the United States, which remains by far Venezuela"s largest trading partner.
When state television in Venezuela trumpeted the start of exploration this month by the country"s state oil company and a consortium of Russian concerns amid cries of "Comrades!" all around, little attention was directed to the drilling platform they were standing on. It had been leased from Scorpion Offshore, which monitors its rigs around the world from its home office in Houston.