Regional Deep Dive

Latin America

For largely geopolitical reasons, Moscow is expanding its presence in Latin America at Washington’s expense despite Russia’s lack of geographic proximity and limited resources.

The Kremlin is taking advantage of the deteriorating relationships between the United States and many of its southern neighbors. Russia supports anti-American populist candidates in elections throughout Latin America and is trying to expand trade and investment opportunities with the region.

The Kremlin likely calculates that closer relations with Latin America—whether built on arms sales, trade, energy deals, or political congruity—will complicate U.S. foreign policy. If these overtures help Russian military and security actors gain access to the United States’ backyard, so much the better.

Moscow in Latin AmericaVenezuela

Venezuela is in the throes of a deep crisis, with both the overall economy and the energy sector in freefall. The cash-strapped Venezuelan government has found an ally in Russia, which has long provided financial, military, and political support. Moscow’s support is helping thwart efforts by Washington and other regional actors to pressure the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

Political Influence Maduro has followed in the late Hugo Chávez’s footsteps, prioritizing close ties with Russia. Over the past year, Moscow has stepped in to provide a crucial political and financial lifeline to Maduro’s government.

Economic Influence A Russian debt relief deal in late 2017 gave Caracas additional breathing room. As foreign companies have retreated from the slow collapse of PDVSA, Venezeula’s state oil company, Rosneft has provided billions of dollars in prepayments for oil deliveries to keep the company afloat. In return, Rosneft has gained preferential access to Venezuela’s oil and gas sector.

Military Ties Russia was a leading supplier of arms to Venezuela in the 2000s. Venezuela has also hosted Russian nuclear-capable bombers and a Russian naval flotilla in 2008, as part of Moscow’s efforts to signal to Washington that it can deploy forces in the U.S.’s backyard.

Moscow in Latin AmericaCuba

Cuba was Russia’s primary partner in the region during the Cold War. The abrupt end of Soviet economic subsidies disrupted the Cuban economy in the early 1990s. Cuba’s new leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, now faces the challenge of governing and rejuvenating the economy without the revolutionary credentials of Fidel or Raúl Castro. Cuba’s economic travails are compounded by a decline in subsidized energy imports from Venezuela and a freeze on the normalization of U.S.-Cuba commercial ties imposed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Political Influence Russian outreach efforts in Latin America have focused prominently on Havana due to its strategic location. Both Medvedev and Putin have visited Cuba during their tenures as president. Cuba has also supported Russia in international forums such as the UN General Assembly.

Economic Influence Russia has provided Cuba with generous debt relief, and Rosneft began oil shipments to Cuba last year to help compensate for the drop in Venezuelan exports. The two countries are ramping up projects in the energy and railway sectors.

Military Ties Moscow has helped finance and support modernization of Cuba’s defense sector. Russian officials have periodically floated the possibility of reestablishing the Russian signals intelligence collection facility at Lourdes.

Moscow in Latin AmericaNicaragua

Nicaragua’s relations with Russia have flourished following Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007. Nicaragua has been in crisis since April 2018 when anti-government protests erupted after Ortega’s surprise decision to slash welfare benefits. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets demanding Ortega’s resignation, and the state’s violent crackdown has left over 170 people dead.

Political Influence Nicaragua is one of Russia’s most steadfast political and military partners in the region. Managua has supported Moscow diplomatically on issues such as the Crimean annexation, the war in eastern Ukraine, and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For its part, the Russian MFA has harshly condemned foreign powers for allegedly meddling in Nicaraguan domestic politics.

Military Ties Russia has supplied Nicaragua with arms, including fifty new T-72 tanks. Moscow also has constructed a GLONASS satellite communications facility in Managua and an anti–drug trafficking center, facilities that are believed to be used for intelligence gathering. In 2015, the Nicaraguan parliament voted to allow Russian warships to dock in Nicaraguan ports.

Moscow in Latin AmericaBrazil

Russia has cultivated relations with Brazil via the BRICS, a grouping that includes Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa. Brazil’s economy is the largest in South America, but political and economic ties with Moscow remain fairly limited. Buffeted by a series of corruption scandals, Brazil will hold a presidential election in October 2018. The contest is essentially wide open.

Economic Influence Russia-Brazil bilateral trade rose to $4.3 billion in 2016, and Brazil is Russia’s largest trade partner in Latin America. Russia imports food and agricultural products from Brazil and exports fertilizer, mineral fuels, and metals. In 2016, Russia purchased 90 percent of its imported pork from Brazil, but Moscow has since begun tightening market access to protect domestic producers.

Information Space Brazilian citizens are extremely active online. The government is increasingly worried about the impact of fake news sponsored by rival political parties and, to a lesser extent, overseas actors on its upcoming presidential election, but has not explicitly expressed fear of Russian interference. A 2017 study by the Brazilian think tank FGV-DAPP on social media interference in Brazil’s 2014 election uncovered a significant network of bots and fake profiles on Twitter with Russian markers.

Moscow in Latin AmericaMexico

Russia has taken some steps to capitalize on the sharp disagreements over trade and immigration that have roiled U.S.-Mexican relations under President Trump. Ties are likely to be strained further if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist former mayor of Mexico City, wins the country’s July 2018 presidential election. Lopez Obrador has tried to use humor to rebut claims that Moscow and Russian state propagandists favor his candidacy.

Economic Influence After Brazil, Mexico is Russia’s largest economic partner in the region, although bilateral trade remains relatively small in dollar terms. As U.S.-Mexico relations have soured, some Russian and Mexican government officials have made public remarks about the value of deeper commercial ties. These comments stand in contrast to Mexico’s more cautious stance on China.

Political Influence López Obrador appears to be the Kremlin’s favored Mexican presidential candidate due to his anti-American views and the possibility that his victory would cause significant heartburn for the Trump administration. Senior U.S. officials— including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson hinted publicly about possible Russian interference in the election.

Information Space Moscow has expanded Spanish-language television programming and social media accounts aimed at Mexico and other Latin American countries. A Spanish affiliate of RT typically embraces strong anti-American themes.

Moscow in Latin AmericaBolivia

Bolivia’s staunchly anti-U.S. stance under President Evo Morales has made it an attractive political partner for Moscow. Of additional interest to Moscow given its expertise in natural resource extraction and delivery, Bolivia boasts the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America.

Political Influence United by their vocal opposition to the U.S.-led international order, Bolivia and Russia have cooperated closely at the United Nations (UN). Bolivia was one of eleven countries that voted against a March 2014 resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning Russian actions in Crimea. In April 2018, La Paz and Moscow teamed up to oppose a resolution criticizing Syria’s use of chemical weapons in Douma.

Economic Influence Gazprom has been working on a variety of oil- and gas-related projects in Bolivia in recent years. Similarly, Rosatom signed a contract build a nuclear research reactor in the Bolivian city of El Alto in September 2017.

Military Ties Russia and Bolivia signed a defense cooperation agreement in August 2017 and are discussing potential arms deals as part of Bolivia’s military recapitalization program.

Moscow in Latin AmericaArgentina

Russia’s ties with Argentina flourished under populist former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from 2007 to 2015. Kirchner provided tacit political support for Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, while she pursued cooperation with Russia on nuclear power and other energy projects. Rather curiously, relations were also strong during the late Soviet period, thanks to the dependence of Argentina’s anti-Communist, junta-led dictatorship on Soviet exports of beef and grain. Kirchner’s successor, former businessman Mauricio Macri, took office in 2015 and was expected to put relations with Russia on the back burner.

Political Influence Macri confounded expectations that he would downplay relations with Moscow when he formally reaffirmed the Russia-Argentina strategic partnership during a visit to Moscow in January 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in the autumn of 2018.

Economic Influence Trade and commercial cooperation is decidedly modest in scope. Argentina has had limited success in trying to capitalize on Russia’s countersanctions against Western food imports. Joint nuclear energy projects remain stalled.

Moscow in Latin AmericaColombia

Colombia has exceptionally strong ties to the United States, but is surrounded by Venezuela and other ALBA states with close ties to Russia. Colombia’s 2018 two-round presidential election in May and June 2018 is the first contest since the 2016 peace deal that ended the long-running insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The prevalent use of mobile devices and social media makes Colombia potentially susceptible to efforts to manipulate public opinion.

Political Influence Given Colombia’s close alignment with the United States, high-level political ties with Russian leaders have been minimal. During the height of the FARC insurgency, a network of Russian criminal groups and corrupt military figures supplied the guerillas with weapons in exchange for cocaine. The extent of Russian government involvement in these efforts, which began in the early 1990s, remains fuzzy.

Information Space Amid heightened tensions with Venezuela, Colombia’s defense minister in March 2018 accused Caracas of a series of cyberattacks on the country’s voter registration system. Colombian defense sources have hinted that Russia might be connected to these efforts. Meanwhile, Russian media outlets, including RT, lent support to ex-FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño’s short-lived presidential candidacy in early 2018. (Londoño ultimately dropped out of the race prematurely due to health problems.)

Russia’s geopolitical aim in Latin America is to counter perceived U.S. encroachment in Moscow’s own backyard and boost Russia’s credentials as a global power.

Russian efforts have focused on deepening partnerships to further Moscow’s desire for a multipolar international system and to cultivate an anti-U.S. constituency in the region, while also exploiting developments to disrupt U.S. relations with key regional partners.

For the United States, Russia’s increasing presence in the Western Hemisphere is an unwelcome development that could further aggravate relations with its neighbors and present new threats.

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