Russian influence is back in Latin America in a big way, along with a “clear return to Cold War-tactics.”
And it’s happening at a time when the US military admits that it faces a “near-total lack of awareness of threats and the readiness to respond” in the region.
Those assertions were made by Lieutenant General Kenneth E. Tovo of US Southern Command in startling testimony to Congress this week. He added that Russia’s aim is also the same as the Cold War: To “erode” US influence in the region.
This week Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is visiting Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and Guatemala. According to recent reports, rumours are flying that Russia plans to sell fighter jets to Nicaragua’s Sandinista government after helping them set up a topogrphic center. In Cuba, Lavrov and his counterpart reportedly discussed US aggression against regional ally Venezuela.
“Last year and again this year, a Russian intelligence ship docked in Havana multiple times while conducting operations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the east coast of the United States,” Tovo told members of the Senate Armed Services committee.
“Russia has courted Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to gain access to air bases and ports for resupply of Russian naval assets and strategic bombers operating in the Western Hemisphere. Russian media also announced Russia would begin sending long-range strategic bombers to patrol the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, in an effort to ‘monitor foreign powers’ military activities and maritime communications.'”
All of this has been building since 2008, according to Tovo. And the primary conduit for Russia’s entry to the region was none other than late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The rise of leftist governments in Latin America in the early 2000s know as the “pink tide” was, in part, a response to US involvement in the region in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s when the Cold War was raging strong. Military interventions, regime changes, and proxy battles that have faded from memory in US live on in the minds of Latin America populists, and Chavez was chief among them.
He was joined in his anti-Americanism by leaders in Ecuador and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent Bolivia and Argentina, among South America’s larger countries. These countries provide Russia with diplomatic support, they champion Russia in state media, and more importantly, they grant Russia access to their ports and airspace.
One of the problems with that, according to security analyst Douglas Farah, is that where Russia goes, Russian organised crime inevitably follows. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has kept a great home for it too — carrying on the tradition of mixing criminal activity with politics established by his predecessor.
“The Maduro administration is the central component to a multi-state ongoing criminal enterprise, carried out with Iran and a growing Russian presence whose primary strategic objective is to cling to power by whatever means necessary and harm the United States and its allies,” said Farah in a hearing with the Senate foreign relations committee this month.
As Russia’s presence in the region grows, it’s actions get bolder. On Friday, Alexander Fomin, the head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, denied reports that Russia is in talks with Argentina over offering Argentina a batch of 12 Su-24 bombers on lease.
“Regrettably, the issue isn’t being discussed,” he said, “but we are ready to discuss it.”
The US, for its part, is not ready for this incursion, according to the military’s Southern Command.
The Obama administration’s policy in the region has been to secure a perimeter around the United States and support allies like Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Panama, and El Salvador as they try to rid their countries of organised crime and violence.
“Because of the U.S. presence in countries abutting Russia, Russia may be looking to do the same in our region,” Carlos Rivera Bianchini, the president of the Foundation for Peace and Democracy Costa Rica, told McClatchy recently.
Southern Command has traditionally been the lowest priority for the military, and cut its budget by 20% over the last year.
And with Russia’s Latin America resurgance, that isn’t enough anymore.
“Our friends across the region are committed to winning back their streets, indeed their countries, from criminal gangs and drug traffickers, and doing so while protecting human rights. They are ready and willing to partner with the United States, and they are eager for expanded cooperation and increased learning and training opportunities with the U.S. military,” said Tovo.
“But they are frustrated by what they perceive as the low prioritisation of Latin America on our national security and foreign policy agendas, which is especially puzzling given the shared challenge of transnational organised crime… Mr. Chairman, Members, the truth is we are managing to keep the pilot light of U.S. military engagement on in the region — but just barely.”