Increasingly isolated, Putin finds few allies in Latin America
Faced with condemnation from most countries around the world and harsh sanctions from Europe and the United States, Russia seems increasingly isolated as its president continues his invasion of Ukraine.
But Vladimir Putin has found some support in Latin America from the authoritarian governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
In a televised speech this week, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro denounced US sanctions against Russia as a “crime” against his people and said he had just spoken with Putin and noted “serenity, wisdom and moral conviction”. .
In an effort reminiscent of the Cold War, when Latin America was an ideological battleground for the Soviet Union and the United States, Russia has been trying to expand its influence in the region for more than a decade.
The pandemic has provided a great opportunity. Russia developed one of the first COVID-19 vaccines and delivered it to Argentina, Bolivia and other countries that had limited access to other options.
Trade between Russia and Latin America has also increased, although it barely registers compared to China’s economic footprint in the region.
“Russia has an interest in interfering in what is traditionally considered an American sphere of influence,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Putin’s biggest breakthroughs have come with governments that have bad relations with the United States.
Russia gave Cuba – which was the Soviet Union’s staunchest ally in the region – massive debt relief, canceling $32 billion in Soviet-era debt in 2014. It also sent hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil during shortages.
Russia has also been a lifeline for Venezuela, supplying it with billions of dollars in arms and investing in its oil industry after Hugo Chavez became president in 1999 and embraced socialism.
This support continued under Maduro. In 2019, as he fought off a US-backed effort to oust him from power, Russia sent specialists to maintain military equipment.
In Nicaragua, Russia opened an anti-narcotics training center and sold government military tanks.
When the United States suspended aid to Nicaragua over fears of fraud in the 2008 local elections, Russia paraded warships off the coast in an apparent show of support.
Russia has also come to the defense of President Daniel Ortega – a former Soviet-backed guerrilla leader – after many governments refused to recognize his re-election last year because his government jailed potential political opponents. .
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a press conference declaring that the election had “taken place in an orderly manner, in full compliance with Nicaraguan legislation”.
Ryan Berg, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, said Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua “can’t really afford to lose one of their greatest patrons.”
In the days leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov visited Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – a trip that experts say was an attempt to demonstrate the international influence of his country as it prepared for war.
Yet during the United Nations General Assembly vote this week calling on Russia to immediately withdraw its troops, the three countries failed to offer Putin their full support.
Nicaragua and Cuba abstained. Venezuela could not vote because it had not paid its dues.
Experts said Nicaragua and Cuba calculated they had too much to lose by joining Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries to vote against the resolution. Cuba in particular did not want to “cut all ties” with the United States, said Vladimir Rouvinski, a political scientist at Icesi University in Colombia.
Under President Obama’s administration, countries reestablished diplomatic relations. Cuba would like the United States to ease sanctions that limit remittances to the island.
Yet Jennie Lincoln, senior adviser on Latin America at the Carter Center think tank, called the abstentions “a kick in the shins of the United States” and “a way of expressing its anti-imperialist vision of the West”.
Along with abstentions from El Salvador and Bolivia — also places where anti-American sentiment is high — the rest of Latin America backed the UN resolution.
Notably, the two most populous countries in the region, Brazil and Mexico, have not been unequivocal in their condemnation of Russia.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had met Putin in Moscow days before the invasion to discuss trade relations, said this week ahead of the UN vote that his country would remain neutral and disparaged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comic who quickly turned into a war hero.
Ukrainians had “placed their nation’s hope in the hands of a comedian”, he said.
Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, said Bolsonaro, who is running for re-election, may have appealed to far-right supporters. “Many of them are also Putin supporters because they see Putin as a real role model for a conservative leader,” he said.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said this week that Mexico would not issue economic sanctions against Russia “because we want to maintain good relations with all the governments of the world and we want to be able to talk to the parties to the conflict”. .
Trade between Mexico and Russia topped $2.1 billion in 2019, according to Harvard University’s Growth Lab program.
At rallies attended by dozens outside the Russian embassy in Mexico City, Mexicans and Ukrainians called on López Obrador to take a tougher stance.
Rodrigo Jara, a 25-year-old Mexican music producer whose girlfriend is Ukrainian, told a rally Monday night that the Mexican president’s stance was “virtually neutral.”