Putin's Slow and Steady Reconquista of Latin America

When Russia annexed Crimea this week, few looked to South America for Russian support. Yet Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Argentinian President Cristina Fernández were lauding the conquest. Their support is no surprise: Putin has been cultivating it for years, reaping the rewards as the continent falls in line with the Kremlin.

The Russian Federation has never broken the ties the Soviet Union cemented with the continent's most repressive Spanish-speaking nation, Cuba. Few expected anything less from state propaganda outlet Granma than a full-throated support of Russia's colonization of Crimea, and their attack on "Ukrainian ultranationalists" delivered. The nations of South America presented Putin with a much more difficult relationship-building exercise, but one that he has taken to with zeal.

While the United States has maintained close ties with Colombia and Chile, helping the former end a guerrilla warfare crisis perpetrated by left-wing leaders in the nation, the generation of leaders calling themselves Bolivarian socialists in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and, to a lesser extent, Peru have all expanded their ties with Russia.

Argentina's Fernández had close ties to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who coined the term "Bolivarian socialist" in honor of founding father Simón Bolívar--so close that the leader visited Chávez in the Cuban hospital he stayed in shortly before his death and prayed with him. An openly leftist leader, Fernández found her country courted by the Russian government under President Dmitry Medvedev. In 2010, Medvedev visited Russia and agreed to invest in Argentina's nuclear program, currently in existence but never having quite gotten off the ground. On Fernández's subsequent trip to Russia, the Russian premier gifted her a traditional hat, expressing the desire to "multiply ten or fifteen times" relations with Argentina. While the "several billion dollar" nuclear project never fully materialized, the diplomatic relationship continued as Argentina extended an offer for Russia to invest in its fuel projects. 

Russia has also supported the annexation of the Falkland Islands to Argentina, which became the focal point of Fernández's argument in favor of the annexation of Crimea. The Falklands, an island archipelago off the coast of Argentina boasting a modest population of 2,000 humans and 500,000 sheep, has long belonged to the United Kingdom, is an English-speaking region, and is ethnically British. Despite the obvious desire to remain a part of the United Kingdom, Argentina has repeatedly insisted that the islands are rightfully its own, invading them in 1983 to laughable military results.

On Wednesday, Fernández returned the favor. Crimea "has always belonged to Russia," she said in a statement, just as the Falkland Islands have "always belonged to Argentina."

Russia's relations with other leftist South American nations have taken a similar turn. In Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa's brutal repression of the press rivals even Maduro's, Russia has found a friend. Correa made his first visit to Moscow in 2009 when the two countries agreed to a series of deals that would arm Ecuador with higher-grade military equipment in exchange for open trade. 

Relations with Putin are as strong as they were with Medvedev, and after some turbulent years in which Ecuador agreed to house Russian ally Julian Assange in their UK embassy and threatened to do the same with Edward Snowden, Correa made his second trip to Moscow. For his trouble, he received a $1.5 billion energy investment and two honorary degrees.

"I am very happy and marveled by this great nation," Correa said in a statement in Moscow. "Thank you for all you have done in arts, sciences, and global thinking." He did not mention the billions invested in his country.

Putin, on his end, made clear that he considers Ecuador a valuable ally. "Ecuador is one of our strategic partners in Latin America," Putin said, according to the Ecuadorian state government, adding that the partnership was "fruitful."

Other nations on the continent have found themselves in similar situations: public support for Russia has lead Russia to invest billions in their economy. Brazil, the largest economy on the continent and a country increasingly disgruntled with President Obama's spying initiatives, is turning to Russia. They are not doing so for trade; they are doing so for defense. Last October--as Correa was visiting Moscow--Brazil signed an agreement with Russia that would give it $1 billion worth of missile defense technology, after buying tanks and assorted artillery from the country the year before. Peru, also looking to strengthen its defense, bought several military helicopters from Russia this January, long after President Ollanta Humala expressed interest in establishing a free trade deal with the nation.

Smaller countries like Bolivia have also strengthened ties with Russia. Speaking with--who else?--Russia Today last July, President Evo Morales expressed interest in having Russia invest in his country, as well. Less than a month later, Russia's petroleum corporation, Gazprom, invested $130 million in the country.

Russia's vast fuel industry gives it the upper hand with most countries in Latin America, except the one OPEC member nation on the continent: Venezuela. With Venezuela, Putin has offered both other services, like arms development, and the opposite service: finding buyers to keep the inexcusably devastated Venezuelan economy afloat. Venezuela's ties to Russia go as far back as 2001, when Hugo Chávez made his first trip there as premier. By 2006, Russia was building arms factories in Venezuela to combat the U.S. embargo on selling weapons to the country.

A decade later, a year into the Maduro regime, Putin remains an ally of the oppressive nation that is currently under scrutiny for its systematic arrest, murder, and torture of unarmed protesters. Earlier this month, Putin expressed support for Maduro, and the Venezuelan leader expressed thanks on Twitter without specifying just how big of a financial deal the countries had made. The deal would allow Maduro to expand the sales of his country's oil, however, which strengthens the power of his regime.

And so Maduro--like Fernández--has been vocal in supporting the recolonization of Crimea:

 

Comments at 34 minutes:

Who committed the coup there, huh? Who cited President Yanukovych? Neo-Nazi groups. And now they are how they are. You see them now, alone. Every time they will be more and more alone, those groups who staged the coup. Now, like President Cristina said yesterday in Rome, there is a great double standard game. Dividing Serbia a decade ago, taking Kosovo away through a referendum, was legitimate from the point of view of the International Right. Trying to take the Malvinas away from Argentina through a referendum is absolutely pure and legal for Europe and the UK, and it's justified. But if the people of Crimea stage a referendum to decide their future of peace, that is illegal. That is the double standard of international politics in the hands of empires. ... They should give Putin the Nobel Peace Prize for having prevented the war in Syria and preventing war today in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has spent more than a decade investing in the loyalty of a continent often left behind by the puppetmasters of international diplomacy. When--not if--he decides to continue his westward expansion, he will be able to rely on the support of the assorted wayward leftist regimes of Latin America.


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