On April 10–11 2015 Central American Panama became the venue for VII Summit of the Americas that assembled heads of states and political executives of 35 American countries, from the US and Canada on the north to Chile and Argentina on the south. As from 1994, when the meeting was held for the first time, it became in fact the place where national leaders developed common understanding of the best ways to promote relations between Latin American and Caribbean countries and the United States of America.
This year the official delegation of Cuba led by Raul Castro attended the forum for the first time ever. Its participation amid a recently initiated bilateral course towards improving relations with the US can be called pivotal and historically important. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has achieved much more modest results while trying to find the common ground with his American counterpart Barack Obama. Despite the two leaders’ mutual acknowledgements of respect and peaceful intentions, the brief meeting will hardly drastically change American strategy towards replacement of the acting Bolivarian government. The summit illustrated the general shift of Latin American countries towards abandoning the system of inequitable relations with the US as well as transformation of the region into an independent center of global politics. It underlined old trends and outlined new ones carrying a potential threat for the regional interests of Russia.
Washington-orientation will continue to be the priority for many Latin American states. Moreover, relatively recently new factors have emerged, which might lead to further strengthening of ties between the US and their southern neighbors.
Historically, Latin American and Caribbean countries have well-established both political and financial ties with governmental and business circles of the US. However, almost all Latin American nations with no exception feel sound concerns in relation to their north partner. At the regional level the global bipolar confrontation during the Cold War resulted in the Soviet support of the left-wing views and, contrary to that, the US coherent strategy aimed at winding down the fruits of communist activity. Utilizing all accessible measures, including illegal, American authorities put much effort into establishing and keeping in power loyal regimes that secured interests of American commercial and industrial companies. As a result military dictatorships came to power in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia as well as in a number of Central American states, while true democratic governments found themselves in a complete minority.
After the demise of the Soviet Union Russia had little opportunity to retain its former influence in Latin America. Meanwhile the United States did not pay much attention to the region as well. That became especially obvious in the beginning of the 21st century when the US almost completely distanced from participation in the regional affairs. Under new conditions Latin America tried to adapt to the new geopolitical situation and find the appropriate model of social development. In the period of 1998–2009 the left-wing governments peacefully came to power in fourteen states. Developments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay and Salvador completely changed political configuration in the continent.
To a great extent the anti-American public sentiments in Latin America were nourished by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who had a crow to pick with political establishment of the US. However, the truth is that everything comes at a price, including solidarity and support of partners, and Venezuelan president was not an exception in that case. On December 14, 2004 upon his initiative the subregional integrational organization Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was established. And in the following June Venezuela initiated an international program Petrocaribe specially designed to promote economic cooperation between the participants. Under the program Venezuela provided its allies with a 50 to 95 percent discount for oil of its market price. Due to special relationship between Hugo Chaves and his counterparties in Havana, Venezuelan oil was supplied to the island almost free of charge, only in exchange for the services of Cuban health workers and sport training managers as well as extended cooperation with the Cuban intelligence agency.
Today geopolitical and financial environment is different. Low oil prices prolonged by the November decision of OPEC not to cut the existing oil production quotas made the internal political situation in Venezuela even more challenging. President Nicolas Maduro elected largely because of the nationwide grief after untimely death of comandante Chavez organized his politics based on permanent accusations of the US, unveiling of antigovernment plots and populist statements and actions. Problem is that the imbalance in the Venezuelan economy caused by disproportionally enormous expenses on extraction of minerals and re-equipment of the army became inevitable already in the time of presidency of Hugo Chavez. But now it is appropriate to speak of a national disaster, accompanied by so far ‘traditional’ power cuts and deficit of both fuel and essential goods.
In response to the attempts of the citizens to purchase at least some vital things in an illegal black market even though at much higher prices, the government only continues to tighten the screws by imposing the state of emergency and prohibiting transportation of basic goods to prevent smuggling. Leaving aside potential negative outcomes of such a complex situation inside that country, at the international level it has already resulted in cuts of subsidized oil supplies under Petrocaribe. Compared to 2012 the total supplied volumes decreased by fifty percent and amounted to 200 thousand barrels per day in the end of 2014. By 74% deliveries were cut to Jamaica, by 56% to the Dominican Republic and even by 50% to Cuba, which is strategically important for Caracas.
In its turn the US does not stand aside, at one point declaring readiness for the meaningful dialog with Venezuela and at another point imposing sanctions, accusing the government of human rights violation, curbs on free speech and qualifying developments in Venezuela as a threat to national security.
Even in case president Nicolas Maduro stays in power, inability of Venezuela to meet undertaken obligations for provision of economic assistance to 17 Latin American states will inevitably cause damage to its reputation as a fighter for freedom and independence of Latin America and bring about partial loss of leverage over its allies’ foreign policy. As a result the US position in the region will be substantially strengthened.
Meanwhile, as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Russia pointed it out in March, American strategy towards further destabilization in Venezuela contradicts the standpoints of many international community members. Moscow urged Washington to cease the increase of political and sanction pressure upon Caracas. On April 11 Nicolas Maduro and Barack Obama discussed the most important aspects of bilateral interstate relations during the course of closed talks held on the sidelines of the Summit. However despite the positive opinion expressed by Venezuelan president in relation to the results of the meeting it would be a mistake to wait for the US to abandon its plans on replacement of acting Venezuelan government. American president had to agree upon a brief conversation with his counterpart only in order not to be inconsistent with his statement of readiness to carry on a peaceful dialogue with Caracas. The US strategy towards establishing loyal pro-American regime in Venezuela will last.
Amid the notorious developments in the Bolivarian republic a visible positive improvement in the US-Cuban relations attracts profound interest. More than a year later and for the first time in half a century on December 17 in 2014 the two countries’ leaders, Barack Obama and Raul Castro had a phone conversation that is literally of historic importance. Just after the talks they made official announcements almost simultaneously. After (and in case) of approval of the American Congress the US is to reopen the embassy on the island. American banks will be allowed to establish its branches in Cuba, the trade of construction and agricultural equipment as well as the import of telecommunication units will be expanded. Transportation regime will be eased: with special permits in their hands American citizens will be not only allowed to travel to the island but also to purchase there some goods for personal use, such as tobacco products and alcohol. The US removal of Cuba from the list of ‘states sponsors of terrorism’ as well as negotiations on migration, drug and human trafficking and environment protection are upcoming.
Meanwhile these as well as some other measures have already got negative feedbacks both in American and Cuban societies, but the thaw in relations was generally welcomed and already yielded the very first fruits: American citizen Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison. In 2009 he was arrested on the charge of illegal supplies of telecommunication equipment to the island while refusal of Cuban authorities to discharge him from imprisonment was one of the sticking points on the way to mend fence between Washington and Havana. In return three Cuban citizens convicted of espionage were out. On April 11 during the Summit of the Americas the trend on rapprochement continued: both leaders held a highly anticipated meeting for the first time ever to acknowledge previously reached agreements. Raul Castro’s characteristics of American president as “an honest man” once again emphasized the positive development dynamics of the US-Cuban relations.
The more flexible approach of American administration to the Cuban issue indicates that the White House at last realized inefficiency of its force settlement. Putting pressure on Cuba just led to the opposite: consolidation of Latin American states, their support of Havana (even if only moral) and growth of anti-American public sentiments. The new US strategy kills two birds with one stone, it both provides an opportunity to establish mutually beneficial dialog between the US and Cuba and potentially jeopardizes Russian interests in the region.
After the Cuban revolution in the United States as well as in Cuban diaspora in the US a new generation has grown. By now those people are quite far from the revolutionary ideals while personal and national welfare is their number one concern. Due to its favorable economic situation and geographic proximity the US is in the position to provide the Cubans with all needed but only in exchange for the loyalty of new authorities since the acting government has to leave sooner or later. The Americans intelligence agencies have been preparing a number of ‘appropriate’ Cuban political leaders for already quite a long time.
Reorientation of Cuba towards the US will substantially result in the scaling down bilateral co-operation with Russia in all areas. So taking into account the challenging situation in Venezuela, Russia becomes exposed to the risk of loss of two strategic partners in the region in one go.
However at this very point in time Russian government has to be patient since abrupt and hot-brained attempts to frustrate the US-Cuban dialog may hurt first of all Russian interests. During the recent visit of Sergey Lavrov to Cuba, Russian minister for foreign affairs welcomed the normalization of the American-Cuban relations and urged the US to “cease illegal trade and financial embargo of Cuba at the earliest possible moment”. He also made a point of inadmissibility to stage a coup d'etat on the island once again.
The three-day trip of the minister (March 24-26, 2015) in the course of which he visited Cuba, Columbia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and conducted talks with the misters for foreign affairs of the Central American Integration System became yet another visit in a row of Russian high-ranked representatives’ visits to Latin America. Moreover, over the last years the value of the region has significantly increased for Russia. The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies against Russia resulted in intensification of commercial and economic as well as diplomatic contacts with Latin American countries. The most positive and even sometimes friendly relations emerged with Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Argentina, Nicaragua, Mexica, Chile. Besides the implementation of joint infrastructure projects and increase of goods turnover, Russia offers valuable foreign policy resource for many Latin American counties.
Similar approach to international problems and common understanding that all conflict situations should be settled with consolidated effort, if necessary within the UN where Russia has veto right (especially valuable at a time of humanitarian interventions), all that induces Latin American governments to reach common ground with Russia. Partially thanks to that, reaction of Latin American community towards Russia’s role in the crisis on the east of Ukraine is generally of neutral and empathic nature.
Having lost much of former Soviet influence in Latin America, Russia exerts efforts to gradually recover its old ties and relations with all states in the region.
Notwithstanding relatively small scale of financial and economic cooperation, many Latin American states consider Russia as a reliable partner and an opportunity to diversify their political and potentially commercial ties.
Tough and controversial is the history of relations between Latin American countries with the United States of America. Traditionally intense, but also controversial and even conflict are the relations with European Union. On the one hand, close commercial relationship with China is based on mutual benefit and complementarity, on the other– Beijing demonstrates political and ideological detachment from Latin American states, especially from those emphasizing general socialist values common both for them and China, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Bolivia. To various extents all mentioned factors contribute to the come-back of Russia to Latin America, to the region where it is already among four of the most influential outside forces.
It seems to me that George Friedman’s geopolitical doctrine simplifies both the international reality and the liberal ideas of the American mainstream. Acceptance of the reality of the existing balance of powers, aspiration for preserving stability and guidance by the international law – these are the key ingredients in the realist policies recipe that the US still fail to manage.
At the time of increasing U.S.-Russia confrontation and partisan thinking over Ukraine, it is becoming difficult for think tanks in these two countries to straddle between two extreme viewpoints. In some cases, these think tanks are even coming under media criticism for their stances or political pressure from top policymakers.
The current fragmentation of the EU is an ongoing slow surprise for Moscow that it was not prepared for and that was in no way a result of Russia’s doings. Actually, Russia was expecting the EU to eventually consolidate and become an independent global player free of US patronage. Besides, it is easier to trade and relate with the single body in Europe, not facing the perspective of having 28 representatives at the table discussing minor trade or visa issues.