By Stephen Blank
Recently John Bolton, Director of the National Security Council, gave a speech attacking what he called the Troika of Tyranny: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and announcing new sanctions on these states.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that Bolton’s speech, announcing a new tough-minded U.S. policy towards Latin America, coincided with Vladimir Putin’s actions to bail out these allies of Moscow.
Certainly it is no coincidence that they are allies of Moscow. Putin’s actions merely confirm what observers have long known, namely that he is challenging the U.S. in Latin America just as he believes Washington is challenging Russia on its peripheries.
Not only are these states classic Latin American authoritarian if not dictatorial regimes, Nicaragua and Venezuela are either close to being or actually are failing states.
Venezuelan energy production has collapsed along with the national economy thanks to the kleptocratic and misguided policies of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. Almost 2,000,000 people have fled Venezuela in the last three years creating a major refugee problem across Latin America that could become a crisis for Latin America and the U.S. Inflation on a year on year basis has reached 488.865% as of September 2018 so it is clear this is a failing state yet its leaders refuse to allow reforms.
Worse yet Venezuela is what the Center or Strategic and International Studiescalls a Mafia state, the hub of a wide range of smuggling and narcotics trafficking operations throughout the Americas.
Similarly the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INCSR) reported that Nicaragua remains a primary drug transport route despite the fact that part of Russian aid is supposedly training its military and police to conduct counter-drug operations.
Given what we know of the Moscow-Managua relationship it is more likely that Russian advisors if not forces are involved with their Nicaraguan partners in this trade.
But like Venezuela it is on the verge of fragmentation as popular anger over Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship and corruption have grown to a very high level.
Given these three states’ addiction to personalist, “socialist” and intrinsically anti-American policies it is hardly surprising that Moscow has used them over the years to run guns to insurgent movements and terrorists across Latin America, and in 2008 tried to use Venezuela to unseat the Colombian government allied to the U.S.
Moscow has also sought to use these states as the basis for implanting itself economically in Latin America, primarily in energy sectors, but also to use their media as a platform for flooding the continent with an anti-American information campaign that is part of Russia’s larger global IW campaign.
Finally since 2014 if not earlier, Russia has been seeking to get naval and/or air bases in Nicaragua and Venezuela. More recently, in meetings with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Putin and Canelpledged to increase integration between Moscow and Latin American nations in general, no doubt with Cuba once again trying to play or playing a leading role in that process.
Both men also denounced U.S. “interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.”
But Russo-Cuban tiesgo beyond these more or less traditional denunciations of Washington and the U.S. embargo on Cuba. While Canel was meeting Putin in Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, whose portfolio includes Russia’s military-industrial complex and arms sales with foreign countries, visited Havana. In meetings there both sides agreed on contracts worth more than $2675 million in the military sphere alone, a dramatic increase in Russian investment, presumably to offset and counter the U.S. embargo.
Russian analysts,writing about these meetings, argued that Moscow now has the desire, if not necessarily the means to develop intelligence and communications facilities in Cuba e.g. by reopening the old facility at Lourdes and possibly developing new ones. The expense of opening such facilities or new bases as some have argued would be enormous and its benefits would likely be symbolic.
Nevertheless the Russian Navy long ago stated its desire for bases in Latin Americaor at least port call facilities and could be arguing for a base in Cuba if other locales are unavailable. In any case it is clear that Russia’s ties with Cuba will grow and that likely it will rely more on Cuba, especially given the situation in Nicaragua and Venezuela, more than in the recent past, to be its “spear-carrier” in Latin American.
Given the extensive ties all three states have with Russia and the fact that through their own misrule Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela are permanently under achievers and now in the cross hairs of U.S. policy, it is hardly surprising that Putin is bailing them out.
Putin is giving Cuba $43 million to spend on acquiring Russian military equipmenteven though a U.S. invasion is quite unlikely.
As regards Venezuela, its crisis is so huge that Moscow cannot afford to give it money.
But it has given it something equally precious. Through various mechanism it has conferred international legitimacy upon the Maduro regime and it may have brokered a gold transaction between Venezuela and Turkeylast summer whereby Venezuela shipped its gold to Turkey to be refined in a move that both states openly stated was aimed at destroying the “Hegemony of the dollar.”
Putin has just sent a high-level official delegation to Venezuelato advise the government on how to escape from its self-made crisis.
In other words, from Putin’s standpoint Venezuela is too big to fail.
And while he may not throw too much good money after bad, he will do what he can to sustain these states as a base for anti-American operations throughout Latin America.
Bearing all this in mind, it is necessary for the U.S. to craft a policy for Latin America that goes beyond sanctions to address, and if possible, forestall a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and with other Latin American states, facilitate a transition to more representative rule in Nicaragua.
Cuba on its own is little more than a nuisance but the prospect of one or two failed states or civil war in Venezuela and/or Nicaragua could become a major challenge to American interests and capabilities. Already the incoming Prime Minister of Brazil, Jair Bolnosaro, has had to deny rumors that he and the Colombian government is planning an invasion of Venezuela.
But it is clear that both Maduro and Ortega have no scruples about using violence if that is the only way for them to remain in power.
And it is equally clear that whatever they will do they will enjoy Russian support.
Our previous neglect of Latin America has turned out to be malign in its consequences.
That is no longer a viable option for Washington and the Administration needs to recognize that sooner rather than later.
Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
Featured Photo: Vladimir Putin se comunicó con Nicolas Maduro y le ofrece su apoyo frente a las protestas en Venezuela (Composición).