25 Feb OpEd: Russia already is destabilizing Latin American democracy — without military might
Opinion BY CARLOS VECCHIO published by the Miami Herald: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article258732498.html
“We are going to advance along the path of powerful military cooperation between Russia and Venezuela.” Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro made this statement from Caracas on Feb. 16, accompanied by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Yuri Borisov. It is not fortuitous that, amid the Ukraine crisis, Vladimir Putin has sent a senior official to back Maduro in his statement. On Jan. 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said he “could neither affirm nor exclude that Russia would send military assets to Cuba and Venezuela.”
It’s a mistake to underestimate the potential for the Kremlin’s negative impact on our continent. Although the threat of Russian military bases in Latin America may be seen as bluster, the reality is that Putin does not need them to exert his damaging influence in the region.
He has long taken advantage of regional political dynamics to destabilize what Russia considers an American “sphere of influence.” The Kremlin has proven to have a range of options to accomplish this, including espionage, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, military assistance and even enabling irregular channels to launder illicit financial assets. These tools are strategically and continually applied in Venezuela to stabilize Maduro’s dictatorship.
The Inter-American Democratic Charter was approved on Sept. 11, 2001, but Latin America has changed significantly since then. Freedom House highlights that our democracies have been eroded, while the presence and influence of anti-freedom regimes are consolidating in our countries, with Russia and China at the vanguard. The Cuban dictatorship has been joined by Venezuela and Nicaragua. Other countries are struggling to hold on to their democracies.
Venezuela is a spearhead for the Kremlin to destabilize the continent and is for Putin what Cuba was for the Soviet Union, but without ideological affinity. Its affinities are kleptocracy and corruption. Putin’s unwavering support of dictator Maduro is not to overcome the crisis in Venezuela, but for us to sink into it, since chaos favors Moscow’s geostrategic interests. Putin is a friend of the dictatorship, not of Venezuela.
Putin supports the author of the worst crisis in Latin America in the past 100 years, with over 6 million refugees (21% of our population), over 26 million poor (94% of Venezuelans), and an 80% economic contraction. Russia sustains a dictatorship, with full of political prisoners, crimes against humanity investigated by the ICC, and an ally of narcoterrorist groups, such as ELN and FARC dissidents with illegal gold mining operations. Venezuela exports conflict to the entire region. Just what the Kremlin needs.
Add to this the destruction of the Venezuelan oil industry. The absence of our oil and gas in the international energy market makes it easier for Moscow to be a strategic energy supplier. Russia also helps Maduro evade international sanctions and, consequently, to plunder the Venezuelan people.
Putin’s negative influence in Latin-America is not restricted to Venezuela. The Colombian government denounced that the Kremlin is behind cyber-attacks, espionage activities, incitement to violence and protests through social media, violation of its airspace, and military assistance to Maduro’s dictatorship. In this year’s presidential elections in Colombia, Russia and the Maduro dictatorship are seeking to add a new ally in their ongoing destabilization plan. Chile and Ecuador also made similar allegations.
Putin’s importance to Latin America became evident when, initiating his campaign against Ukraine, he spent part of his agenda telephoning the dictators of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba and arranging visits by the presidents of Argentina and Brazil.
Russia does not need bases and missiles in Latin America — not when the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy of politically and socially destabilizing the American continent, eroding its institutions, increasing social conflicts, and promoting dictatorships or anti-U.S. allies already undermine its democracies and threaten the security of our peoples.
The hemisphere must be not only on alert, actively defend the interests, security, and democracies of our peoples. We, Latin Americans, must reject Putin’s pretensions to use us as exchange tokens to satisfy his ambitions, since they never represent a benefit for the region.
The United States should not underestimate Russia’s actions in our region. The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022, by U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio “to counter this malign influence,” is a good starting point. The United States and the democracies of the world must lead a multilateral initiative against Russian interference in Latin America.
Otherwise, the hemisphere’s peace, stability, and security will be in grave danger.
Carlos Vecchio is Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States.