Medvedev's visit to Venezuela and also to Brazil obviously raised the region's political profile in the eyes of the world. In Caracas, Russian and Venezuelan officials signed a series of accords, including one pledging cooperation in nuclear energy for peaceful uses.
Even before these recent events, Russian-Latin American relations have been expanding in the areas of investment, military and energy. But, certainly, Russia does not maintain the same level of ties with Latin American countries as it did during the Cold War years.
Significantly, Russian-Venezuelan relations have expanded since 2004 with cooperation agreements in the fields of energy, investment and military. Russian energy firms have been invited to invest in petroleum exploration in the Orinoco Basin. And in regard to oil exports, Venezuela has been reaching out to Russia and other countries including Iran, China and Portugal to diversify its oil exports in case any problem occurs with its trade relations with the US.
However, it is not only Venezuela that benefits from Russian military relations. Similar agreements have developed with many other Latin American countries. While Venezuela is the largest purchaser of armaments, Argentina has bought helicopters, radars and air traffic control systems. Peru has also acquired Russian military equipment while Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Colombia pursue cordial military relations.
With Brazil, Russia maintains a strategic partnership through which the two cooperate in technology and in space explorations. In Brasilia, during a three-day visit on November 25-27, Medvedev and President Luiz Lula da Silva discussed the development of bilateral ties in oil and gas production, energy, including nuclear power, as well as space, agriculture and humanitarian issues. Representatives of the two governments also signed agreements on military and technical cooperation.
The Russian president's visit there provided an impetus to the strengthening of bilateral trade and economic, scientific and technical relations in the context of forming a "technological alliance" between the two countries. Bilateral trade between the two nations already surpassed US$7 billion in 2008, and they plan to increase annual investment to $10 billion by 2010.
In addition to Venezuela and Brazil, Russia has technical agreements with Latin American countries including Argentina, Mexico and Chile and assists in many infrastructure projects in the region. Russia's economic investment has multiplied as well and this includes the involvement of its aluminium giant RUSAL in the bauxite industry of both Venezuela and Guyana. However, it is feared that Russian economic enterprises in the region may slow down due to the current global economic crisis.
Evidently, the expanded military relations between Russia and Venezuela, as well as with other countries in the region, are worrying to the US which has traditionally dominated the arms market in Latin America. Thus, Russia's military investment can easily undermine US influence and some military analysts feel that this may whip up an arms race in the region.
Since the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s, Russia downgraded its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) with Cuba being the main loser in this policy change. Russia, by the 1990s, no longer had a socialist government, and the once powerful Soviet Union was broken up in many new states where economic interests rather than socialist ideology had become more important.
Russia itself turned more capitalistic as the decade advanced and moved politically closer to the United States to which it showed strong solidarity following the terrorist attacks in September 2001. And possibly because of this political closeness, it stayed aloof of the leftist leaders of Latin America
- However, all of this changed during the Iraq war and American support for revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and Russia moved to improve ties with countries in the Americas, generally viewed as retaliation for US meddling in its backyard.
But the primary reasons for Russia's re-activism in Latin America can easily be interpreted as its desire to re-emerge as a strong power in the global political scene, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean where it exerted much influence during the Cold War years.
Over the years, LAC has developed strong economic and political linkages with the European Union (EU), and more recently, the Union of South American Nations has fashioned separate partnerships with Africa and the Arab nations. All of these alliances support a preferential trade agreement, something which Russia also wants with Latin America and the Caribbean.
Interestingly, the EU is also troubled by the growing relations between Latin America and Russia. The European Commission has since urged member countries to take action to combat Russian influence in the fields of energy and military in Latin America. The EU is also keen on expanding relations but the grouping has come under sharp criticisms from some LAC governments for not paying too much attention to poverty and other serious social problems in the region as it pushes to expand its economic relationship. For instance, at the EU-LAC summit in Peru last year, the EU was sharply criticised for its plans to implement its new immigration law which will result in the deportation of many Latin American immigrants.
While it is true that some LAC governments are on the ideological left, their relations with Russia cannot be seen as part of a leftist alliance since Russia by no means positioned on the left of the ideological divide. No doubt, by developing economic, military and political relations with Moscow, countries of the region are asserting their independence and emphasising that they can have successful relations with both "West" and "East" as they integrate themselves more and more into the global economy.
And as a new administration takes the reins in Washington, Latin America and the Caribbean are now anxiously look forward to see how the United States -- which has paid little attention to the region in the past eight years -- will approach this changing political, economic and military climate in the region.
Dr. Odeen Oshmael
(The writer is Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)