Missing the Point on Latin America

peru112208.jpgWith the APEC Summit getting underway this weekend in Lima, Peru, the world’s eyes are on Latin America, focusing with unusual interest over this oft-forgotten continent, looking for an indication of the prevailing economic winds.  Naturally, thanks to the carefully timed naval war games with Venezuela, Russia is again stealing some spotlight.

But as usual, most of the media I’ve been reading has been missing the point on this summit in Latin America, especially with regard to Russia’s activism in the region.  I refer to today’s disappointing New York Times article, Flux in Latin America Affects Russia’s Diplomacy.

First of all, we do ourselves a disservice to pretend like Russia’s strong diplomacy and interest in Latin America is something new – this has been going on for many years now, with significant success and little reaction from Washington.  One could even argue that Moscow’s presence and influence in the region is a continuation of the Cold War policies to finance communist groups – an activity that drove Ronald Reagan to such heights of paranoia that most Central American nations still carry the damaging legacy of death squads and civil conflict.

In attempting to tease out the real impact of Russia’s renewed diplomacy in the region, the media appears to be missing the point – characterizing Venezuela as a “Ukraine-like” security issue for the United States while ignoring the continental drift away from markets, rule of law, and democratic institutions.  Russia’s unique brand of Putinist authoritarian capitalism needs to be viewed as a competing model of governance – although not necessarily ideological, it is an example next to that of the United States and Europe – our attention should be directed toward the ways in which certain Latin American nations are liberally taking pages out of the Russian authoritarian user’s manual

Prime examples include Daniel Ortega’s recent potemkin election in Nicaragua, resource nationalism in Bolivia and Ecuador, and of course, the constitutional raping by the continent’s leading chekist, Hugo Chavez.  There is inspirational encouragement from this rising foreign power, who can sell arms, give you nuclear power, and protect you from sanctions in international organizations like the United Nations, pushing governments toward measures to seize private property, consolidate authoritarianism, and water down democratic rights.

It’s not exactly that we should ignore the military build up currently occuring in Latin America, but rather understand it as a Russian move to artificially create leverage points to eventually force concessions from Washington in other areas of the relationship.  There is a particularly illuminating quote in that New York Times story from the Brazilian minister of strategic affairs, Roberto Mangabeira Unger:  “We are not interested in buying defense products off the shelf. (…) Unlike other South American countries we don’t go around buyingthings, and we are not interested in some kind of balance-of-powerpolitics to contain the United States.

Unger, whom I believe is one of the most brilliant strategic minds out there, is revealing an important point – that in negotations with Russian diplomats, many Latin American governments are finding themselves pressured into arms purchases by the Russians – which forms part of the so-called “tied selling” package of relations with Moscow.  You get a political cooperation deal along with energy, arms, and business – it all comes together.  I do not know of any effort by the Americans or Europeans to come to terms with the tied selling strategy, or an understanding of what this does both to competitive markets as well as

What I really wish the well intentioned reporters at the Times were doing is investigating the particular characters involved in the Russian surge in Latin America.  Who, for example, is Igor Sechin, and what clan is he from?  How are some groups of bureaucrat-businessmen benefiting from these new relationships, and how can we measure that against the legitimate concerns posed to regional security and balance of power?  These are just a few of the questions we should begin with, and see where we end up when we follow the money.

Photo:  A soldier stands guard outside theMinistry of Defense Convention Center where delegates are gathering forthe upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in LimaNovember 20, 2008. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (PERU)