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RUSSIAN INFLUENCE IN CUBA, NICARAGUA, AND VENEZUELA

Maria Zuppello, SOUTHCOM Team

Week of Monday, July 26, 2021


The Russia-Nicaragua anti-narcotics training center in Managua[1]


In recent years, Latin America has become an increasingly strategic location for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow's relationship has been special with the so-called Caribbean Triangle, which includes its historical Cold War allies, Cuba and Nicaragua, and also Venezuela.[2] Through arms and energy diplomacy, these leftist regimes have become Russia's bridge to the strategic penetration of the Latin American continent, as they allow Moscow to evade sanctions and geopolitically challenge the US in the region, just like the Soviet Union did in the past. By militarily strengthening authoritarian governments, spreading disinformation, exacerbating humanitarian crises, and fueling guerrilla violence, Russia's growing influence threatens both US national security interests and Latin American stability. The US government must take action to contain Russian engagement in the Caribbean Triangle in order to prevent the development of significant anti-western blocs in Latin America.


After a brief cooling in relations between the United States and the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), caused by its dissolution, Russia has regained momentum with its long-standing Latin American allies, Cuba and Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The reason is that all three states are members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) led by leftist anti-American populists, which seek to create economic alternatives to Western-dominated financial institutions.[3] By sharing a common ideology, these countries are strategically valuable for Russia to become a key pole in a multipolar world where power and decision-making are shifting from the US to emerging non-Western countries, as former Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, predicted in the 1990s.[4] Since countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela are unlikely to challenge the United States militarily on their own, Russia gives them military backing. As a result, thanks in part to their strategic proximity to the United States, Russia sees them as a visible link in the chain of a multipolar world that it is building with other powers such as China. This means that these countries enable Russia to threaten the US geopolitically, as well as economically. One of the driving factors of Russian infiltration is that through the Latin American region the Kremlin found a way out of international isolation in the wake of the economic sanctions imposed by the EU and the US in response to the crisis in Ukraine.[5] The fact that no Latin American country was induced to impose sanctions enabled Moscow to purchase food and meet in Latin America, ensuring food security for its population. On the other hand, it facilitated many Latin American countries to sell Russian products such as meat in near-monopolistic conditions, as the US and European markets were unable to sell these products due to their sanctions. Also, Russia discovered in the Caribbean Triangle a lucrative market to sell its weapons, which enabled Moscow to surpass the US. Since this market has established a trusting relationship with these countries, it is likely to pave the way for military nuclear facilities as well, bolstering Russian influence in the region. Recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, stated that Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela require “now more than ever” the support of Moscow to face what he has labeled as “threats”, including “the open use of military force against those nations, which maintain a tense relationship with the United States”.[6] Shoigu's statement is concerning since the Kremlin emphasizes the idea of escalating military cooperation in the Caribbean Triangle in the face of a potential external danger related to the US. While this comment may simply be an expression of an anti-American narrative intended to undermine the US, Washington should avoid triggering any short-term confrontation that could provoke a Russian response. If the US fails to contain Moscow's influence in the area, over time alliances hostile to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), such as the Russia-China alliance, are likely to grow with ramifications for Latin America's democracy and economic development, as well as for the rest of the world.


In 2016, close to 400 Russian military personnel were present in Nicaragua under the pretext of joint military exercises and in 2017 the authorities inaugurated in the capital Managua the Russia-Nicaragua anti-narcotics training center.[7] Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner organization, a proxy army for the Russian Ministry of Defense, were reportedly stationed in Venezuela in 2019 to support President Maduro.[8] Military-technical cooperation and arms sales are the way that the Kremlin infiltrates the region since they entail maintenance, renewal, and training which deepen and strengthen state-to-state relationships. On the one hand, this military collaboration with low-cost armaments saves local governments' money; on the other, it is a state-capture strategy, since the countries that purchase the armaments are militarily and strategically reliant on Russia. This dependency relationship enables the Kremlin to demand favors in exchange which means that Russia has the power to intervene in local elections to push its political and economic agenda, as well as to ask Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela for stronger diplomatic and political assistance in international institutions in the face of any international sanctions. As a result, counter-blocks like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), are likely to be strengthened at the expense of multilateral institutions like the Organization of American States (OAS). Additionally, as seen in Nicaragua, Russian military training for anti-drug operations is likely to call into question the importance of US involvement in combating drug trafficking in the region, since it allows Russian experts to access the region's intelligence and logistics networks, as well as the US counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism strategies and tactics.[9] Given Russia's tough stance on drugs within its borders, where dealers are compared to serial killers, concerns are growing about the quality of Russian counter-narcotics cooperation in the Caribbean Triangle, which is likely to undermine any Western professional efforts to combat drug trafficking. As a result, Russia's military cooperation has the potential to undercut the ambitions of significant regional powers to work with the US on coalition building for international security programs, as well as regional security initiatives.


Venezuela has assembled one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the Western Hemisphere. In 2011, the country was placed sixth in terms of Russian arms deliveries, with an estimated value of $1.7 billion.[10] Moscow has sold to Nicaragua 90% of its armaments since 2000, as well as artillery, armored vehicles, air defense systems, and naval assets to Cuba since 2009.[11] Russia benefits from the Caribbean Triangle arms trade as a source of money and a means of displacing American suppliers. This poses a threat to the regional stability of Latin America and the United States, as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela's governments are growing more dictatorial as a result of these weapons. Human rights violations are likely to skyrocket, while more political dissidents are expected to be arrested or to flee. Given that countries like Venezuela can use this arsenal to arm violent insurgents and transnational guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the risk to neighboring countries is also particularly high as violence and instability are likely to rise. Furthermore, criminal groups are likely to use Russian armaments and submarines to defend drug trafficking routes and transport drugs to the United States or Europe. This is likely to attract the Russian mafia, as it is familiar with and skilled in the usage of Russian armaments.


In 2017, Moscow improved its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) by establishing a network of land-based control stations, one of them in Nicaragua.[12] The location of the station, which is close to the US Embassy, has sparked speculation about its potential use for wiretapping and espionage.[13] Though said to serve purely civilian purposes, the GLONASS station has the technical potential to provide Russia with critical signal intelligence throughout the region. Concerns are rising that Moscow may use the tracking system's data to favor Russian economic interests over US competitors in the region.[14] The risk is also that the tracking system may allow Russian military forces to obtain key data on the critical infrastructure of US region partners. Additionally, spy networks are expected to be established to facilitate the collection of intelligence data. In the worst-case scenario, it would force the US to dedicate additional resources to the region. Russia is likely to use GLONASS as a platform for offensive cyber operations against the United States and its regional allies. Government institutions, energy grids, and industrial facilities are likely to be targeted, meaning that the Caribbean Triangle is a potential tool for Russian hybrid warfare, which combines traditional and unconventional techniques to attain political goals.

In contrast to China's efforts in Latin America, Russia's investment in the region is modest, $13.5 billion per year, and limited to a few countries and economic sectors such as oil exploration, mining, select technology industries, weaponry, and food purchases.[15] Russian oil company Rosneft invested in Venezuela $1.8 billion between 2010-2014, becoming a key facilitator of Venezuelan crude shipments in the region.[16] The oil trade is one of the driving factors of Russia's relationship with the Caribbean Triangle, as it enables Putin's administration by eroding US authority in what has historically been America's geopolitical backyard, while also allowing these countries to mitigate the negative impacts of US sanctions or embargoes. Since Russian oligarchs and business executives with criminal backgrounds are behind the oil trade, the links with rogue local state-owned firms, politicians, or high-ranking officers are expected to grow, resulting in widespread corruption. Through the oil trade, Moscow is likely to gain access to ports and naval bases in the region. This would result in strategic control of infrastructure that may be employed in the event of regional or international crises.


Energy diplomacy is also an effective tool for penetrating the Caribbean Triangle's financial system, as Moscow purchases crude oil in exchange for attractive and flexible loans.[17] Moscow paid off Cuba's $32 billion debt in 2014 and 2017 agreed to restructure $3 billion in loans to Venezuela to help the country get out of debt.[18] These loans provide a short-term lifeline to these countries' crumbling economies. In turn, Russian banks gain access to local financial institutions, which is especially important given that several of them, like the Vnesheconombank (VEB), had been sanctioned by the US or the European Union (EU), after Russia's annexation of Crimea.[19] As a result, not only does Russia’s financial system avoid the consequences of sanctions, but also it is likely to provide a secure route for entities like state-linked cocaine trafficking organizations, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), to launder money through and with Russia. Furthermore, this financial cooperation that assists Russia in evading sanctions is likely to motivate the Kremlin to launch new cryptocurrencies in the region, as it did with the Petro in Venezuela, to facilitate money laundering. Additionally, this financial collaboration is expected to facilitate the circumvention of sanctions by blacklisted high-profile people from the Caribbean Triangle who are unable to open bank accounts in other countries. Organized crime is likely to become stronger, posing a security threat not only locally but globally, given the international nature of drug trafficking networks and money laundering operations.


In Latin America, Moscow buys agricultural products and exports 75% of fertilizers to Latin American countries such as Nicaragua.[20] Russian phosphate output is dominated by a monopoly in which one of the leading shareholders appears to be Vladimir Litvinenko, President Vladimir Putin's campaign manager.[21] In the wake of the current and perhaps future economic sanctions, Moscow started to seek fresh business prospects in Latin America to counter the negative impact of market damage in Europe. Russia is likely to ensure its food security, by importing food and meat from Latin America. ​​Additionally, Russia contributes to the development of local agriculture. The use of Russian fertilizers in the Caribbean Triangle has the potential to increase soil fertility and enable food independence. Increased access to food may help the Caribbean Triangle countries to meet the second UN Agenda 21 target of eradicating hunger. Furthermore, poor farmers' revenues are likely to rise. However, since ​​the phosphate monopoly is held by a single company, crops could be lost if the Russian monopoly restricts deliveries, putting huge portions of the local population at risk of death. Small farmers may be compelled to sell or leave the land that is no longer viable due to a lack of alternative fertilizers.


Russia has used the COVID-19 pandemic to bolster its strategic position in the region. Six countries across the region, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela, were the first to have authorized the use of the Sputnik V vaccine.[22] Recently, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Nicaragua’s Mechnikov Latin American Biotechnology Institute, a joint project between the government of Nicaragua and the Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA) of Russia’s Ministry of Health, would manufacture the Sputnik V vaccine for Nicaragua and other countries.[23] ​​Since the region is facing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, this is likely to help contain the epidemic. On the other hand, this is likely to be the start of an extensive Russian biotechnological infiltration that would function under monopoly conditions, since the domestic industry is almost non-existent and people in the region have limited or no access to treatments. Given that other epidemics like measles and tuberculosis have only increased in recent years, Russian pharmaceutical and vaccine production are likely to have a positive impact in containing outbreaks, resulting in a lower mortality rate which may also contribute to the future reduction of poverty.


To date, Nicaragua's poverty rate has increased from 13.5% in 2019 to 14.7% in 2020 while at least two-thirds of Cuba's population lives in substandard conditions.[24] Additionally, 96% of Venezuelans have slipped into poverty under Maduro's regime.[25] Russia's help allows the governments of the Caribbean Triangle and their sinking economies to survive in the face of US embargoes and sanctions. However, Russia's assistance has no development plan and just encourages dependence, which is likely to undermine these countries' economies, ultimately leading to a larger humanitarian crisis. As a result of corruption, the divide between an increasingly wealthy local ruling elite and an increasingly impoverished population is likely to expand. Migratory flows are likely to increase, putting pressure on the economies and government services of receiving countries. Also, internal tensions are likely to arise, bringing instability to the entire continent.


Concerns have also been raised about Russian soft power in the region, which has been utilized to strengthen cultural and political ties, particularly through high-level visits and newly established Spanish-language media channels such as Russia TV and Sputnik.[26] Furthermore, Russian Centers have been established, such as the one at Nicaragua's National Autonomous University.[27] As a result, a counter-narrative in which Russians position themselves as a credible alternative to the US is spreading, boosted by social media. Disinformation, which is a primary driver of Russian digital policy, is likely to make use of the region's unusually high social media penetration rate, estimated around 80%, except for Cuba.[28] This will very likely be done by Russian-linked Twitter and Facebook trolls and bots that are expected to grow, especially on the eve of major local political events. In these authoritarian countries with significant economic and cultural disparities, the Russian propaganda machine has the potential to call for protests, support anti-American populist candidates, influence elections, and stifle democratic development. Furthermore, Russia’s relationship with the Caribbean Triangle’s governments is likely to inspire dangerous regulations on freedom of expressions, such as Nicaragua's "cybercrime" bill, which criminalizes the spread of “fake news” and other speech on the Internet. These forms of legislation allow censorship and punishment of free expression and are likely to transform those regimes into full-fledged terror governments.


Several countermeasures have been implemented to date, including the US administration's rejection of the Nicolás Maduro regime's requests for sanctions relief, as well as several delegations to Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador to promote US priorities of combating corruption, promoting democracy, and assisting allies in combating the global pandemic.[29] However, to contain Russia’s activity in the Caribbean Triangle, US diplomacy should continue to prioritize Latin America, by more diplomatic engagements with neighboring countries, as well as through increased sanctions and asset freezing of politicians and enterprises working with these regimes. Efforts should be focused on key partners and key values in countries that are important to the US political, economic, and security interests, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. It would reduce tensions and could assist in halting Russian advances. The US should consider removing trade barriers for Latin American products entering the US market, encouraging multilateral agreements and interoperability among defense forces, developing a Latin American plan to combat drug trafficking within the region and between states, and improving information exchange among national security agencies. The US should assist neighboring governments in strengthening their anti-money laundering legislation and in developing autonomous organizations for financial intelligence and tax collection. Additionally, it is strongly recommended that Russia’s malign activity in the region is highlighted to expose cases where evidence indicates Russian attempts to manipulate public sentiment to influence an election or exploit social divisions.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) SOUTHCOM Team is continuing to monitor the implications of Russian influence in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. It is monitoring the implications of both the political crisis and the humanitarian emergency. The team is working with the EUCOM Team to conduct analyses and investigate the general impact of Russian geopolitical strategy and with the CICYBER Team since cyber offensives are part of Russian strategy in the region. The team is also working with the Crime Team to detect any patterns or major events that ought to be discussed or analyzed in a future report. Our Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers provide 24/7 analysis on events happening across the globe, including the crisis in the Caribbean Triangle. Our Threat Hunters also continue to identify potential implications of this crisis in the neighboring countries. CTG will continue to share analytical reports to raise awareness of global issues.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] “From Anonymous”

[2] Russia in Latin America: A Strategic Analysis, National Defense University, April 2016, https://cco.ndu.edu/Portals/96/Documents/prism/prism_5-4/Russia%20in%20Latin%20America.pdf

[3] Russia in Latin America: repercussions for Spain, Real Instituto Elcano, July 2020, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/wcm/connect/be53b368-88c7-4a00-acd9-47e0f0521f12/WP13-2020-Milosevich-Russia-in-Latin-America-repercussions-for-Spain.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=be53b368-88c7-4a00-acd9-47e0f0521f12

[4] Multipolarity in Practice: Understanding Russia’s Engagement With Regional Institutions, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/08/multipolarity-in-practice-understanding-russia-s-engagement-with-regional-institutions-pub-80717

[5] Russia: EU prolongs economic sanctions over the destabilization of Ukraine by six months, European Council, July 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/07/12/russia-eu-prolongs-economic-sanctions-over-the-destabilisation-of-ukraine-by-six-months/

[6] Russia Pledges Aid to Latam Countries in the Face of Threats, Tele Sur, June 2021, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Russia-Pledges-Aid-to-Latam-Countries-in-the-Face-of-Threats.-20210624-0023.html

[7] Russia Opens Police Training Center in Nicaragua, Confidencial. October 2017, https://www.confidencial.com.ni/english/russia-opens-police-training-center-in-nicaragua/

[8] Russian mercenaries reportedly in Venezuela to protect Maduro, The Guardian, January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/25/venezuela-maduro-russia-private-security-contractors

[9] Should Russian Anti-Drug Aid to LatAm Worry the US?, Insight Crime, April 2013, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/should-russian-drug-aid-latam-worry-us/

[10] Venezuela Is Armed to the Hilt, Foreign Policy, May 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/02/venezuela-is-armed-to-the-hilt/

[11] Will Nicaragua Become Russia’s ‘Cuba of the 21st Century?’, The Jamestown Foundation, August 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/will-nicaragua-become-russias-cuba-of-the-21st-century/

[12] A Russian Satellite-Tracking Facility in Nicaragua Raises Echoes of the Cold War, World Politic Review, June 2017, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/22385/a-russian-satellite-tracking-facility-in-nicaragua-raises-echoes-of-the-cold-war

[13] A 'special' Russian installation in Nicaragua, Universidad de Navarra, June 2017, https://www.unav.edu/web/global-affairs/detalle/-/blogs/a-special-russian-installation-in-nicaragua

[14] Regional Perspectives Report on Russia, NATO, January 2021 https://www.act.nato.int/application/files/9816/1350/4281/regional-perspectives-2021-01.pdf

[15] Deals in the Dark Russian Corrosive Capital in Latin America, National Endowment for Democracy, November 2020, https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Deals-in-the-Dark-Russian-Corrosive-Capital-in-Latin-America-Stefanov-Vladimirov-Nov-2020.pdf?utm_source=forum&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=corrosive%20capital%202

[16] Rosneft to increase investments in Venezuela, Offshore, June 2015, https://www.offshore-mag.com/business-briefs/company-news/article/16766167/rosneft-to-increase-investments-in-venezuela

[17] Special Report: Vladimir's Venezuela - Leveraging loans to Caracas, Moscow snaps up oil assets, Reuters, August 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-russia-oil-specialreport-idUSKBN1AR14U

[18] Russia Says Venezuela Accepts $3 Billion Restructuring Terms, Bloomberg, November 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-08/russia-says-venezuela-accepts-terms-for-3-billion-restructuring

[19] Russia in Latin America: A Strategic Analysis, National Defense University, April 2016, https://cco.ndu.edu/Portals/96/Documents/prism/prism_5-4/Russia%20in%20Latin%20America.pdf

[20] Russia and Latin America in the 21st century, Ifri, July 2020, https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pyatakov_latin_america_an_2020.pdf

[21] Putin Campaigner Buys $269 Million Phosagro Stake From Guryevs, Bloomberg, April 2014, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-28/putin-campaigner-buys-269-million-phosagro-stake-from-guryevs

[22] How Russian vaccine Sputnik V spread through Latin America, CNN, February 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/02/17/americas/russia-putin-sputnik-vaccine-latin-america-intl/index.html

[23] Russia Ratifies Support To Produce Sputnik V in Nicaragua, News 784, July 2021, https://news784.com/2021/07/19/russia-ratifies-support-to-produce-sputnik-v-in-nicaragua/

[24] What is the poverty rate in Cuba? Difficulties in narrowing down, The Bergen Project, September 2017, https://borgenproject.org/what-is-the-poverty-rate-in-cuba/

[25] Under Maduro, nearly all Venezuelans live in poverty, Share America, August 2020, https://share.america.gov/under-maduro-nearly-all-venezuelans-live-in-poverty/

[26] The Russian Media in Latin America, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, April 2015, https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/publications/policy-roundtable-paper-sanchez.pdf

[27] Will Nicaragua Become Russia’s ‘Cuba of the 21st Century?’, The Jamestown Foundation, August 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/will-nicaragua-become-russias-cuba-of-the-21st-century/

[28] Percentage of population actively using social media in Latin America and Caribbean as of January 2021, by country, Statista, January 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/454805/latam-social-media-reach-country/

[29] U.S. Rejects Maduro’s Call for Biden to Lift Venezuela Sanctions, Bloomberg, June 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-20/u-s-rejects-maduro-s-call-for-biden-to-lift-venezuela-sanctions

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