BOGOTA (Reuters) - U.S. officials may not be the only ones with a touch of Cold War era jitters this week when Russia’s president meets with Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez as the Russian navy conducts Caribbean exercises.
Russia’s foray into Latin America comes at an uncertain time for the region, especially for staunch U.S. ally Colombia, as the U.S. economy totters, the Bush administration fades and Democrat Barack Obama takes over the White House promising to retool U.S. foreign policy.
Moderate governments like Brazil may welcome Russian trade, but they are also skeptical over attempts to use President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit and naval exercises with Venezuela as a geopolitical tool to taunt Washington in its own backyard.
Colombia will be wary as Moscow flexes its muscle and cozies up to Chavez, a fierce Washington adversary who has clashed with his neighbor before over its leftist rebels and White House policies in the region.
Already nervous about Russian arms sales to Venezuela, Colombia has begun courting Moscow and seeking guarantees, especially over the exercises in the Caribbean’s Gulf of Venezuela, where Bogota and Caracas have a maritime dispute.
“Are we going to bring a Cold War to the Gulf? I don’t think it is a threat. We can’t see it that way, but these exercises ... in areas under dispute are complicated for us,” former President Andres Pastrana told El Tiempo newspaper.
Although Washington says it is unconcerned, it acknowledges it is monitoring Russia’s moves. OPEC-member Venezuela and gas giant Russia are increasing energy and military cooperation as Moscow-Washington ties are strained over the Georgia war and U.S. missile defense plans in eastern Europe.
Russia has signed oil deals and sold billions of dollars in military hardware to Venezuela, offered military cooperation to Ecuador and trade to Brazil. Medvedev will meet Chavez before strengthening ties with Cuba in a visit to Havana.
Colombia, which has received billions in U.S. aid to fight rebels, says its relationship with Washington is not exclusive, and is seeking to diversify its markets as economic crisis grips its important trade partner.
Russia’s foreign minister met President Alvaro Uribe last week in Bogota, where they focused on trade. Colombia secured guarantees the exercises will not go near areas under dispute.
Colombia and Venezuela nearly went to war over the gas-rich Gulf of Venezuela waters in the 1980s.
“I don’t see a security threat, but Venezuela is a neighbor with a capacity to be a protagonist in the global context and Colombia is being left in a limited position,” said Rodrigo Pardo, a former foreign minister. “Colombia is looking to prevent something that may be negative for its interests.”
Russia’s push into Latin America follows China, which for years has been increasing commercial ties in the region.
Medvedev’s visit to Latin America also comes at a time when Colombia’s special relationship with Washington is under review. Obama resists a free trade deal for Uribe and will likely demand stricter rights conditions on new aid.
His trip may serve to irk Washington. But Russia appears more motivated by commerce than by forging Cold War-style frontlines lines in Latin America, said Shannon O’Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Russia is more interested in making inroads across the continent than they are in picking out particular countries,” she said.
Medvedev visited Brazil to sign aerospace, nuclear and defense industry deals. But Brazil will likely demand more in return. It says Russia is acting slowly to reform the U.N. Security Council, where the South American giant wants a seat.
Brazil also wants U.S. ties to improve under Obama.
“We’re not interested in some 19th century-style, Bismarckian politics of balance of power,” said Brazilian Strategic Affairs Minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger.
Mexico and other center-right governments with close trade ties to the United States are likely to be unfazed by the Russian visit even if it ruffles U.S. feathers, said Andres Rozental, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister.
“The Western Hemisphere has great expectations for Obama,” said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Bogota. “If Obama as president shows interest in the region, Medvedev’s visit will soon be forgotten except, perhaps, in the three countries he will visit.”
Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in Brazil and Catherine Bremer in Mexico; editing by Saul Hudson