Latin America, Russia and the Invasion of Ukraine: A (Post-)Liberal Interpretation

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in some important geopolitical realignments. One of these has been the revision —or ratification— of the nexuses of different countries in the Global South with Russia. In this context, Latin America —a region of nations with different historical, political and socioeconomic trajectories— becomes relevant for Russia’s foreign policy goals.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Russia began to recuperate and expand its presence in Latin America. The Kremlin was first motivated by economic and commercial interests, intending for Russian businesses (in the weapons, gas and petrol industries) to have access to a new market. However, over the years this relationship has expanded to the political and geostrategic realms as the relationship between Russia and the U.S. intensified. As the confrontation between the two has escalated, the Kremlin has sought to increase its influence in certain Latin American countries as a means to influence Washington’s backyard.

On the Kremlin’s watch

In the context of Russia’s foreign policy, Latin America is part of the Kremlin’s interest to increase its international presence and to build relations using regional integration mechanisms. This approach —like Russia’s foreign policy in general— has focused on various aspects, including the economic and political dimensions, all under the guise of an autocratic and reactionary power that, as historian Claudio Ingerflom has pointed out, combines an old antiliberal perspective which seeks to repress citizen rights both inside and outside its borders.[1]

This increased influence can be observed in the economic and commercial realms where Russia utilizes various strategies, such as cutting commercial deals, offering discounts on exports, and tax relief (in some cases from debts accrued before the Soviet Union collapsed) to Latin American countries. The Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican markets are some of the most important in the region for Russia. These three countries are G20 members, much like Russia. Brazil —again, like Russia— is also part of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Both Mexico and Brazil export products that Russia consumes, including cane sugar, soy, coffee, meat, industrial machinery, automobiles, telephones and malt beer. Commerce between Russia and Brazil increased significantly at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly during Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s presidency, and during Dilma Rousseff’s first term. Russia’s relationship with Mexico has grown to include collaboration in unexpected areas, such as the aerospace industry. However, these kinds of collaborations are rather small and marginal in comparison to Russia’s exchanges with other parts of the world.

On the political front, the Kremlin has supported its allies in various countries. The goal is to consolidate Russia’s international presence and to suppress support for Western democracies. The fact that the political agendas of various Latin American governments (especially those of the Bolivarian bloc) are ideologically illiberal helps Russia achieve this goal. Moscow has managed to deepen its cooperation with said autocracies, establishing bonds that transcend their commercial and military alliances. Russia has recognized and fortified the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan governments through diplomacy, material support for defense and security purposes, and to a lesser extent, through economic and financial collaboration.

In the region, the Kremlin has shown interest in both left- and right-wing governments. In Latin America, we have observed this with the political alliances formed with the Bolivarian bloc. Ties have also been strengthened with Bukele’s (El Salvador) and Bolsonaro’s (Brazil) governments. Jair Bolsonaro became particularly close with Putin even before the war in Ukraine began. Generally speaking, the Kremlin’s closest alliances and connections in the hemisphere have been with the leaders of authoritarian, or illiberal, regimes. It is not surprising, then, that Russian propaganda —opposed to sexual diversity, feminism, political pluralism and the rule of law— has resonated with the conservative factions of various Latin American societies.

Therefore, the less democratic the values and preferences of a given political actor, the greater the possibility that said actor will sympathize with, and get closer to, Russia. As Ingerflom (2022: 209) points out: “the goal of the Putinist project is to restrict freedom and to follow the Chinese model…It strengthens itself as the only criteria for coexistence, both in and outside its borders. It is a repetitive bet in Russian history which has, on numerous occasions, yielded positive results to accomplish its goals, including the compliance of its own peoples for the sake of territorial expansion and war adventures.” Similarly, Havana’s, Managua’s and Caracas’ rationale for allying themselves with Russia, beyond the specific circumstances of a given moment, goes back to these governments’ interest in evading critiques and commercial sanctions (again, due to their authoritarian nature) while incorporating Russian influence into the region to outweigh the U.S.’.

With Kyiv or Moscow? With freedom or with despotism?

The kind of relationships that Russia has forged with the countries in the region has largely determined how each of them have reacted to the invasion of Ukraine. How close they are to Moscow, what their commercial nexuses are, their changes in leadership and their tradition (or not) of neutrality in the face of international conflicts, explain how each country positioned itself. Some governments condemned the war and repudiated the Russian invasion (i.e. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay); however, others have been ambiguous and have contradicted themselves (Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia) in their diplomatic or governmental positions. Mexico, in particular, has condemned the Kremlin’s use of force in international forums (such as the UN). Yet, in an attempt to present themselves as defenders of negotiations, Mexican authorities have been erratic in their positions regarding who is to blame for the conflict and how it should be ended.

There are some relevant cases of democratic and diplomatic coherence in the face of Russian aggression. It is worth pointing out Chile’s leftist government, led by Gabriel Boric, has condemned the invasion, shown solidarity with Ukrainians and defended peace and human rights. Countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have not even used the term “war,” in some cases openly supporting their alliances and cooperation with Russia in the hopes that said collaboration could continue despite the invasion and the sanctions imposed on the latter. Havana buying three oil shipments from Moscow in recent weeks, or Venezuelan and Nicaraguan troops joining Russian forces in joint military exercises, are examples of these countries’ support for the Kremlin.

The last rounds of voting in the United Nations show who the Kremlin’s loyal allies are. On September 21st, when the possibility of President Volodymyr Zelensky giving his speech remotely (due to him not being able to travel to New York because of the war) was discussed, the overwhelming majority of the international community (101 nations) supported his intervention. A small group of 19 countries (including China) abstained. An even smaller group of 7 (authoritarian) governments (Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Cuba, and Nicaragua) opposed themselves to Zelensky’s speech being heard in the plenary —something that the Ukrainian leadership repudiated.

More recently (on October 12th), on a vote at the United Nations General Assembly, a majority of 143 (out of 193) countries condemned Russia for annexing territories in Eastern Ukraine. The resolution, which ratifies the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally-recognized borders, was only rejected by Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, North Korea and Belarus. In Latin America, said annexation was largely rejected. However, Cuba, Bolivia and Honduras abstained, while El Salvador and Venezuela voted in favor. The Cuban and Nicaraguan governments had previously attempted —along with Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, China, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Mali, Zimbabwe and Sudan— to block said vote, losing to 107 countries which rejected said attempt, and 39 which abstained.

The closeness between these autocracies and Moscow was acknowledged by Putin supporters. Commentator Vladimir Soloyov suggested that an international coalition be created to fight on the Kremlin’s side in Ukraine, identifying Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran and North Korea as key allies. For their part, these governments have voted against, or abstained, from voting to condemn the invasion at the UN-level. On February 26th, the Cuban government released a statement titled “Declaration of the Revolutionary Government,” which pointed out that “Russia has the right to defend itself. Peace cannot be achieved by sieging or cornering states.” In the context of the actual UN Assembly, the Cuban chancellor has celebrated what he called a “cordial encounter with Sergei Lavrov, Russian chancellor,” ratifying the “excellent state of the political ties between Russia and Cuba and the intention to continue deepening economic, commercial, financial and cooperative nexuses” in order to develop a “plan for political consultations between both chancelleries.”

All of this poses a challenge to positions such as those recently announced by the European Union, which is revising and relaunching its agenda in Latin America, focused on diminishing China’s and Russia’s influence in the region. But, how could this new route be coherently forged when Brussels continues to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Cuba, which has continuously defended Moscow, the EU’s adversary? What to do with those countries which, despite being democracies, have populist left-wing or right-wing governments which show divisions and contradictions —and sometimes even outright support for the invading country?

However, the present war is not traditional; it is messianic because its aim is not to alter the post-Cold War order, but to bring about the total downfall of the West. This involves, as Ingerflom (2022: 209) has pointed out, the violent suppression of “governments, institutions and life values conquered by pluri-secular peoples’ fights” in order to achieve a new world ruled by Russia as the “power-leader” with the values shown by its present leadership. Societies must, therefore, side politically and axiologically with Moscow to avoid being annihilated. This means, essentially, that the values of the Putinist project are not merely conservative, but deeply reactionary. The social, intellectual and political democratic communities in Latin America must repudiate this prospect.

What are we? Where are we going?

The world has gone back to being —as in the beginning of the last century— a geographic space of expansive markets, of states that are strong, intrusive and sovereign, and one where the rights to vote, protest and observe the government are still not guaranteed in many nations. However, the dispute between democracy and autocracy appears as a relevant contradiction, especially in those areas of the world where (like in Latin America) the former seemed like a given after so many political changes (many won over by social movements).

None of this means that we should not continue to fight for other objectives such as economic development, social justice and national sovereignty. However, the relativism shown in the face of invasions and increasing authoritarianism in the name of (anti-U.S.) anti-imperialism is simply unsustainable. So is the manufactured confusion shown by both the Putinist left and right, which reduce the liberal legacy (in order to defend it or attack it) to its elitist or neoliberal expressions, ignoring ex profeso that only in open and pluralist societies where the law, knowledge and power are not controlled by a clique or a caudillo, politics acquire a true emancipatory meaning.[2] This is the result of the fight for democracy that has been taking place over the last two centuries, where political liberalism, as an ideal and sensibility, have a meaningful place.

Putin’s anti-liberalism is not opposed to a capitalist economy, to colonialism, racism or the oppression of minorities. As Ingerflom (2022: 208) points out, “the opposition is to the emancipatory principles of liberalism, to the conquests of the French Revolution, which turned the privileges of a few into political liberties for many. In democratic countries, said liberties have been, and continue to be, close in practice to the dominant elites; however, they are not conditional and are therefore hardly questioned in principle. Consequently, liberalism allows enough space for social and political fights to be waged for a better society and for the right to protest, individually and collectively. As we have seen, these pluralist spaces are rejected by the Russian president. In practice, these principles are frequently violated in the West; however, with the exception of the dictatorships that are automatically positioned outside of political liberalism, the separation between the State and society guarantee that there is pushback. The current Russian government openly and explicitly rejects political liberalism, meaning the prohibition and repression of any and all alternatives to its project.”

A schematically liberal perspective would narrow down societies’ individual and collective agendas to what has a place in representative institutions —in polyarchic fashion— leading to the oligarchizing of politics. An illiberal (populist) or antiliberal (totalitarian) approach would propose to substitute a diverse and belligerent citizenry for cheering masses that can be easily mobilized, and seek to restrict —or outright eliminate— political pluralism. A postliberal agenda would seek to include a diversity of actors, identities, agendas and, without suppressing the liberal republic of the masses’ institutions and rights, it would propose alternatives on how societies should be organized, how citizens could participate in politics and how politicians should be held accountable.

This postliberal vision would lead to a global democratic solidarity that would go beyond the commercial and diplomatic ties established between governments, focusing on the defense and active promotion of democratic institutions and values —which are, historically and culturally, as universal as those of their enemies—. This solidarity could take various forms: transnational networks of organizations and intellectuals who support populations that have been invaded or repressed by autocrats; lobbies made up of activists who promote sanctions on straw men, repressors or oligarchs; online and offline campaigns to protest against tyrannies; summits where governments and civil societies alike participate in order to strengthen resilience on the economic, educational, cultural and political fronts in threatened democracies.[3]

In the present context —which has been shaped by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine— a postliberal and pro-democracy agenda is more important than ever. Russia continues to exert its influence over Latin America (mostly with disinformation campaigns), seeking to erode democracy. This is happening at the orders of a despot who, to quote Professor Ingerflom, “threatens to annihilate everyone who is not on board with him,” staying very much in line with “the history of a power that does not cease combatting its own people.” The recent mobilization ordered by the Kremlin, as well as the protests against the invasion that have taken place in Russia (and which have been repressed), exemplify the synergy between militarist expansionism and the suppression of initiatives that emerge at the civil society level.[4]

With this in mind, Latin America needs —practically and normatively— a democratic agenda with deep historical roots, ideas, republican values and agendas, that should be revised to resolve the inequality, injustice and underdevelopment. However, this agenda can only be forged by taking a postliberal —never illiberal, much less antiliberal— approach to defend the rights of citizens,[5] one where democratic innovation, the expansion of social welfare and the defense of the rule of law coexist in the best tradition of liberal democracy, one where human beings are not seen through elitist or culturalist lenses. This is diametrically opposed to the reactionary project of allegiance which, with the pretext of defending a new world order and starting a new arms race, the leader of the Kremlin wants to impose upon us.


Notes:

[1] See Claudio Ingerflom: El dominio del amo. El estado ruso, la guerra con Ucrania y el nuevo orden mundial, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Buenos Aires, 2022.

[2] See Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and its Discontents, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2022.

[3] For two recent approximations to these networks and agendas, their problems and potentials, see Jonathan Pinckney, Charles Butcher and Jessica Maves Braithwaite: Organizations, Resistance, and Democracy: How Civil Society Organizations Impact Democratization, International Studies Quarterly, Volume 66, Issue 1, March 2022; and M. Nasibov: “Civil Society and Pro-Democracy Social Movements: Troubled Relations Within Authoritarian Regimes?,” Frontiers in Political Science, 2021.

[4] See Alexander Baunov: “Why Is Putin Upping the Ante in Ukraine?”, Carnegie Politika and Andrei Kolesnikov: “Putin has just laid a land mine under his regime”, CNN, 2022.

[5] See Philippe C. Schmitter: “Post-liberal democracy: a sketch of the possible future?”, Instituto Universitario Europeo, February 2018, and Enrique Peruzzotti: “Post‑liberal and Post‑populist Democracy: Rethinking”Democratic Representation, Chinese Political Science Review, 4, 2019, 221–237.

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ARMANDO CHAGUACEDA
ARMANDO CHAGUACEDA
Armando Chaguaceda. Cuban political scientist and historian graduated from the University of Havana (Cuba) and the University of Veracruz (Mexico). Researcher specialized in government and political analysis, and country-expert of the V-Dem project. He studies the processes of democratization and self-cratization in Latin America and Russia.

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