Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev concluded on Monday a brief Latin American tour in which he visited Cuba and Brazil. The trip occurred without any great fanfare. Nevertheless, it served to remind Latin America that Russia has not forgotten the Western Hemisphere, even though the region is hardly a top priority for the Kremlin.
Medvedev’s first stop was in Brazil, where he met with President Dilma Rousseff and hawked Russian military technology to the Brazilian government. For several years now, Brasilia has been carrying out ambitious modernization programs, which have included a partnership with France to build four Scorpene submarines and an interest in acquiring German KMW Gepard anti-aircraft tanks. Regarding Russian weaponry, the Brazilian military is considering purchasing Pantsir-S1 missiles.
Besides arms sales, Russia’s aim seems to be directed toward increasing trade with Brazil. After meeting with President Rousseff, Medvedev hinted that he would like trade between their countries to reach $10 billion. A theme that continued during the next — and final — stop on the Russian prime minister’s tour: Cuba. He met with President Raul Castro on the eve of his surprise retirement announcement as well as with Raul’s grey-eminence brother. Medvedev also signed 10 bilateral agreements with Havana to improve trade and intergovernmental relations. (According to RIA Novosti, Russia and Cuba’s bilateral trade “totaled a mere $194.9 million for 11 months of 2012.”)
It seems clear that Medvedev’s mini-trip was meant to serve as a reminder to Latin America that Russia is still interested in being a trading partner. The timing makes sense: the region stands on the verge of some historic political and economic shifts — and as global interest in its regional trade has been heating up. Medvedev’s visit came shortly after a summit between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the European Union. The E.U., in spite of the financial woes of several of its member states, is focused on portraying itself as a potential trading partner with various Latin American states (such as Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Chile) that are enjoying years of economic growth. In addition, China has a growing presence in the Caribbean, as exemplified by over $3 billion USD it is investing to build a hotel resort (called Baha Mar) in the Bahamas. Moreover, leaders of the Arab world and South America held a summit in October 2012 to discuss potential interregional trade relations. Moscow, it seems clear, does not wish to fall behind.
Admittedly, Medvedev’s quick tour is less significant now that he is no longer president. But that does not mean it is bereft of meaning. As interesting as it is to see which countries he visited, it is also enlightening to note the countries that he did not — or rather one in particular. That would be Venezuela, which has been a staunch Russian ally for over a decade. The recently re-elected Hugo Chavez has spent billions of oil dollars on Russian military equipment; Venezuela is one of the few nations other than Russia that has recognized the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after a 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. In spite of these pro-Moscow initiatives, Medvedev did not even briefly stop in Caracas to check on the ailing Chavez. The likely reason? Uncertainty regarding the future of the Venezuelan government: Chavez’s survival is an open question and there is widespread speculation regarding possible factions forming within the upper echelons of Venezuelan leadership, potentially lining up behind Vice President Nicolas Maduro, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello or even the country’s military. Should elections occur, there is also the possibility (albeit a small one) of an opposition candidate such as Henrique Capriles coming into power. A visit to Caracas would have meant effectively taking Chavez’s or his proxies’ side in the likely upcoming shift in Venezuela’s domestic politics — a situation that Moscow probably wants to avoid given of the tidy business Russia would lose out on should it guess wrong.