But the more practical reason for Russia’s sudden interest in Latin America is probably not a desire to reignite the Cold War but instead to generate cold, hard cash. The Castro brothers, despite having personal fortunes estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, won’t dedicate the kind of resources necessary to buy Russian weapons on their own. Putin and company certainly are aware of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt, which the New York Times estimated to be $20 billion in 2000, a debt that Cuba refuses to even acknowledge.
Besides, Russia will be very careful in its dealings with Cuba, not just because the Castros are deadbeats but also because ironically, as Professor Jaime Suchliki of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies pointed out to me, the Russians are still bound by the Kennedy-Khrushchev pact that ended the missile crisis and was never abrogated.
That’s why Russia’s focus has not been solely on Castro’s Cuba but instead on Chavez’s Venezuela. This coziness with the Castro brothers’ benefactor, Hugo Chavez, allows Russia to kill two birds with one stone. It puts a burr under the saddle of U.S. foreign policy in our own backyard and generates revenue from a democratically elected president-cum-dictator with delusions of grandeur and plans for regional hegemony.
Suchliki estimates that Venezuela has already purchased $4 billion in weapons from Russia, including 24 Sukoi fighter-bombers, 53 helicopters, 14 jet fighters, and surface-to-air missiles. In July of this year Chavez announced that he’d buy another $30 billion worth of Russian weapons. Whether that’s hyperbole or not, Venezuela is currently Russia’s third leading purchaser of weapons behind only China and India.
The next American president will have to deal not only with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a potentially nuclear Iran, and a positively nuclear Pakistan and North Korea, but also an increasingly belligerent Russia and its allies led by crackpot despots — a tall order that might make some long for the simplicity of Cold War 1.0.