Over the past two decades, democracy has been in retreat around the world, and Latin America is no exception. The region has suffered significant setbacks: the rise of dictatorships in Nicaragua and Venezuela, an emboldened totalitarian regime in Cuba, a hybrid authoritarian regime in Bolivia, and dangerous populist movements and democratic erosion from Mexico to Brazil.
At the same time, the world has seen two major world powers, the Chinese and Russian dictatorships, devolve into more aggressive, authoritarian regimes and greatly expand their influence across the globe, including in Latin America. Although these regimes might project their power in different ways, they’ve formed natural partnerships with the worst human rights abusers in Latin America, like Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. They’ve established mutually beneficial relationships, helping preserve and empower their regimes and weakening democracies in the Americas.
Authoritarian Alliances: Russian Influence in Latin America
By Mariana Atala, HRF Legal and Policy Intern
Recently leaked Pentagon documents show increasing Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America, a concerning trend for all democracies and democratic reformers in the region. In the case of Russia, it’s not a mere coincidence that its main partners in the Americas — namely Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua — have tyranny as their common denominator. Russia’s influence in Latin America not only feeds on authoritarianism but creates a two-way incentive for its maintenance.
Following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has designed its sphere of influence to counter the negative effects of global isolation, particularly Western sanctions. Cooperating with similar regimes is an effective strategy, as like-mindedness and parallel forms of operation ease relations.
That is the case of Russia’s relationship with Venezuela, in which each country’s authoritarianism and corruption feeds into the other’s. Despite Venezuela still recovering from an economic and humanitarian catastrophe fueled by hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine, Russian investments continue flowing into the country. This dynamic creates advantages like circumventing sanctions and creating illegal financing opportunities.
Venezuela, for example, granted Russia long-term investment rights to the Orinoco belt, the world’s largest reserve of extra-heavy crude oil. Venezuela’s government-controlled Supreme Court stopped parliament, the last corner of the government where there is some dissent, from acting on it. Since 2002, there have been several corruption scandals involving Russian companies and Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), including a bribery scheme in 2018 with the Russian company Gazprombank. Cooperation between the two countries allows them to curtail sanctions, as was the case after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, providing a means to maintain commercial relations and consequently a flow of income. Four out of the five Russian companies that invest in Venezuela are on the US’s sanction list: Rosneft, Rostec, Rosoboronexport, and Gazprombank.
This is, of course, a two-way relationship: Russia enjoys the geopolitical benefits of having support and a lack of supervision from a corrupt Latin American nation. Venezuela, meanwhile, benefits from the economic and political support of a global superpower, giving the regime greater domestic and international strength.
Moscow and Caracas’ relationship may undergo major changes given the latter’s recent rapprochement with Chevron — which was shamefully granted a license to work in Venezuela — and the anticipated lifting of sanctions. This comes as the West signaled its intention to reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas, leading countries like the US to turn to Venezuela. Still, Maduro’s rhetoric will continue to be anti-American, and Russia will continue to rely on Venezuela for geopolitical strength. All this does, then, is strengthen the Maduro regime.
Russia’s influence in Nicaragua has a similar dynamic, but rather than having corruption at its centerpiece — although still present — it includes a military alliance. After the 2006 election of President Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua started receiving aid from Russia. In June 2022, this culminated in authorization for Russian military forces to enter Nicaragua for “humanitarian aid.” Russia agreed to provide aid for the Nicaraguan Army and financially support a training facility for military personnel countering the illegal drug trade. Nicaragua also received $26 million to tackle natural disasters and additional resources to enhance the urban transportation system in the city of Managua.
That is, again, at the exchange of diplomatic support from Nicaragua, the first country to recognize the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian. It was also one of five countries to vote against the pro-Ukraine UN Resolution.
The pattern is clear: When authoritarian nations join forces, they strengthen their tyrannical practices.
Although different in nature, Russia’s long-standing relationship with Cuba also deserves mention. The Soviet Union and Cuba have had a long history of cooperation since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as massive amounts of Soviet aid flowed into the island during the Cold War. In return, Cuba provided unflinching diplomatic and military support to its fellow communist regime. In the 1990s, those ties weakened with the fall of the Soviet Union, but they were reignited again with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2004. More recently, Cuba has voiced strong support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, blaming the West for implementing “unjust sanctions.”
Notably, Moscow’s influence isn’t limited to dictatorships: Brazil’s relationship with the country has been surprisingly friendly, surpassing the political divides between Bolsonaro and Lula. The former said in February 2022 that Brazil “wouldn’t condemn Russia” as a means to remain neutral; the latter has defended halting the sale of arms to Ukraine to encourage “dialogue.” Regardless of the alleged goals of neutrality and peace-making, Brazil’s stance validates the invasion of Ukraine for Putin’s regime. Russia is capitalizing on its friendly relationship with Brazil to gain even more geopolitical clout.
Russia’s influence in Latin America creates incentives for continued corruption and impunity, practices that are universally detrimental to democracy. It also creates a safety net for nations facing sanctions or similar measures, which aim to punish their authoritarian nature. Considering how detrimental Russia’s influence is in the region, standing up to Putin’s Russia, whether it’s in Venezuela or Ukraine, is crucial for the preservation of democracy in Latin America.
Mariana Atala is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation.
Vladimir Putin is seeking equally corrupt partners to avoid sanctions and continue its brutal wars of territorial expansion. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is looking to assert Chinese economic power globally and gather support for his plans to isolate and crush Taiwanese democracy. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, among others, they have found eager partners. These Latin American regimes have lent their support in exchange for diplomatic cover and economic lifelines in the face of sanctions from democracies. If there is to be a serious effort to support democratic change in the region, standing up to Moscow and Beijing must be a priority.