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Russia has been showing diplomatic interest in Latin American countries

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Russia's attention hasn't just been on Ukraine lately. It's been making diplomatic overtures to countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina. And last month, a top Russian diplomat said they wouldn't rule out sending military assets to Cuba or Venezuela, a comment the U.S. State Department dismissed as bluster. Joining us now to talk about Russia's involvement in America's neighborhood is Vladimir Rouvinski, a professor of politics and international relations at Universidad Icesi in Colombia. Professor, thanks for being here.

VLADIMIR ROUVINSKI: Thank you very much for this invitation.

GONYEA: OK, so Russian President Vladimir Putin has made highly visible diplomatic overtures to various leaders in Latin America. But I understand there's also been a huge disinformation campaign aimed at Spanish speakers. Can you explain that?

ROUVINSKI: Yes. First of all, RT in Spanish, which is Russia's government-sponsored TV channel, extended its presence everywhere in Latin America. I mean, literally, if you go to one or another Latin American countries and you turn on TV, you will see RT in Spanish broadcasting to you directly from Moscow. They have the presence everywhere in Latin America. They have presence in Caribbean, as well. But it's also a high presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which is especially important now because Russians are telling a lot of things that are not true, and they expose Latin Americans to this information.

GONYEA: Some of the countries that Russia is trying to engage more with have complicated relationships with the U.S. But others, like Brazil and Argentina, have historically had much closer ties to the U.S. So what does Russia stand to gain in places like that?

ROUVINSKI: This is a very interesting development, and I think it has to do, on the one hand, with the fact that Latin Americans here are concerned about what is happening on the international arena. The United States sort of diminished its presence in Latin America, and it seems that Latin America is no more important for the United States. So when some of Latin American leaders, like Brazilian President Bolsonaro or Argentinean President Fernandez, pay a visit to Vladimir Putin, they try to send a message to Washington saying, look. We are still here. We are important. So please pay attention to us.

GONYEA: The Cold War is over, but it does seem like we've been here before. In the era of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were very involved in Central America, and then there was that thing known as the Cuban Missile Crisis when? John F. Kennedy was in office. Is this an echo of that? Or is this significantly different in many ways?

ROUVINSKI: It is different for several reasons. First of all, Russia today is not the Soviet Union. Today's Russia is much more weaker in terms of the economy. So they are not prepared to build the same type of relations like they used to have, for example, with Cuba because Cuba survived because the Soviet Union was actually supplying all the aid, all the financing and actually managed the Cuban economy. It was 100% satellite of the Soviet Union.

Today, Russia is not prepared to do this. So if Putin will try to expand its aid - tangible aids to the regimes like Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba, it means that Russia perhaps will be facing additional problems to its economy, and people will not be happy. So what Putin is doing instead is making these really strong statements about potential possibilities for Russia to expand its presence in Latin America. But I don't see, really, any significant tangible actions in that sense. So this is very different from the Cold War time.

GONYEA: I wonder if you could help us understand how this Russian strategy in Latin America fits into its broader geopolitical ambitions more generally.

ROUVINSKI: For Vladimir Putin and the Russian elites - because it's not only Vladimir Putin, but there are a lot of people in Russia do share the same vision. They believe that the world should be divided into spheres of influence. And for Russia, they say it's kind of natural that Ukraine, Belarus and even Central Asian republics should belong to the Russian sphere of influence, which in practical terms mean that if someone like the United States want to establish some independent policy towards Ukraine or Belarus, they should first consult Vladimir Putin and ask him for permission. Very similarly, they view Latin America still as the United States' sphere of influence. And they say, well, if you do something in Ukraine, then we go to Latin America, and we will show you that we also can do something in your sphere of influence.

GONYEA: And how concerned should the United States be about this growing Russian presence in Latin America?

ROUVINSKI: I think the United States better be concerned about this. We Latin America and the United States - we do share a common neighborhood, and the democracy has been a key to security in Latin America. Most of the countries here in Latin America are functioning as democracy. But we have Venezuela, which abandoned liberal democracy. And we have Nicaragua, which abandoned liberal democracy. And, of course, we have Cuba that has not been a liberal democracy for so many years. And it shows really how dangerous it is. So I think for the United States, they should be concerned that more countries do not turn into what is Venezuela because then a Russian will be able to build new connections and actually threaten the security of the United States.

GONYEA: That's Vladimir Rouvinski from Universidad Icesi in Colombia. Thank you for speaking with us.

ROUVINSKI: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to share my opinion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.