Soviet-Latin American Relations

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Soviet-Latin American Relations

Soviet-Latin American relations often commanded the world's attention during the cold war because of the competitive relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the 1960s until the 1980s, the Soviet Union expanded its diplomatic, political, and military presence in Latin America in spite of the huge distance that separated the two regions and the limited common interests throughout their histories.

Tsarist Russia's relations with Latin America began through the visits to the region of famous writers and scientists, including G. I. Langsdorf and F. P. Vrangel, when there were no official relations. Russia did not establish diplomatic relations with Latin America until late in the nineteenth century, and then only with Argentina (1885), Uruguay (1887), and Mexico (1890). Russia's principal immigration into Latin America was to Argentina and Brazil.

After the Russian Revolution only two states recognized the USSR before World War II: Mexico and Uruguay, and only Mexico exchanged diplomatic representatives with the USSR (from 1924 to 1930). From the beginning, Soviet governments capitalized on two political issues in the region: capitalist exploitation and foreign domination. Soviet-sponsored Communist parties attempted to mobilize industrial and agricultural workers against the "exploitation" imposed by the "ruling classes," and they rallied support against "foreign domination," usually by the United States.

The USSR's most important relations with Latin America in the interwar period were through the Communist International (Comintern), which was dissolved in 1943 as a concession to Stalin's Western allies in World War II. During the Comintern's lifetime Soviet leaders made the unconvincing argument that it was an independent international organization although it was, in fact, run by the executive organs of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). By the late 1930s, Communist parties, which had been established in most countries in Latin America, controlled trade unions in Chile, Cuba, and a few other countries but had limited electoral support, usually far less than 15 percent. Following Moscow's lead, the local parties sometimes favored overthrowing local governments, but mostly they participated in elections. The latter strategy was most prominent during the Popular Front period in the late 1930s in Chile and a little later in Cuba. Soviet foreign policies and the foreign policies of the Communist parties were virtually identical.

Toward the end of World War II most governments in the region recognized the USSR for the first time. At that time Argentina and Uruguay established relations, and Mexico resumed them; these three countries alone maintained relations during the cold war that began in the late 1940s. Although the Comintern no longer existed, Moscow and the Latin American Communist parties continued to maintain close ties. They included contacts with the radical nationalist revolution in Guatemala (1954), in which the Communists participated as a minority force, that was put down with U.S. support.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was a watershed in Soviet relations with Latin America. Fidel Castro was competing with the local Communist Party, most of whose members did not support him in his successful overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. When the United States imposed economic sanctions on the Cuban revolutionary regime, Moscow purchased Cuban sugar and provided oil and arms to Castro in 1960, permitting him to survive. Castro and the USSR disagreed over Cuban domestic policy and revolutionary tactics in Latin America, but by early 1970 Castro had adopted the Soviet political model and consistently backed Soviet foreign policy with regard to China and armed interventions in Africa, and through Cuba's leadership of the nonaligned movement. Soviet assistance mounted to billions of rubles in subsidies for Cuban sugar and nickel and provision of Soviet oil, trade-deficit financing, and technical assistance, as well as almost all of Cuba's military equipment and arms.

The Soviet effort to establish medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba created the threat of a global nuclear war in October 1962. As became public only many years later, the Soviet commanding general had authority to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a U.S. invasion. President John F. Kennedy forced Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles under threat of military action in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.

Perhaps the Communists' greatest electoral success in Latin America was in Chile; in 1970, the party helped elect Salvador Allende Gossens, a socialist, to the presidency and was the second party in the government. The USSR gave strong moral support to Allende but was unwilling to provide the hard-currency grants he needed to survive. Fearful of a coup, the Chilean Communists tried to restrain Allende's most radical followers. The latter's leftist policies alienated the large Chilean middle class and facilitated the military's takeover and Allende's death in 1973.

In 1979 the Sandinistas, a radical nationalist revolutionary movement, overthrew the dictatorial Somoza regime in Nicaragua while the Nicaraguan Communists stood by and watched. Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev agilely shifted support to the Sandinistas. When the latter's relations with the United States deteriorated and civil conflict fueled by the Reagan administration began, Moscow provided economic and military assistance of more than $1 billion a year, an important sum but far less than Cuba received.

Moscow also backed the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), a radical political movement in El Salvador whose main foreign support came from Cuba and other leftist third-world governments. The Communist Party joined the Front late, as one of five guerrilla formations in an inconclusive armed struggle that continued into the early 1990s.

Radical nationalists took over the island of Grenada in 1979. They wooed Moscow ardently and won material support for their Marxist-oriented party, the New Jewel Movement, as well as arms, presumably to defend the movement from domestic or foreign enemies. After the popular leader Maurice Bishop was assassinated (1983) and some of his authoritarian lieutenants took over, President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the island, which ended the New Jewel Movement and its relations with the Soviet Union.

Soviet trade with Latin America was minuscule before the 1960s. Prior to that time most Soviet interest was expressed in attempts to develop trade with the Río de la Plata countries (Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and Brazil, seeking to purchase grain, coffee, cocoa, wool, hides, and the like. When many Latin American nations established diplomatic relations with Moscow beginning in the late 1960s, Soviet buyers began to show interest in nonferrous metals from Peru and Bolivia. The difficulty was that none of the Latin American countries, except Cuba and Nicaragua, where trade was subsidized, were interested in Soviet exports. The USSR has never been able to develop a consistently favorable trade balance with Latin America. Most Soviet trade with the area's market economies has consisted of Soviet purchases.

Moscow's political efforts have had limited results. Its one triumph was the establishment of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Cuba, unexpectedly achieved through the July 26 Movement, not the Cuban Communists. That victory was achieved and maintained at huge cost to the Soviet economy.

The establishment of a network of Communist parties throughout the Western hemisphere is an unprecedented achievement, but no Communist party has seized control of a Latin American government by force. The revolutionary parties that have taken power have been radical nationalist, not Marxist-Leninist, in their origins, and except in Cuba, all have been swept away. Linked closely and publicly to Moscow, most Communist parties have never been able to shake the image that they were serving Moscow's interests rather than those of their own country.

Soviet priorities changed rapidly after 1985. Perestroika and domestic problems meant that less attention could be devoted to low-priority areas like Latin America, and the USSR could not afford to continue its assistance at the former high levels. The December 1990 agreement with Cuba reduced Soviet aid and sought to put commercial relations on a business basis. The Cuban economy, cut off from its natural partners in the West, had been unable to stand firmly on its feet even with Soviet economic assistance. These developments portended a grim future for the Cuban economy and the Castro regime.

The emphasis on self-determination in Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union itself, which accelerated after the failed coup of August 1991, made the formerly Moscow-dominated Communist parties in Latin America an anachronism. Moreover, the Soviet Union, usually perceived as the main enemy of the United States in Latin America, sought arms agreements, closer commercial arrangements, and aid from the United States. Such arrangements were inconsistent with the support of national Communist parties, which the United States regarded as anti-American and destabilizing. In any case, Moscow set these parties loose. As a result, many were split by factionalism, and domestic and world events caused them to lose much of their popular support.

As the cold war ended in Latin America, and the political geography of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was being redrawn, there were new trends in Soviet relations with Latin America: Soviet aid to Cuba was rapidly ending; Soviet support for Communist parties, revolutionary movements, and radical governments was disappearing; Soviet trade, always low with most of the area, declined even more, due partly to economic turmoil in the USSR; and normal, often friendly diplomatic relations were being conducted with many governments. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, individual new republics had to decide whether to forge relations with Latin America. In the twenty-first century, the Russian economy has recouped, and in 2006 representatives from Russia signed a memorandum to discuss tighter economic relations with the South American countries in the Mercosur trading pact. Also, in the post-Soviet era many archives have been made accessible to historians, allowing them to begin new research on the USSR's former relations with Latin America.

See alsoCommunism; Cuban Missile Crisis.


The most convenient sources of information on this subject are Russell H. Bartley, ed., Soviet Historians on Latin America: Recent Scholarly Contributions (1978); Cole Blasier, The Giant's Rival: The USSR and Latin America, rev. ed. (1987), pp. 91ff.; Augusto Varas, Soviet-Latin American Relations in the 1980's (1987); Nicola Miller, Soviet Relations with Latin America, 1959–1987 (1989), pp. 226ff.; Eusebio Mujal-león, ed., The USSR and Latin America (1989); and the biannual Latinskaia Amerika v Sovetskoi pechati.

Ching, Erik, and Jussi Pakkasvirta. "Latin American Materials in the Comintern Archive." Latin American Research Review 35, no. 1 (2000): 138-149.

Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Spenser, Daniela. The Impossible Triangle: Mexico, Soviet Russia, and the United States in the 1920s. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

                                           Cole Blasier