Recent reports that Cuban military personnel are on the ground in Syria to support the alliance between Russia and the Assad regime underscore Moscow’s efforts to establish its most significant foothold in Latin America since the Cold War, analysts say.
A U.S. official told Fox News that Cuban paramilitary and special operations forces arrived in Syria to assist Russia, which has deployed troops and equipment and launched airstrikes in recent weeks to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Cuban troops could be there to advise the Syrian army or operate Russian-made tanks. The White House said in response that it has seen no evidence that Cuban forces are actually in Syria.
The Soviet Union largely relied on the Castro regime in Cuba during the Cold War to deploy troops in support of communist governments in Africa and the Middle East, as well as to train Marxist rebel groups in Latin America.
However, Russia has now courted several other authoritarian governments in Latin America that comprise the so-called Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a bloc of nations formed by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to oppose U.S. policies in the region.
"Given its current positioning, one could argue that Russia now has more influence in Latin America than ever before, even including at the height of the Cold War," said Doug Farah, president of IBI Consultants, in his testimony on Thursday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "This will likely remain true despite the recent announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and Russia’s ongoing economic turmoil."
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has furnished countries in the Bolivarian Alliance with substantial support, Farah said, including "weapons, police and military training and equipment, intelligence technology and training, nuclear technology, oil exploration equipment, financial assistance, and an influential friend on the United Nations Security Council and other international forums."
In return, Moscow has received increased "military access to the hemisphere’s ports and airspace," giving Russian forces a platform to conduct exercises and surveillance missions close to U.S. shores. Putin can also count on backing from a significant portion of the region for Russia’s interventions abroad, such as in Syria.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces and a frequent visitor to Latin America, has played an influential role in developing Moscow’s policies in the region, Farah said. His so-called "Gerasimov Doctrine" advocates "asymmetrical actions that combine the use of special forces, [and] information warfare that creates ‘a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.’"
Farah said that, "all of the main elements of the doctrine are being carried out in Latin America," including weapons sales, military and intelligence assistance, financial cooperation, and the creation of a counter-narrative in the region that combats U.S. "imperialism" with Russian-backed institutions.
Russia sold more than 3,000 surface-to-air missiles to Latin America nations between 2008 and 2011 after not selling any in the preceding three years, with Venezuela as one of the primary clients. Farah’s consulting firm also uncovered an "opaque network of former senior military and KGB officials operating in Central America, primarily running front groups for the Russian military and intelligence services."
One of the primary leaders of the intelligence network is Alexander Starovoitov, a former general in the Soviet KGB who runs companies with expanding operations in Latin America, and which also have close ties with the Russian defense and intelligence agencies.
Additionally, Russian banks sanctioned by the United States have made several partnership agreements with Latin American financial institutions in recent years.
In the realm of information warfare, Russia has portrayed itself as defender of the region against a U.S. policy that envisions "pillaging the region’s natural resources, toppling the revolutionary regimes leading the march to Latin American independence, and subjugating its citizens," Farah said.
Moscow has established a regional counter-narcotics training center in Nicaragua that Farah said will have 130 Russian trainers, a potential rival to longstanding U.S. anti-drug initiatives in Latin America. Russia also sends officials to the meetings of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a body that Chavez created and that excludes the United States.
While U.S. officials have reduced diplomatic and military aid to Latin America as they focused on other regions, Russia has repeatedly dispatched senior officials for visits that are covered favorably by local state-run media, Farah said, feeding the perception that America is disengaging from the hemisphere as Moscow swoops in as a savior.
"The State Department, SOUTHCOM and the intelligence community all remain significantly under resourced in Latin America, where resources have been cut and the ability of embassies to carry out some of their core functions has been reduced as has the ability to monitor and understand the Russian activities," he said. "In a time of resource scarcity, Russia has managed to leverage a small amount of resources into significant gains."