17 July 2023

The West must crack down on Russia’s Latin American proxy states


In all the coverage of Russia’s nefarious activities in Ukraine and beyond, one aspect of its foreign policy has gone largely under the radar – the role of its Latin American allies.

It is no co-incidence that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently visited Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for urgent discussions, as did State Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who appeared in Venezuela and Cuba not long after Russia delivered 25,000 tonnes of wheat and 4.3bn barrels of oil to Havana.

Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has been bolstered by support from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, who have helped ensure that not a single Latin American country has imposed sanctions on Russia. 

The active involvement of these proxy states in supporting Russia’s hybrid warfare campaign should prompt a change in Western policy towards them, from tolerance to active efforts to remove their dictatorships. We should open a second front against Putin, part of a global strategy to tackle Putin’s aggression against the West.

‘Russia can always count on Cuba’ said Cuban President Díaz-Canel in November, but how does Cuban and other proxy state assistance to Russia actually work?

There is, of course, diplomatic assistance in the form of support in international organisations and statements by the governments themselves. For example on February 28 2022, Cuba voted alongside Russia, China and Venezuela against a resolution to discuss the invasion in an emergency meeting at the UN.

‘Russia is simply defending itself’, said Nicaraguan President Ortega. ‘Russia is fully supported by Venezuela in the face of the threats from NATO and the Western world,’ said Venezuelan dictator Maduro. ‘We understand that Russia was forced to launch a special operation,’ said Díaz-Canel.

However, the most significant assistance is provided in the area of information warfare, with all three countries deeply involved in Russia’s disinformation efforts.

Core Kremlin assets in that war are its Russia Today Spanish television channel and website, and the Spanish language Sputnik radio and internet operation.

These Kremlin-run media channels promote disinformation which is then disseminated by the state-controlled media of Russia’s Latin American proxies. The Kremlin’s narrative is copied from the headlines to the exact repetition of topics, terms and quotes, as well as reproduction of videos and reports in the official Russian media.

Here are some examples:

Russian disinformation on US biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine was first propagated on March 6, 2022 by Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party. It was then picked up by Cuba’s Prensa Latina news agency which published several articles a day later. 

Granma returned to the subject on March 9 and 13 when it stated, ‘the Russian Ministry of Defence verified, with documentation, that biological laboratories in the Ukraine established and financed by the US experimented with samples of coronavirus in bats’.

Articles on similar themes, quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, were published by Granma on March 16 and 18, with the disinformation repeated by the Cuban TV channel Canal Caribe as well as other outlets such as Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores.

The second example involves the Chavista state propaganda television channel Telesur, also funded and supported by the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments. 

As soon as the war crimes against civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha were discovered, Telesur activated its reporter in the Donbas to produce the shameful piece ‘Alleged Russian army massacre in Bucha a fake news story’, as well as a stream of other Russian propaganda material. Telesur social media accounts pump out shorter propaganda pieces, such as ‘Ukraine Stages A Video Of Dead Civilians’.

Telesur has substantial influence throughout Latin America. Its direct broadcasting reaches many. For example, in Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez ensured that Telesur is included in the basic package of TV programmes available to all Argentinians and it therefore reaches 83% of the population. Its Twitter account has 3m followers.

The third example involves the Chavista regime’s involvement in social media propaganda using fake accounts. Immediately after Maduro promised Putin he would ‘increase Venezuela’s strategic support to Russia’ in a phone call on March 1, 2022 this activity was stepped up. On March 2, the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information promoted the hashtag ‘#VenezuelaApuestaALaPaz’ (Venezuela bets on peace), with some 240,000 tweets condemning the ‘disinformation campaign promoted by Western countries against Russia’. Digital monitoring organisation Probox’s analysis suggested that at a minimum 68% of the tweets came from fake accounts.

Unfortunately most Western nations, including Canada, Britain and other European countries, have not changed their policies towards Russia’s Latin American proxies in response to their active support of Russia’s invasion.

The UK, Canada and the EU view Central and Latin America as the US’s backyard, and are often unwilling to assist the US in the region. But when a Russian threat to European security emerges in Europe’s backyard, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they expect full US solidarity and support.

The appeasement and accommodation approach undertaken by the UK and EU have failed to encourage positive change in any of Russia’s proxies in the Americas. In Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, political repression, denial of human rights and corruption have clearly worsened, and there has been a lack of substantive economic reform. For example, the 2022 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index showed the press freedom rating of all three countries continuing to worsen.

Nevertheless, European countries have not imposed any sanctions on Cuba, instead providing it with assistance without linked conditions. European countries have imposed many fewer sanctions on Venezuela and Nicaragua than the US, and these do not include any of the tough US economic sanctions.

There is much more we could be doing. All three of Russia’s allies are economically dependent on the West, and the Cuban economy in particular is on its last legs. Closing off most of Cuba’s hard currency revenue is feasible. The slave labour programme is the state’s biggest earner and tourism is also very significant. Both should be blocked to the greatest extent possible.

In the case of Venezuela, its oil exports should be sanctioned 100% – not least on environmental grounds, given the horrendous damage caused to the environment by Venezuela’s state oil industry. Trade agreements with Nicaragua should be cancelled and its access to multilateral funding halted.

This approach is a win-win. It will force Putin to use scarce Russian resources to prop up his dictator allies. It punishes those who support tyranny over democracy and may even succeed in allowing Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan citizens to decide their own futures.

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Peter Young is a former Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.