The Russians are coming — Caribbean Crisis redux?
The thought of Russian warships cruising the waters of the Caribbean instinctively revives memories of such Cold War episodes as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Russia is sending a heavily armed nuclear-powered cruiser and other ships, aircraft and troops for a joint naval exercise with Venezuela, its first big manoeuvres in the United States’ self-declared backyard since the end of the Cold War.
It is extremely unlikely the deployment will provoke a crisis as dangerous and dramatic as 1962, but it is still an irritant to Washington.
Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez has replaced Fidel Castro’s Cuba as its chief bugbear in Latin America.
Spouting anti-imperialist rhetoric, Chavez has led a socialist revolution aimed at countering a century of U.S. influence — some might say meddling — in the region. He counts as allies leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales as well as many poor people.
He has backed up his actions with largesse from Venezuela’s oil wealth. Ironically, a lot of those dollars come from the United States. Venezuela is its fifth-largest oil supplier, a trade relationship which has hobbled Washington’s reactions to Chavez’s adventures.
Venezuela has already bought fighter jets, submarines and guns from Russia. And add to the equation Venezuela’s burgeoning friendship with Iran, another bete noire for the Americans.
The naval exercises with Russia will not be as easy for Washington to brush off as the name-calling.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are tense because of Russia’s intervention in Georgia in August. The Kremlin was angered by the United States’ sending a naval flotilla to the Black Sea to show support for Georgia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev even asked how Washington would feel if Russian sent aid vessels to the Caribbean.
During the Cold War, Russian had a substantial military presence in Cuba and was involved behind the scenes in the Central American wars of the 1980s. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, all that ended.
But Russian officials have made it clear recently that Moscow is ready to play a role on the world stage again.
Meanwhile the United States’ Fourth Fleet this year began patrolling Latin American waters for the first time in 50 years, a move that Chavez denounced but that has also concerned moderate countries such as Brazil.
The Venezuela-Russia exercises are due to take place days after the U.S. presidential election – an event that will complicate any response from Washington and at the same time divert world attention.