Russia Seeks Strategic Positions in Central America

Russia Seeks Strategic Positions in Central America

By Gustavo Arias Retana / Diálogo
October 18, 2019

Russia continues to search for spaces in Central America to take advantage of the isthmus’s geographical position, this time with an accord signed in the first half of 2019 with the Guatemalan-based Central American Parliament (PARLACEN, in Spanish), consisting of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

PARLACEN’s mission is to be the democratic and political representative body of the Central American and Dominican peoples, through a community system of regional integration that guarantees peace and respect for human rights.

For Carlos Cascante, professor of International Relations at the National University of Costa Rica, Moscow has little interest in cooperating with Central America; rather, it seeks to increase its influence in the region and, above all, to take advantage of Central American countries’ geographical position.

“This is merely geopolitical; [Russian President] Vladimir Putin dreams of having great influence in the world and occupying new spaces,” Cascante told Diálogo. “They started with Nicaragua in Central America, but their interest doesn’t stop there. The region is very close to the United States and has access to key military areas, such as the Caribbean Sea. Russia isn’t about building ties. It has to do with its interest in occupying spaces.”

In addition to the agreement, Russia has conducted other activities in recent years to increase its influence in Central America. For instance, Russia built a surveillance base in Nicaragua and sold the country 50 war tanks. It also signed an agreement with Costa Rica to lift visa requirements for Russian citizens.

“Russia bets on cultural cooperation as a way to strengthen ties with the region, especially in the case of Guatemala, due to its extensive archaeological patrimony,” José Cal, History professor at the University of San Carlos, Guatemala, told Diálogo. “Moscow seeks to consolidate the expansion of its relations with the other countries in the isthmus. In Panama, the economic aspect is important, while in the Northern Triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras] it wants to get involved in the energy sector. Clearly, it has other interests, but that’s never specified in writing in the papers they sign.”

There is another important element of Russian influence that analysts highlight. “Russia sees the opportunity to be closer to informal players who have a presence in the region, such as Russian mafias that traffic people and arms,” Cascante said. “The relationship between Moscow and those groups is unlike what happens in the West, where the State and these organizations are enemies. In Russia, that division isn’t clear, and there’s no question about these groups’ presence in Latin America. Central America is a transit zone for many illegitimate businesses, especially drugs and weapons. Moscow wants to be as close as possible to these illicit businesses.”

Symbolic movement

The agreement with PARLACEN gives Russia the chance to open a spot in the regional agenda and bolster its political and military interests. It also allows the country to position itself beyond Nicaragua, a traditional partner of Russia in the region since the 1980s.

“It’s an important scenario for them, but they know for sure that it isn’t a nerve center in Central American politics. It’s a good space to say, ‘We see more than just Nicaragua.’ It sends the message that they want to retake Russia-Central America relations,” Cascante said.

“It’s a wink to the rest of the Central American countries. The approach aims to expand Russia’s relations with the rest of the countries in the isthmus, beyond Nicaragua. Central America’s location is fundamental in geopolitics and the military domain, and Russia knows it, so it will try to enter wherever it can,” Cal concluded.

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