On a recent trip to Moscow in May 2009, Bolivia’s Viceminister of Foreign Affairs Hugo Fernández Araoz said that Bolivia would be making a multimilliondollar arms and transportation purchase from Russia in efforts to combat drug smuggling and production in Bolivia. El Pais reported on 21 May 2009 that Bolivia used to make these purchases, which include multi-purpose helicopters as well as arms, from the United States.
Bolivian-Russian ties have improved vastly over the past year. Ever since Bolivia expelled the US ambassador back in September 2008 and the Drug Enforcement Administration in November 2008, Bolivia has inched closer to Moscow. In September 2008 Gazprom, the Russian energy company, signed an agreement worth US$4.5 billion to explore for gas in Bolivia. In October 2008, a week before the DEA was kicked out, Russia offereded military assistance to Bolivia in the fight against drugs. In December 2008, Russia invested US$4 million in a study on the Bolivian gas industry, with hopes of opening a joint Russian-Bolivian center on gas exploration sometime in 2009. In March 2009, Russia and Bolivia signed a protocol agreement aimed at strengthening democracy in each nation.
But the most obvious sign of improved Bolivian-Russian relations occurred in February 2009, when Evo Morales visited Moscow. His trip was the first ever by a Bolivian head of state to the Russian capital. During the visit, both leaders signed an agreement strengthening energy and military ties between the two nations.
Both Bolivia and Russia have denied that closer ties are a sign of competition with other nations, mainly the United States. “The development of our relations with Latin America is not circumstanstial”, a Russian official said during a press conferece immediately following the signing on 16 February 2009. “It is not our desire to compete with anyone, but rather a responsible decision our country has made.” Two weeks ago, Fernandez reiterated these sentiments, telling Washington to not interpret closer ties with Russia as going against the United States, but rather an independent decision of a sovereign nation.
In spite of these assurances, as La Paz and Moscow have become closer, Washington has started to take notice. On 1 May 2009, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech about the future direction of US foreign relations under the Obama administration. When asked a question on dealing with Venezuela, whose relations with the United States deteriorated greatly under the Bush administration, Clinton responded “I don’t think in today’s world, where it’s a multipolar world, where we are competing for attention and relationships with at least the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, that it’s in our interest to turn our backs on countries in our own hemisphere.”
How the United States responds will be telling for the future direction of US-Latin American relations. Russia’s closer ties with Latin America, which among many others include close military and economic ties with Venezuela and Brazil and a recent agreement with Cuba to resume joint nuclear research, mark the most serious inroads that Russia has made in the region in over 45 years. Clinton’s remarks seem to back the notion that the United States respects the sovereignty and freedom to act indepedently from the economic and political demands of the United States that is such a relevant issue in Latin America today. The Bolivia-Russia alliance serves as an example that this may include understanding and accepting agreements with nations with whom the United States has historically struggled for power.
As US policy towards Cuba continues to dominate headlines, it is how the US responds to relations such as that between La Paz and Moscow that will be telling of the new administration’s approach to the region.