In the Soviet period, the main reasons for involvement in Latin America were not historical, cultural, or economic, but related to strategic competition with the United States. Accordingly, the Soviet Union endeavored to foster leftist insurgencies and other distractions to interfere with United States foreign policy in the region.
The main bases of Soviet involvement in Latin America were Cuba and Nicaragua, but the Soviet Union also attempted some involvement in Peru and Grenada. The Soviet Union placed military and intelligence facilities in Cuba to spy on the United States. It also supported Cuba as an attractive and successful model of Latin American socialism that would induce other countries to move into the same sphere and become export bases for ideology. In 1962 Khrushchev attempted to redress Soviet strategic nuclear inferiority by surreptitiously placing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. Although tensions over Cuba subsided considerably in the decades that followed, Cuba remained an important Soviet outpost until the Gorbachev regime began substantially cutting aid in the late 1980s. The other potential outpost of communism in Latin America, Nicaragua, was lost when a free election rejected the procommunist Sandinista Party in 1990. Meanwhile, Soviet purchases of grain and other goods from Latin America slumped severely in the decade before the breakup of the Soviet Union and thereafter because of the Soviet Union's inability to pay in hard currency (see Glossary).
The January 1993 draft foreign policy concept viewed relations with Latin America as particularly important for Russia's economic development. Russia saw the Latin American countries, particularly Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, as a source of low-price food and other goods for the Russian market, as a source of mutually beneficial technological cooperation, and as a market for arms. The 1993 concept called for establishing and consolidating ties with regional organizations such as the Organization of American States, in which Russia is a permanent observer. The concept was vague about relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and it avoided mention of Soviet-era support for Marxist-Leninist ideological movements in those states.
Some Russian analysts argued for revival of the mutually profitable pre-Soviet trade ties that had exchanged goods from Siberia for goods from Latin America. These analysts advocated obtaining Latin America's trade products--coffee, cocoa, sugar, fruit, footwear, and oil--in exchange for Siberian timber, coal, fish, and furs. Some also argued that Russia's trade in the entire Pacific Basin should intensify to compensate for the loss of ports on the Baltic and Black seas.
In the first post-Soviet years, the Russian government received criticism from nationalist factions for declining trade and lax diplomacy with Latin America. In 1993 commercial activity recovered somewhat as Brazil and Russia concluded a trade agreement that was worth about US$2 billion and included arms purchases by Brazil. In 1994 Vladimir Shumeyko, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper legislative chamber, toured Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Many Russians urged restored ties with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Peru in order to persuade those states to pay back Soviet-era loans. Some of the many Latin American students who had benefited from the Soviet Union's large student-exchange program also began to seek new entrepreneurial and cultural contacts with Russia on behalf of their native countries. In 1994 Russia cooperated with the United States by supporting a United States-led international intervention force in Haiti.
In early 1996, Foreign Minister Primakov traveled to Cuba and other Latin American states to indicate Russia's determination to expand ties in the region. In March 1996, Russia and Colombia announced an agreement on the supply of Russian small arms and ammunition. Seeking to restore ties with Nicaragua, Russia agreed in April 1996 to cancel the bulk of that nation's debt (US$3.4 billion) to the former Soviet Union.
The Soviet-era status of Cuba deteriorated seriously late in the Gorbachev regime. Ties between the communist parties of the two countries were severed, economic subsidies were suspended, and, in late 1991, Gorbachev announced the pullout of the Soviet military brigade from Cuba. The Soviet Union announced that "mutual benefit" and world prices would dictate future economic relations and that Cuba no longer would enjoy the special status it had had until that time. The end of subsidies was a severe blow to the Cuban economy. In November 1992, a Russian-Cuban trade agreement endeavored to restore some trade ties with a sugar-for-oil barter arrangement, but it did not include subsidies for Cuba. During 1992 the Russian government also failed to defend Cuba against increased commercial sanctions based on international accusations of human rights violations. Some Russian hard-liners criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' treatment of Cuba, and that policy was reversed partially between 1993 and 1995. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets committed Russia to a credit of US$350 million and a sugar-for-oil barter agreement in 1993, and he made a high-level visit to strengthen bilateral ties in 1995.
Renewed Russian connections in Cuba have been of significant concern in the United States. Russia has argued that barter arrangements with Cuba do not violate provisions of the United States trade embargo on Cuba, which sets severe penalties for United States trading partners that deal with Cuba. In 1995 the United States voiced concern over Russian plans to assist Cuba in completing a nuclear power reactor. In February 1996, the United States tightened economic sanctions against Cuba in response to the shooting down of two United States civilian airplanes in international airspace. At that time, Yeltsin criticized the United States for overreacting, and he reaffirmed his intention of reestablishing traditional ties with Cuba.