How Latin America became the battleground in Cold War 2.0

Iran, China and Russia are strengthening ties in anti-US Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi will visit Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela this week
(Image credit: ATPImages/Getty Images)

Latin America is serving as a proxy battleground for a new Cold War as China, Iran and Russia seek to build influence, exploit resources and undermine the United States in the region.

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, will visit Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela next week, according to state news agency IRNA – all countries currently under US sanctions. The tour will “give Raisi face time with three regional allies”, said Reuters, each of whom have “leftist governments that have been accused by critics of human rights violations”.

The tour comes as reports emerged that China had secretly made a deal with Cuba, agreeing to pay “several billion dollars” to build an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island. This would allow Chinese intelligence services to listen in to communications throughout the southeastern US, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

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In a “brash new geopolitical challenge” by Beijing to the US, the paper quotes US officials as saying China has agreed in principle to pay “cash-strapped Cuba” to build a facility only 100 miles (160km) from Florida. US Central Command headquarters is located in the state, in Tampa.

What’s been happening in Cuba?

Authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China and, increasingly, Iran, are seeking to “expand their spheres of influence” in Latin America, wrote McKayla Swan, staff assistant at the US House of Representatives, for the International Republican Institute (IRI), “enticed by the promises of investment” and anti-US sentiment.

A Chinese “intelligence facility within 100 miles of Florida and the United States” would pose a “serious threat to our national security and sovereignty”, said the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a joint statement.

John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told Reuters that the WSJ report of the alleged spy facility was not accurate. The Cuban embassy in Washington said the article was “totally mendacious and unfounded information”, said the WSJ. The Chinese embassy told The Guardian it was “not aware of the case” and couldn’t comment.

But the US has had “real concerns” about China’s relationship with Cuba, Kirby told Reuters.

The situation harks back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when an American spy plane photographed Soviet nuclear missile sites being built on the island. The ensuing confrontation brought the US and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear warfare than at any other point during the Cold War.

Iran’s ties with Cuba have also been strengthened in recent months, said The Hill. Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, spoke in 2021 of the “spoke of the ‘unlimited’ potential to expand Tehran-Havana ties”, said the Middle East Institute.

Iran has also set up more than 80 Shia Islamic cultural centres in the Latin American and Caribbean region, said Swan for the IRI, and its state-controlled broadcaster IRIB funds a Spanish-language news outlet, HispanTV.

What about Venezuela?

Iran has long been strengthening its ties with Venezuela, mainly via the oil industry. Both countries are major exporters of oil and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Venezuela’s beleaguered state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) relied on its allies, Russia and Iran, to circumnavigate US sanctions against Venezuela and supply it with crude oil, selling it at a heavy discount. In 2019, President Nicolás Maduro ordered PDVSA to move its European office from Lisbon to Moscow, said Reuters.

Last June, during Maduro’s first visit to Iran, the two countries signed a 20-year agreement to cooperate on defence and expand production of oil and petrochemicals.

Maduro also praised Iran for sending fuel tankers to the poverty-stricken nation, despite US sanctions. “Tehran’s delivery of oil to Caracas was a great help to the Venezuelan people,” he said.

How does Nicaragua compare?

In April the sanctioned Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega held talks with Iran about common interests, military cooperation and countering American influence in Latin America, according to a report leaked to The New York Times.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov also visited Caracas in April. “As authoritarianism deepens in Nicaragua, the elephant – or bear – in the room is Moscow’s creeping influence in Central America,” wrote Robert Muggah for Foreign Policy.

Russia has been supplying Nicaragua with military equipment since 2016, and Nicaragua allows Russia to train its forces in the country. Last year, it allowed Russian troops temporary access, leading to fears that Russia was expanding its surveillance in the region.

The two countries are old Cold War allies. During the Nicaraguan civil war, the USSR and Cuba supplied resources to the Sandinista National Liberation Front revolution, led by Ortega, who has been president since 2007, while the US backed a right-wing group called the Contras.

Nicaragua has also restored relations with China after a 20-year hiatus, as Beijing expands its reach in Central America. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has invested heavily in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Chinese-owned Huawei routers are increasingly supplying internet in the country, rivalling the dominant US-based company, Cisco.

“As the Ortega administration shores up support from Russia and China, it has hastened Nicaragua’s decoupling from the West,” Muggah wrote.

What is the West doing in these countries?

Western nations have been attempting to shore up support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s invasion among Latin American countries.

Last month, James Cleverly conducted a week-long tour of Latin America, including talks in Brazil, Colombia and Chile, becoming the first UK foreign secretary to visit the region in five years.

He was the latest senior Western diplomat in an “extended charm offensive” to try to win over the “neutrally minded” continent to Ukraine’s cause, said Politico, as part of the “broader geopolitical battle” with Russia and China.

Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but has so far refused to provide military support for Ukraine or sanction Russia.

The war in Ukraine brings up the question, “how much do people in Latin America hate the US?”, said Bloomberg, as countries “loudly committed to the principle of non-intervention shrug off the decision by an autocratic oligarch to send in the tanks to take over a smaller neighbor”.

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.