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Russia builds ties in United States' backyard

President Medvedev is to visit Venezuela's anti-U.S. leader, Hugo Chavez, and also stop in Brazil and Cuba.

November 15, 2008|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a Times staff writer.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to travel this month to Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba to strengthen regional ties, a tour that underscores a foreign policy challenge close to home that awaits the Obama administration.

Medvedev's visit to Venezuela comes as Russia and the Latin American nation strengthen their economic and military relationship. In July, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of President Bush, told reporters in Moscow that he might spend as much as $30 billion buying Russian arms through 2012.

For Chavez, closer ties with Russia serve as a warning to the United States "to be careful about what you do with me," said Ricardo Sucre, a political science professor and analyst at the University of Central Venezuela in Caracas.

Chavez has said he is rearming his country to protect against a possible U.S.-led invasion, an event he has warned Venezuelans was imminent ever since a coup in April 2002 briefly removed him from power. Chavez has alleged that the Bush administration supported the takeover attempt.

Medvedev's visit may create more pressure on Barack Obama to respond to Chavez's offer, made shortly after the Nov. 4 election, to improve U.S.-Venezuela relations. Obama has not publicly answered Chavez.

In his dealings with Latin America, Obama as president will have an opportunity to repair relations in a region that has felt slighted under Bush. But there is also the diplomatic challenge of dealing with socialist Chavez, who has taken pains to forge relations with U.S. opponents.

In recent years, the U.S. approach to Chavez, who makes frequent insulting references to Bush, has been largely to ignore him. But a U.S. embargo on arms and technology sales to Chavez has led the Venezuelan leader to shop for Russian military hardware.

Chavez already has bought $3 billion worth of helicopters, warplanes, tanks, missile defense systems and assault rifles. He is rumored to be on the verge of buying as many as nine diesel-powered submarines from Russia.

Four Russian navy ships are to arrive Nov. 24 in Venezuelan waters to participate in joint military exercises. Although no specific date for Medvedev's arrival was given, speculation in Caracas is that he will be there for the warships' arrival or shortly afterward.

Some analysts see Russia's moves toward Venezuela as a sign that it is expanding its global profile in response to a U.S missile defense system to be deployed in Eastern Europe and as retaliation for the Bush administration's support for Georgia, with which Russia fought a brief war in August.

Others see it as pure economics and as a way for Russia to open diplomatic doors in Latin America.

"This is strictly business," said Igor Danchenko, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Venezuela is one of the largest arms markets for Russia, and with the global financial crisis going the way it is, it's in Medvedev's interest to maintain high-level ties."

"As long as Chavez is willing to pay, he can be Russia's friend," Danchenko said

Political scientist Sucre said that Medvedev's visit to Brazil might be a gesture to accommodate President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is said to be concerned about the arms buildup by Chavez, whom he sees as a rival for Latin American influence.

Lula recently visited Cuba and secured a promise from leader Raul Castro for a reciprocal visit to Brazil.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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