Latin America is Russia’s Natural Ally and Partner
Interview with former External Intelligence Service officer, Lt. Gen. (rtd.) Nikolay Leonov
Lt. Gen. Nikolay Leonov is a retired officer of the Russian External Intelligence Service. He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and holds a PhD in History. He joined the KGB in 1958 and served with the agency’s First Main Directorate (PGU, specializing in external intelligence). He was posted to Latin America in 1953. In 1971 he became deputy head, and in 1973 head of the PGU information and analysis department. In 1983 he was promoted to deputy chief of the PGU. In 1991 he became the director of the KGB Analytical Department before retiring later that year. Leonov was a member of parliament from the Rodina (Motherland) bloc in 2003-2007. He has authored several books and articles about Latin America’s political history and Russian politics.
Back in the early 1990s you said that if ever America elected a president who could abandon prejudice and withstand pressure from the Cuban immigrants (whose votes are so important in Florida) - that president would embrace Cuba and never let it go. Now we’ve seen Barack Obama paying an historic visit to Cuba. Is that the fulfillment of your old prediction, or something else?
No, that is a logical development of America’s relations with Latin America, because Washington’s old dream of turning that region into its own back yard has crumbled. That dream had existed since the early 19th century, when the so-called Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed, the doctrine of “America for Americans”. That was interpreted by Washington as “America for the United States”, or course. It was a system that masqueraded as “pan-Americanism”; in other words, it claimed that all the countries in the Americas were united by their shared interests, that they were equal, and that they were essentially the same. But as Latin Americans used to say at the time, it was “a union of the shark and the sardines”.
The system of pan-Americanism itself was carefully constructed in Washington. They would regularly organize pan-American conferences in various countries, attended by all the heads of state with their ministers and aides. But Washington always played the role of the conductor in an orchestra. It always formulated the key principles that were then rubber-stamped by the conferences. Those principles then informed the national policies of the countries involved. The structures of the Pan-American Union and its successor, the Organization of American States, were always in Washington. Each country was represented at these structures by a special ambassador. Even the budget of these structures was usually maintained by the United States.
That is why the Latin American states never had policies of their own; they just talked a lot about their history. Their financial systems were linked to the U.S. financial centers, so it was impossible for them to pursue an independent course. Actually, this is why the Americans established military dictatorships and police states in these countries: that made it easier to control them. There was not even a pretence of democracy there. That’s why we’ve seen such barbaric dictators as Somoza or Trujillo in Latin America.
Of course, there have been patriotic upsurges and attempts to regain independence in various Latin American states ever since Latin America became an independent entity some time in 1821. Such attempts have never ceased. There has always been a dream of independence and freedom, something every normal person and every nation aspires to, and that dream had never died in Latin America, either.
Whereas Simón Bolívar was one of the fathers of the idea of Latin America’s independence, at the other end of that historical period we have the figure of Fidel Castro. Out of all the patriots born in Latin America in more than 200 years, he lived to see his dream come true. All the others fought for it, including Salvador Allende, Augusto Sandino, and others - let’s recall Hugo Chavez, for example. But the only person who remains a symbol of these 200 years of struggle for independence, and who has seen his work bear fruit is, of course, Fidel Castro. That is how the whole world sees Fidel Castro - and I don’t just mean the patriotic world, but everybody, from the Pope to Barack Obama, who has paid a visit to Havana after all. So, the idea of independence has basically triumphed.
As for relations within this community of nations in the Western hemisphere, and the Monroe Doctrine, let us also mention that very recently, in 2011, these nations established a new organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). All the countries south of the Rio Grande, i.e. south of the United States, are members. The United States and Canada have not been invited. So we now essentially have a completely independent political organization that is guided by Latin America’s interests alone.
Back in 2013, when they gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the storming of the Moncada Barracks (Cuban National Rebellion Day), there was no longer a single country in the region with a non-democratic government. To a greater or lesser extent, all these countries were democracies. Cuba and all the heroes have played a great historical role in that achievement. Of course, the Sandinistas fought for their own country, and Hugo Chavez for his own. So Latin America has finally made this giant historical leap, albeit a belated leap, that lasted for more than 200 years.
In the political sense, Obama clearly had no other choice but to pay that visit to Cuba. And for all our criticism of Obama, I think he did the right thing. The Americans did everything they could to suppress that upsurge of the patriotic movement. And now, after all these years, they have publicly recognized that their policy has failed. That requires a lot of courage - even though he has not actually apologized for anything.
Nevertheless, to recognize the failure of the old policy - that takes political and personal courage. So, that chapter is now closed. Latin America has become a completely new factor in international politics.
What are the long-term prospects of Cuba’s evolution now that its relations with the United States have begun to get back to normal, and in view of the Castro brothers’ inevitable departure in whatever shape or form? Will this process not lead to a complete dismantling of Cuban Socialism?
Many people know that, consciously or subconsciously, I always express a Cuban, or a pro-Cuban, position - and I’m proud of that. Over the past 60 years, whenever people ask me questions or advice about Cuba, my position has been unchanged. So, don’t you worry: even during the most difficult period in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up along with the entire Socialist bloc, when Cuba was “one step away from the gallows”, as some put it - I always insisted that there’s no reason to worry. Things will be hard for Cuba - very hard. Maybe it will be extremely painful for its people - but they will not fall.
The funny thing is, there have been regimes that did not fall, but then quickly surrendered to the United States, such as Angola. They gave away their oil to the United Stares, and for that they were pardoned. The Cubans, however, have not surrendered anything - have they?
They have not, that is absolutely correct. Even now there are medical schools in Cuba that train thousands of doctors from Latin American and African countries free of charge. Even now! Some thought that it was all over. So when people ask me whether I think Cuba will survive, I always bring up the subject of the quality of the leaders of the Cuban revolution. I am talking about the political and human qualities of these people; they do not fit any of the standards we are accustomed to. There is a Marxist saying that a leader merely expresses the aspirations of the people - but a leader also brings to the table his huge personal experience, energy, and intellect...
So the Castro brothers, and their allies - they have essentially changed the cultural DNA of the Cubans? They have turned ordinary Latin Americans into a completely new kind of people?
The Cubans are so different that - well, I have only read about it, I don’t have first-hand experience - but even those of them who have emigrated to the United States, who have lived there for a long time, and then for some reason began to commit crimes (I am talking theft, banditry, etc) - these Cubans, when they are taken into custody, they behave completely differently with the police than other U.S. citizens. They stand up straight.
So, of course, the mentality of the national leader, some of it is passed on to the people. The leader plays a major role, and in the case of Fidel, the world reacts to his clear and transparent behavior; no-one in the whole world has ever caught him out lying, or making unfulfilled promises. No-one has ever caught him plundering the national wealth, secretly buying up assets in Panama or elsewhere. This is a person who does not have luxury government palaces. This is a man who has spent his whole life wearing a soldier’s uniform - well, he’s now swapped the uniform for a tracksuit. He is extremely modest and undemanding in his personal life. And he has a great reputation. He has spent 70 years in politics, and hasn’t lost an ounce of respect among his own people, despite the hugely difficult path that people has travelled.
There was an interesting barbed exchange between Obama and Raúl Castro. Obama said to him, “you have only one party”. To which Raúl replied, “You also have only one party”. To this Obama said, “No, we have two”. And Raúl said, “Well, if you want, we can also set up two parties - a party of Fidel and a party of Raúl, so we will also have two.”
So there are two prominent leaders in Cuba, who also happen to be brothers. What about trust? What about the problem of the transition of power? How is that transition being prepared? Will it be smooth, or is there a danger of the country running into trouble?
I am of course keeping an eye on Cuba. I once said Russia is my mother, but Cuba is my elder sister. So I keep an eye on her, watch her grow and mature. I know very well that the Cuban leaders, including Fidel Castro, have long thought hard about a change of leadership. He raised that issue back at the time when we were talking about stagnation. They are now drafting a new constitution. Its key features have already been announced at Communist Party congresses, and they will substantially change Cuba. For example, there is a new rule whereby no senior official - be that president, or prime minister, or head of the legislature - can hold office for more than two five-year terms. This new constitution will probably be approved within the next few months.
So, this is one of the changes they are introducing: two five-year terms, and that’s it. Obviously, there will be a new leadership. And Raúl keeps saying that Cuba’s revolutionary government, the government that led the revolution and that has managed to withstand half a century of this monstrous siege - this government will be stepping down. They are saying this openly, without any equivocation or ambiguity. A new generation will come to power - a generation that was not involved in the revolution and does not know what life was like in the past. Some 75 per cent of Cuba’s population were born after the revolution.
Miguel Díaz-Canel seems likely to be the one to succeed Raúl Castro. Of course, Castro’s job will be split in two. Raúl Castro will continue to lead the party, this already seems to have been decided. He was re-elected as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba at the latest congress. So, he will remain at the helm of the party. Díaz-Canel, however, will be the head of state. I am sure there will also be a new head of government. I can think of some likely names, but I don’t want to name them because it has not been decided yet. Nevertheless, the party has clearly set out some parameters that were also discussed here in Russia during the socialist era.
What is the outlook for Russian-Cuban relations - politically, economically, and militarily?
The Cubans still retain a sense of gratitude to the Soviet Union and to Russia, to the Russian people, and to all our peoples. The emotional ties will remain very strong for a long time to come. But much depends on us. We keep worrying, for example, that in the Eastern European countries and in the Baltic states people show disrespect for our soldiers buried there, desecrate memorials, etc. This is a big problem for us, especially when talking about war graves. In Cuba, on the other hand, there are graves of 70 Soviet soldiers. They did not die in a war, but in the line of duty. And the Cubans have very diligently gathered all their remains; they have built a wonderful memorial in a park near Havana.
Well, that is the cultural and historical side of things. What about current politics and the economy?
The whole of Cuba is armed with our weapons, and as for the weapons they make themselves, they got the license from us. So there are very close ties in the defense industry. They have their own upgrade programs for that weaponry. They are replacing engines, etc, but the weapons systems are basically Russian-made. So defense cooperation is ongoing, and I don’t see it ending any time soon. There may be some problems initiated by Russia itself, as has often been the case in the past. But if we miss these opportunities, the Chinese will be there. The Chinese have weapons systems that are roughly comparable to our own.
As for the economy, the situation depends on our own capabilities. The Cubans are waiting for us with open arms.
But Russia has very little to offer these days, isn’t that right?
Exactly. There are some proposals for Russian participation in upgrading the Cuban railways. We are talking about the tracks, the signaling system, etc. We have already done a lot in this area. We are also talking about the trains themselves, of course. Our own technological capability is very limited. But the Cubans have always given us preferential treatment. I remember well the difficult period in the 1990s, when I visited Cuba on several occasions with business delegations.
Igor Sechin, who served as deputy prime minister at the time, led the Russian-Cuban intergovernmental commission. He once took a whole plane - he could do that, in his position - he filled that plane with Russian businessmen, and took them all to Havana. He said to them, look at the opportunities! Why don’t you invest?
But no-one has made any investments. Some of them ran into trouble with the Cubans, who can be quite tough. They welcome everybody, they offer the best terms, but they are not going to give you something for nothing, as our businessmen have come to expect. So, the ball is entirely in our court.
Only a decade ago it seemed that the whole of Latin America was veering sharply to the left. There were only one or two center-right strongholds left. But now the left and the leftist populist trends are waning in Latin America. It is very clear in Brazil, for example. The same is true of Argentina, and there are protests in Venezuela. Do you think a right-wing wave is rising?
Of course. It would be foolish to deny this. But these left-wing and right-wing waves, they follow one another in Latin America very regularly. As a rule, they have a clear socio-economic underpinning. There was a time in the late 20th and early 21st century when the United States paid very little attention to Latin America. The United States was busy picking apart what was left of the Soviet Union and the former Soviet bloc. They then became bogged down in the Middle East.
Then the first [global economic] crisis arrived in 2008-2009, followed by the second wave in 2013, which is still ongoing. And looking at how these waves of crisis affect the Latin American countries, we notice immediately one common element: someone always has to pay the price.
So there are good reasons for this right-wing shift happening now?
It is clearly a consequence of the severe crisis that has struck the economy. Mauricio Macri has come to power in Argentina by winning an election. This has been a first for a right-wing president in Argentina; previously, the only way they came to power was by military coup.
Now they have won an election because the economic situation was bad enough for the Argentine people to want change. They’ve got change all right; Macri is now pursuing such a radical neo-liberal course that the Argentine’s pips are beginning to squeak. I can’t predict now what’s going to happen at the next election in four years’ time, because the people are very unhappy. And if the international economic climate begins to improve, including prices for Argentine exports such as meat and corn, then I think it will be very difficult for Macri to hold on to power. He is a very untypical figure, not even a proper Latin American - he is an Italian, basically a foreigner.
Incidentally, the man leading the opposition in Venezuela, Henrique Capriles, is also a foreigner. His mother was a Polish Jew who fled Poland during the war and settled on the island of Curaçao. There she gave birth to the present leader of the Venezuelan opposition, who then moved to Venezuela from that island. So, essentially, he’s not a native Venezuelan. To him, Bolivar and all these traditions mean absolutely nothing.
He has nothing in common with people like Evo Morales, who is a Bolivian Indian, whose forefathers had suffered at the hands of the Spanish and the Americans alike for generations, and who is a Latin American through and through. So that’s why there is such a wave now. That wave will last for as long as the global market instability lasts. As soon as the markets stabilize, things will get back to where they were, no doubt about it.
Hugo Chavez created a counterbalance to CNN. He decided to set up his own TV company that would broadcast to all the Latin American states, and serve as a united platform for all our national ideas. He called that company TeleSUR. I think Cuba is one of the shareholders. It’s a completely different company. It pursues a patriotic, national, and generally anti-American course. And, of course, Macri is now saying that the company should be banned from broadcasting in Argentina. He is supposed to be a neo-liberal, but he wants to stifle freedom of information; it comes very naturally to him. I am generally astounded by the discrepancy between the neo-liberals’ words and their deeds.
What are Russia’s prospects in Latin America, given the current right-wing shift?
Regardless of the shifts, Russia must not be viewed as some kind of leftist, revolutionary country. Russia has changed its foreign-policy course for a variety of reasons. Russia is a socially-oriented state of an entirely non-revolutionary type. That is why we are not some kind of bogeyman that can bring revolutionary contagion to Latin America.
The problems lie in an entirely different area. For Russia, Latin America is a natural ally, or even partner. Because in those places where we have not had an historical presence, we have always remained a welcome partner, if not an ally.
So you are saying these countries have some kind of illusions about Russia?
These aren’t just illusions. Take Cuba, for example. Its revolution would have died, were it not for the Soviet Union. It would have been crushed, no doubt about it. We came there with entirely humanistic ideas, which were dictated by global development goals. This is why many regard us as their natural partner and ally. When Hugo Chavez came to power, he started replacing the Venezuelan army’s weaponry with Russian systems; that was part of the same trend. The Sandinistas also turned to us for help. Everyone who wants to protect their national wealth turns primarily to us. So they are open to cooperation with us, it’s just a matter of our own capabilities. Much to my regret, Latin America remains a peripheral region for us. We are busy with matters much closer to home, such as Turkey or Syria, as if that were where the world ends, or where our border lies. But the world is much bigger than that. And the Latin American countries would genuinely be glad to see us.
You have already mentioned the Chinese. How successful are China’s attempts at penetrating Latin America, including Cuba?
I am not a Sinologist. China has its own rich history and its own mindset. Everyone I have talked to in Latin America says that China is not an ideological or political power; it is an economic power. So they don’t care who rules in Argentina, Cristina Fernández [de Kirchner] or Mauricio. What’s important to them is that their economic interests are protected and not restricted in any way.
Yes, the Chinese are present everywhere. They can do a lot, no doubt about it. Their influence is growing. But they are not shouting it from the rooftops. They always try to work quietly.
Back in the early 2000s I predicted that the main clash of the 21st century would be between China and the United States. China is distracted by various minor regional problems, but it continues to grow at a breakneck pace. What is now going on in the South China Sea is just the early warning signals; the monster will yet show its full might.
What do you think are the prospects for ending the war between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels? And what about the outlook for Russian-Colombian relations?
I was in Havana at the signing of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the rebels. The Cubans showed themselves to be real peacemakers, without empty rhetoric. They put in place all the conditions for the representatives of those warring factions to sit down and discuss terms. There were a lot of terms, incidentally.
The first basic principle is that the rebels will disarm, and they have also asked the government to ensure the disarmament of the various paramilitary organizations that were spreading terror at the behest of the Colombian oligarchs and some large companies. The third basic principle is that the rebels should be integrated into normal civilian life. I saw everyone swear to this with my own eyes.
I have no doubt that both sides want peace. The only other option is an endless war of attrition. Various casualty figures have been cited. Most people put the number of casualties at 250,000 people. That is a monstrous figure, of course. I have been to Colombia, and I’ve spoken to senior officers in the Colombian army. I asked them a simple question: Why can’t you, the Colombian army, simply demolish the rebels, physically occupy their territory, and end this war? One of the lieutenant colonels told me in all honesty: “You see, while the civil war is going on, while we are engaged in an armed struggle against the rebels, we are on double pay — because we are at war. If we sign a peace deal and the war ends, we will revert to our normal pay.”
So what were the Colombian politicians thinking?
It sometimes happens that the politicians are subordinate to the military; nothing can be done about it, the military simply dictate their will. So the situation is, of course, intolerable not just for the people themselves but also for the army, for the rebels, and for the country’s political image. Colombia is a huge country. We actually had difficulties with Colombia over Venezuela. We support Venezuela, but Venezuela has differences with Colombia. They have border disputes, economic disputes, etc. They wage propaganda wars against each other from time to time.
We somehow need to make sure that we are not seen as a party that wants to stoke local conflicts. The diplomats have a lot of work to do, because these problems must be resolved by diplomats. Colombia is a powerful country. It has a large population and a vast potential. It has access to two oceans.
What is the likelihood of armed conflicts in Latin America?
Latin America has made some real progress. First, it has declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone. Now they have banned wars between themselves. And when they did it, journalists expressed doubts, pointing out that there were still many unresolved conflicts in the region. Then representatives of Peru and Chile spoke up. They said that there were indeed unresolved conflicts, including maritime borders, fishing rights, etc. But we have decided that these conflicts will be resolved through arbitration, they said.
It is known than after that statement, the Peruvians essentially told Russia that they were not going to buy tanks because a) they have undertaken commitments, and b) tanks are an offensive weapon. This will not help our chances at the tribunal because it will make us look aggressive, they said. So they have agreed to buy trucks, but not helicopters or tanks.
Of course, it is not easy to relinquish war and threats. But this trend is now clear, although they have spent a lot of time trying to reach this point. We have reconciliation in Colombia - but do you remember how long the Contras and the Sandinistas fought each other in Nicaragua? They spent a very long time cutting each other’s throats. And in the end, they brought in excavators to dig up a huge hole in central Managua. They brought two truckloads of weapons - the Contras brought one truck and the Sandinistas brought another truck - and they dumped the weapons into that hole, and put a cross on top of it as a symbol of the nation’s unity. There was a time when Chile and Argentina endlessly fought each other over some peaks in the Andes. That was as recently as in the early 20th century.
That went on until the two presidents agreed to collect all the cannon deployed on their southern border, melt them into a pillar of peace, and put that pillar on their current border. People want peace, but politicians sometimes plunge them into war. Some of these wars have been absolutely stupid. Take, for example, the war between El Salvador and Honduras, the co-called Football War. A real war broke out after a football game, and thousands of people were killed.
Interview by Ruslan Pukhov