The Cold War was an ideological and political confrontation between communism and capitalism—represented mainly by the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively—that largely unfolded on “Third World” battlefields. The outcome of the war depended on internal struggles in Latin America, Africa, and Asia–struggles in which both the US and the USSR took a direct interest. Whichever ideology dominated these countries, many claimed, would end up leading the rest of the world.[i]
The Soviet Union’s interest in the Third World started with Lenin, who saw the triumph of the Russian Revolution as the beginning of a World Revolution: “Our cause is an international cause, and so long as the revolution does not take place in all countries … our victory is only half a victory or perhaps less.”[ii] It was under the leadership of Lenin’s Cold War successors, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, that the Soviet Union took active measures to expand the Leninist dream in Latin America.
During the Cold War, the USSR sought to weaken US influence in the Latin America and, eventually, replace capitalism in the region with socialism. As Nikolai Leonov, the KGB’s leading expert in Latin America, later put it, “we saw the whole territory of Latin America as a hunting ground for opportunities in our work against the United States.”[iii] The Kremlin was skilled at fanning the flames of resentment against America and encouraging Latin American perceptions of Western imperialism.
The major trigger in the Soviet Union’s decision to expand to Latin America was the success of the Cuban Revolution. Before Fidel Castro, Latin America and the Caribbean were seen as a US stronghold impenetrable to foreign encroachment. However, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 gave the communist forces hope that the rest of Latin America would follow Castro’s example. By 1975 the Soviet Union had expanded its diplomatic and trade relations with more than 20 Latin American countries. [iv]
The Soviet Union’s influence throughout Latin America was both ideological and economic. The Soviets started their infiltration by contacting radical groups and urging them to form leftist fronts under communist guidance.[v] The KGB trained guerilla fighters in Central and South America, hoping to spark future revolutions.
The USSR sent many Latin American students to study and train in Russia. The students, chosen by Latin American communist parties and trade union leaders, were sent on programs to produce “a pool of knowledgeable, pro-Soviet young people” that would eventually occupy leadership positions in their original countries.[vi] In 1982, the number of Latin American students that received training in the USSR and Eastern Europe was over 9,000. By the end of 1984 the number had increased to 11,300. It was also not uncommon for pro-Soviet Latin Americans, seeing the societal and political effects of the communist ideology in Cuba and the Soviet bloc, to abandon the cause. This was especially the case in Cuba, where many who had joined the Communist Party to fight against Batista later defected to the US.
To help spread Marxist ideological influence, the Soviet Union assisted Latin American countries economically in the form of trade credits, development projects, technical assistance, and weapons supply. The Kremlin took an interest in setting up ventures with state or private firms, especially hydroelectric power, irrigation, mining, and fishing projects.
The USSR traded with most of the Latin American countries, buying agricultural products in exchange for providing manufacturing goods. Its main trade partners were Argentina, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay. In 1987 the Soviet Union absorbed 80% of Argentina’s total grain exports; increased its trade from 40 million rubles in 1971 to 550 million in 1981 out of the 2.2 billion concentrated in Argentina, Peru, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Brazil; and Nicaragua with more than $250 million in military equipment.
The Soviet Union’s actions in Latin America helped solidify diplomatic ties and spread communism, as well as weakening the influence of the United States in the region. The USSR encouraged anti-capitalist and anti-American ideas in Latin America for more than 60 years, usually in the guise of anti-imperialist rhetoric. The Soviet Union’s influence helped elevate tensions throughout the continent and empowered violent leftist groups that would go on to kill millions in civil conflicts. Many of those same leftists remain influential in contemporary Latin American politics–like Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, who served as a Marxist guerrilla in the late 1960s. It is important to recognize how the Soviet legacy continues to affect countries today–not just in Russia and Eastern Europe, but in America’s own backyard in countries like Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.
[ii] Christopher Andew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World
[iii] Leonov, “Soviet Intelligence in Latin America During the Cold War”
[iv] Leonov, “Soviet Intelligence in Latin America During the Cold War”
[vi] Cole Blasier, The Giant’s Rival: The USSR and Latin America