Guy W. Farmer: Washington should be paying more attention to Russian warships in our backyard |

Guy W. Farmer: Washington should be paying more attention to Russian warships in our backyard

Guy W. Farmer

At the height of the Cold War, I spent an academic year at the U.S. Navy War College in Newport, R.I., where we worried about “huge swimming bears” ” the ships of the rapidly expanding Soviet Navy. And now, 30 years later, Russian warships are headed to the Caribbean, within striking distance of our southern coast. What’s going on?

Five Russian Navy ships are headed for the Venezuelan port of La Guaira, where they will conduct joint naval exercises in the Caribbean in November. These maneuvers were engineered by Venezuelan president, and dictator wannabe, Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Just before he left on a five-nation trip to Cuba, China, Russia, Portugal and France, Chavez said that Latin America needs a strong friendship with Russia to help reduce American influence and keep peace in the region. That’s how he sees the world.

The joint naval exercises were preceded by a high profile visit to Venezuela by two Russian TU-160 bombers as part of an enhanced military cooperation program between two of world’s leading oil producers. According to the Associated Press, Venezuela and Russia have signed more than $4 billion worth of defense deals since 2005, which have included Sukhoi fighter planes, Mi-17 helicopters and 100,000 Kalishnikov assault rifles. In addition, Russia has agreed to help build a factory in Venezuela to produce rifles and ammunition, and to establish a center to train pilots and repair helicopters.

While all of this has been transpiring in our backyard, Washington has been focused on a scary economic meltdown and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, if President Bush and/or either of the presidential candidates has said anything about the Russian military incursion in the Caribbean, I haven’t heard a word about it.

On a related issue, the State Department condemned Venezuela for expelling our ambassador for allegedly conspiring against Chavez. We then expelled the Venezuelan ambassador and went through the same sort of diplomatic dance with Bolivia, which always follows Venezuela’s lead. Bolivian President Evo Morales is a protege’ of Chavez, who is a protege’ of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In other words, it’s all in the Marxist family.

“We regret the actions of presidents Chavez and Morales to expel our ambassadors,” said State spokesman Sean McCormick. “This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face serious internal challenges …” Chavez faces internal opposition to his efforts to consolidate power and Morales is attempting to pacify breakaway provinces. At the same time, the State Department accused both Bolivia and Venezuela of failing to carry out their anti-drug commitments, charging Morales with supporting the expansion of coca leaf production far beyond the traditional needs of Bolivian peasants, who chew coca leaves as an antidote to altitude sickness.

The Russians Are Coming

Chavez made it clear he had the United States in mind when he announced the joint naval exercises. “Go ahead and squeal, Yanquis,” he said in a mocking tone on his Sunday TV program, adding that “Russia’s naval fleet is welcome here.” The Russian flotilla, which includes the nuclear- powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great and an anti-submarine ship, the Admiral Chabanenko, will arrive in Venezuela next month and more than 1,000 Russian sailors are expected to participate in the exercises.

These developments provide a stark contrast with the annual “Unitas” exercises that we used to conduct with South American navies. Those joint exercises in the 1960s and 1970s generated untold amounts of goodwill for the U.S. In fact, somewhere around 1970 I accompanied a group of Venezuelan journalists on a carrier landing in the Caribbean off the coast of Trinidad & Tobago. That was one of the highlights of my diplomatic career ” to become a “tailhooker.”

A few years later we provided public affairs support for the visit of a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary, to the poor port city of Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. American medical personnel provided much-needed services to the local population and Seabees helped to rebuild and repair schools and athletic fields. We ” the U.S. Information Service (USIS) ” produced a documentary film, “To Save a Life,” which ran in movie theaters throughout Colombia.

Well, times have changed and the Russian Navy is moving into the Caribbean, thanks to the president of Venezuela. Perhaps this is Russia’s response to our offer of help to Georgia following a surprise Russian invasion of that democratic nation. The Kremlin has expressed frustration over the presence of U.S. and NATO ships in the Black Sea and the Russians believe that we’re encroaching on their sphere of influence, much as they’re encroaching on ours in the Caribbean.

While at the Naval War College I wrote a paper about the nexus between naval presence and international politics. My conclusion was that when foreign warships appear on the horizon, regional governments should be alert because the ships are sending political messages. That’s why Washington should pay serious attention when those Soviet warships cruise into the Caribbean right after our presidential election.

Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, spent 20 years in Latin America during his U.S. Foreign Service career.