Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise stop in Nicaragua on Friday after visiting Cold War ally Cuba as part of a tour aimed at increasing Moscow’s influence in Latin America amid the Kremlin’s frayed ties with the West.
Putin’s six-day trip will also take him to Argentina and Brazil, where he will take part in a summit of the BRICS group of emerging countries comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, an agenda that neatly aligns with his push for a multipolar world at a time when the Ukraine crisis has brought Moscow-Washington relations to a post-Cold War low.
Leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose country was close to the Soviet Union under the Sandinista regime of the 1980s, welcomed Putin at the airport along with his wife and the head of Nicaragua’s army.
“This is the first time that a Russian president visits Nicaragua,” a beaming Ortega said at a brief airport media event.
Through an interpreter, Putin said that his government intends to continue strengthening economic with Nicaragua. He said before the trip that he has his eye on South America’s oil and bauxite, and plans to woo regional leaders with offers of increased Russian investment and trade in return.
Analysts say Putin is also using the tour to thumb his nose at Brussels and Washington, which have slapped sanctions on some of his closest allies over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and support for pro-Russian separatists there.
Moscow is seeking comprehensive technological partnerships with Latin America in oil and gas, hydropower, nuclear energy, aircraft construction and biopharmaceuticals, Putin told Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina.
Putin arrived in Nicaragua after visiting Havana, where he and Cuban President Raul Castro witnessed the signing of a dozen bilateral agreements.
Following Putin’s arrival on Friday, the two leaders visited a small cemetery that holds the remains of Soviet soldiers serving in Cuba during the Cold War.
The Russian president then met Castro’s older brother, Fidel, the 87-year-old father of the Cuban Revolution.
According to Russian sources, Putin said they had a “long and very interesting conversation” international politics and bilateral relations that lasted about an hour.
Ahead of the visit, Russia wrote off 90 percent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt of more than US$30 billion, while Havana for its part has sided with its old ally Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
Putin is next to fly to Buenos Aires, where analysts say he will like
ly seek a stake in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale formation, an oil and gas field estimated to contain the equivalent of 22.8 billion barrels of oil — potentially one of the largest finds in history.
Argentina, locked out of capital markets since defaulting on its debt in 2001, desperately needs foreign investment and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner will be keen to tap Russian capital at a time when her government is fighting to stay solvent in the face of a US court order to pay more than US$1.3 billion by the end of the month to “holdout” hedge funds refusing to take part in the restructuring of the country’s defaulted debt.
Putin has also invited Argentina to take a seat at the BRICS summit next week in Brazil, where he will first attend the FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Argentina in Rio de Janeiro.