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Russia's new presence in Latin America

President Medvedev visits Venezuela this week as a Russian nuclear warship leads joint maneuvers.

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Still, some are concerned about the budding friendship with Russia, which Chávez has visited three times this year alone, as well as other nations, such as Iran or Syria. "There is no justification, no concrete threat, for that amount of arms purchases," says retired Vice Admiral Mario Ivan Carratu Molina, a critic of Chávez. "We could be turning Venezuela into a strategic point for all those against the West."

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Medvedev's tour also includes a stop in Brazil and a visit to Cuba, where the first presidential visit to its former cold-war ally in eight years is seen as an attempt to restore trade and military ties that have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia, according to its state media, announced this month a loan of $335 million for Cuba to purchase Russian goods and services. That compares with $300 million in trade for all of 2007.

Moscow contends that interest in Latin America is mostly business, not unlike China's interest in the region's abundant raw materials. In fact, the impetus for Medvedev's tour was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Peru over the weekend. But Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, says the political benefits cannot be denied in the wake of Russian outrage at US plans to install a strategic missile shield in Poland, encouragement for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and support for the brief Georgia war in August. "This is our measured response to American hegemonism in our region," says Mr. Bazhanov. "If the US insists on doing these things, it must expect that we will respond."

Fertile ground for Russia's embrace

Russia finds fertile ground in Latin America, which has traditionally resented its dominant northerly neighbor.

"Latin America has long felt the effects of overbearing American influence and, as a result, most countries of the region share Russia's nonsupport for the idea of the unipolar world idea," says Vadim Teperman, an expert with the official Institute of Latin America in Moscow. "As Russia's relations with the US and the European Union worsen, Russia is on the lookout for new partners."

Ms. Forman says she believes that leaders might scale down their plans – or at least their fiery rhetoric – with Mr. Obama, whose worldwide popularity so far has soared.

Still, the US will have to find a way to address Russia and China's increased ties to Latin America, she says. Since 9/11, Latin America has fallen to new lows on Washington's agenda.

The US has played down concerns about the fortified friendship between Russia and Venezuela. But a byproduct is more arms in circulation, and many observers say that cannot be good news. "If Venezuela buys arms, then Brazil does. If Brazil does, then Peru does," says Mr. Carratu Molina. "It is a dangerous circle."