Russia is becoming a major provider of Covid-19 vaccines to Latin America, a move that could have long-standing consequences in shaping the post-pandemic world and further dent US prestige in the region.
While Moscow faces protests at home and condemnation over human rights issues from the US, France, UK, Canada and other Western countries, those issues have had little resonance in Latin America, where the recent publication of a positive peer-reviewed assessment of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, was widely celebrated.
Eduardo Valdes, a former diplomat and member of government coalition Frente de Todos, who now serves as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies, says there’s a clear line between vaccine negotiations and external factors.
“Now is not the time to do ideology. Our goal is for the Western Hemisphere to get its vaccines and not to poke into someone else’s internal affairs,” he told CNN.
Turning to Moscow for help
Though historically seen as Washington’s geopolitical “backyard,” Latin America is increasingly turning to Moscow for help dealing with the pandemic. Six countries across the region – Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela – have now authorized use of the Sputnik V vaccine. Others are considering authorization requests, ever more urgent given the global shortage of available vaccines.
Colombia’s case is an example: America’s closest regional ally, Bogotá is now poised to authorize Sputnik V as well – a decision that surprised many due to the close alignment between some sectors of the government coalition and the US Republican Party. In the past, right-wing members of Duque’s own party, Centro Democrático, openly criticized Putin’s involvement in Latin America.
But when the country found itself without vaccines in hand at the end of January, Duque seems to have decided to push ideology to the side. The day after The Lancet’s publication on the Sputnik V, Colombia announced it was entering negotiations with Russia.
Less than three months prior, Bogotá had expelled two Russian officials in unclear circumstances. But the expulsion “did not influence the negotiations to bring here the vaccine,” Leonid Sboiko, first secretary at the Russian Embassy in Bogotá, told CNN. The Colombian Health Ministry declined to comment on the status of negotiations.
If anything, the vaccine deal could be a step toward smoothing things over. “Both countries want to turn the page. It was regrettable, but we want to move on,” Sboiko said, adding, “Cooperating on the vaccines is the most pressing issue right now, and is going to positively influence [Colombia and Russia’s] bilateral relationships.”
Sboiko told CNN that the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) which handles Sputnik V’s commercialization, last week presented an emergency authorization request to the Colombian medical agency INVIMA, and it is ready to deliver 100,000 doses within 14 days after a purchase.
“I think they had to bite the bullet and buy the vaccine regardless to whom they bought it from. And the Russians acted with enormous pragmatism,” Juan Carlos Ruiz, professor of Foreign Relationships at Bogotá’s Universidad del Rosario, told CNN.
Colombia will begin vaccinations this week, after receiving 50,000 doses as first shipment from Pfizer.
Ease of doing business
The need to secure more vaccines is urgently felt in the region. Latin American countries have been among the most affected in the world by the pandemic, but large-scale vaccination campaigns have not commenced yet, with limited exceptions.
According to the University of Oxford, South American countries have on average dispensed less than two doses of any coronavirus vaccine per 100 people, compared to almost five doses per 100 people in the EU and over 14 doses per 100 people in the US.
Russia’s readiness to strike deals has been key in spreading the vaccine across Latin America so far, according to Danil Bochkov, an expert of international relationship at the Russian International Affairs Council.
“It is always easier to deal with the state than with a private company, which has to hedge possible risks fearing huge losses. State-owned companies are easier to negotiate with, especially when they are pursuing political goals,” Bochkov told CNN.
Valdes, the Argentinian lawmaker, says negotiations with Moscow were easier than with Pfizer, from whom the Argentinian government initially planned to purchase vaccines. “When we looked at the contract, we evaluated that the ones with Pfizer did not comply with the legal protocols we expected,” Valdes said. “We reached out to the Russians and [Argentinian] President Fernandez related directly with Putin, and this sped things up,” he told CNN.
In a statement to CNN, Pfizer said the company remains committed to working with the Argentinian government but refused to comment on the status of confidential negotiations.
Regional neighbors Peru and Brazil have also cited issues in negotiations with Pfizer, allegedly because of some of the liability clauses it requested, and ultimately turned to other vaccines — Chinese-made Sinopharm in Peru, and Coronavac and AstraZeneca in Brazil.