Even among friendlier nations, the United States has lost much of its influence, says Peter Hakim, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington that specializes in the Americas. "The financial turmoil greatly reduces our credibility. Economic management was the area that Latin American most looked to us: They wanted U.S. trade; they wanted U.S. investment."
This could be good for Russia—assuming it continues to seek close ties with the region. But Russia may simply be looking to Latin America now to make a point about Georgia, says Gregory Weeks, a Latin America expert at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. "It's a signal to the United States about U.S. involvement in what Russia considers its own sphere of influence," he says. "I don't see this as something that Russia intends to continue with or expand. Rather, they're saying to us, 'You've been pushing us too far, and we can push back.' "
At any rate, it may be premature to worry about Russian domination of the region, considering the long-established influence of countries like the United States and China. China is Brazil's third-largest trading partner after the United States and Argentina, and Brazil exported $11 billion of goods there last year. "The Chinese engagement in Latin America is clearly going to be with us for a long time," says Hakim. "It's not clear to me what Russia's interest is."
And Russia has been hit hard by the credit crunch—its two main stock exchanges, the Micex and the RTS Index, plunged around 70 percent between May and October. So, for now, global expansion may take second place to resolving the financial crisis.