The Russian military naval exercises in South America are somewhat of a nostalgic novelty item. It is more annoying than serious a matter. The nuclear cooperation chatter with anti-American leaders in the Western Hemisphere is quite another matter.
At its core, the Russians are upset that the U.S. is working with the Czechs and Poles on a missile defense shield for Europe. The Russians view the defensive move to protect the region from Iranian missiles as a threat to Russian leadership. Yet, the Cold War-era looking propaganda efforts in South America seem as if the only threat Russia is concerned about is a threat to Russian pride.
The Russians are overplaying their political hand by announcing that it will work with Venezuela to construct its first nuclear reactor. In a move to procure uranium from Brazil, Russia has also announced that it will aid Brazil open new plants in Brazil. Russia also wants to work with Cuba and Venezuela on a civilian space program. Brazil already has a fairly advanced propulsion program.
The incoming Obama Administration needs to add non-proliferation as a top issue for Western Hemisphere policy. While a Latin American state with a nuclear weapon, or the technology to successfully assemble such a device, sounds almost surreal, the U.S. must work to ensure that it never comes to light.
If Brazil, for example, were to announce a successful nuclear weaponization program, it would have a extremely destabilizing impact in the region. It could potentially cause other South American nations to pursue nuclear weapon capabilities.
Venezuela has plenty of domestic challenges, including energy demands, that need to be addressed. However, Hugo Chavez has demonstrated through words and deeds that Venezuela is not ready for the responsibilities that come with a civilian nuclear program. Venezuela is more concerned with playing nuclear politics than he is about addressing energy issues. Venezuelan leaders should focus more on rule of law, democratic rule, and creating conditions for reform of the economy (none of which he will do).
Although they will try, the Russians cannot equate a nuclearized Latin America as a proportional response to a missile defense shield in Europe. During the mid-1990s, the U.S. successfully pressured the Russians and Cubans to cease building a Russian nuclear plant in Juragua, Cuba. Someone needs to remind the Russians that they can sail their ships in the Americas; nuclearizing dangerous people like Hugo Chavez is another matter.