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Latin America: from U.S. backyard to China's underdog


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Juan Diego Molina Méndez

researcher from Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra

As early as the 19th century, U.S. President John Quincy Adams proclaimed the famous Monroe Doctrine, which established that any invasion of the Americas by Europeans would be seen by the U.S. government as an affront that would require its intervention, thus turning Latin America into a kind of "backyard". This vision of the region has led it to be a passive actor in the geopolitical and economic decisions that have taken place over the last two hundred years. 

The Americas south of the Rio Grande has been a disputed territory since the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sought to establish outposts in the backyard that the Americans thought they controlled. The confrontation between the two powers ended up favoring civil conflicts between the legitimate power and leftist guerrillas, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, to Colombia, Peru and Argentina. The third wave of democratization, which began in the 1980s and lasted until the end of the 20th century, led us to believe that the triumph of liberal democracy was indisputable and that the economic assumptions set forth by the so-called "Washington Consensus" were destined to mark the development of the region.

Today, thirty years later, we can see how illusory was the idea that the triumph of the United States and its values was definitive. Currently, China's presence is a great support for consolidated dictatorships such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, while actively collaborating in the strengthening of dangerously personalistic leaderships such as those of Bukele in El Salvador, Petro in Colombia or Lula in Brazil, which represents an affront to the weak democratic culture of the region. The relations built by the Chinese regime with Latin American countries had initially been approached from a purely commercial perspective, but since the arrival of Xi Jinping to power in 2012, the foreign policy guidelines outlined by Deng Xiaoping have been abandoned, focused on hiding Chinese strength and never taking the lead, as a way of not showing its true capabilities.

It is clear that China's foreign policy has evolved since then and has become much more aggressive, without staying out of the game of the great powers and seeking a rethinking of the existing international order. Faced with the apparently waning political and economic power of the West, China presents itself as an alternative, although it is not the only one because a number of middle powers such as India and Iran are also seeking to mark their territory. However, the economic power that Beijing has amassed thanks to its industrial and manufacturing capabilities allows it today to weave its network of alliances around the world through the purchase of third country debt, strategic investments in developing economies development and now with the strengthening of its military presence in the world.

The war in Ukraine has shown the weakening of U.S. power in Latin America. It is enough to review the declarations of López Obrador, Petro or Lula to see a shift of regional powers towards positions increasingly opposed to those of the United States. goal Behind China's support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine lies the intention of legitimizing the invasion of neighboring countries in order to maintain an old territorial unity, with the aim of legitimizing before the world its "one China" policy, which seeks to put an end to Taiwan's independence in order to integrate it into Chinese territory. It is worth remembering that the issue of countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent country has dropped significantly in recent years; relevant cases are El Salvador, which in 2018 abandoned a long relationship with the island, and the same has been done this year by the Honduran government. This diplomatic change is not gratuitous, in fact, the Salvadoran government negotiated Chinese investment in the construction of a stadium, a national Library Services , tourism projects on the coast and the construction of a new dock in the port of La Libertad, all this despite the fact that the importance of the Salvadoran market for China is irrelevant.

For Latin American governments, the emergence of a new partner different from the United States represents the possibility of abandoning the principles of liberal democracy, including freedom of the press, the rule of law and the free market. Xi Jinping's quest to establish a new geopolitical order means the rejection of the international courts and organizations created by the United States and its allies in the post-war period, which also implies the rejection of Human Rights. This is a very comfortable status for governments that systematically violate people's rights in order to ensure that political leadership is not contested. 

This web, which has been carefully woven by the Asian power, has led us to an increasingly unstable world. The short-termism of Latin American political leaders has facilitated the work for China. A few days ago The Wall Street Journal published a report on how the Beijing regime has used Cuba as a base of operations to spy on the United States, and a few days later, the same media leaked negotiations to establish a Sino-Cuban training base on the island, thus cooking up a status similar to the one experienced during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Latin America has gone from being a backyard governed by politicians favorable to U.S. policies to being governed by others willing to sell their sovereignty on the cheap. core topic Looking to the future, it is important for the region to count on the political and economic cooperation of countries willing to build a relationship of equals with Latin American governments and that also contribute to the promotion of free and democratic societies.