Does COVID Aid To Latin America Reflect Chinese Expansion – And U.S. Decline?
We’re now familiar with websites from Johns Hopkins and Worldometer that grimly tally each country’s coronavirus cases and deaths. But unless you’re a hemispheric policy dweeb, you probably haven’t checked out a web page the Wilson Center has launched that tracks COVID-19 aid from the U.S. and China to Latin America, the new pandemic epicenter.
You should – because it’s another indicator that China’s crusade to spread its influence in the Americas isn’t slowing down.
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For most of this century, China has been enlarging its footprint in Latin America and the Caribbean, exploiting the U.S.’s chronic habit of either ignoring or insulting its southern neighbors. China is a voracious consumer of Latin America’s raw materials – and a just as ravenous purveyor of financial leverage and communist propaganda in the region.
So of course there’s more than international altruism at play now as the U.S. and China reach out to the region with ventilators and surgical masks. And while Beijing’s COVID-19 assistance looks as robust as Huawei’s mobile phone market share, Washington’s has been relatively sluggish.
Start with Mexico. In April, Paul Angelo at the Council on Foreign Relations and Rebecca Bill Chavez at the Inter-American Dialogue pointed out in the New York Times that Mexico’s stark vulnerability to COVID-19 was a greater health threat to the U.S. than to China. And yet, they wrote, “it’s Beijing, not Washington, that is fast-tracking hundreds of ventilators to help the country meet [that] vulnerability.”
Two months later, according to the Wilson Center, a prominent international affairs think tank, China is still inexplicably ahead of U.S. COVID-19 aid to Mexico. It’s shipped more ventilators and vastly more coronavirus test kits and preventive masks to our next-door neighbor than we have.
Even if the average Mexican, Ecuadorian or Panamanian doesn't care whether more COVID aid comes from Beijing or Washington, the average American should. The question is – does President Trump?
That’s not to say the U.S. is corona-AWOL in Latin America. It’s committed $3.5 million to Brazil and $2.5 million to Peru, the region’s two hardest-hit countries. But President Trump’s threat to pull U.S. funding for the World Health Organization – of which the Pan-American Health Organization is a key component – hardly sends an inter-American bear hug. And Beijing still outdoes Washington in places like Ecuador, which first sounded coronavirus alarm in Latin America with awful images of corpses lining the sidewalks of Guayaquil.
Miami Congresswoman and native Ecuadorian Debbie Mucarsel-Powell told me she’s concerned China’s COVID-19 aid presence compared to the U.S.’s further risks “skewing” the balance of superpower influence in Latin America.
“If we want to keep partnering with these countries when the pandemic is over,” Mucarsel-Powell said, “we better pay closer attention.”
Pay closer attention, that is, to how aggressively China is partnering with – and preaching to – Latin America today.
Did I say “partnering with?” Many have also called it “preying on.” China’s global Belt and Road Initiative has lavished infrastructure projects on developing countries. But it’s financed them in ways that often mires those countries in what economists call “debt traps.” China then ends up the owner of that port or highway meant to be a development showcase. Look at fast-growing Djibouti – a small African nation that now owes more than two-thirds of its GDP to Beijing.
That’s why Florida politicians like Mucarsel-Powell and Senator Marco Rubio have raised red flags as Red China brings its Belt and Road show to the Americas, especially cash-strapped Caribbean countries like the Bahamas and Jamaica. As many small countries have done, Panama recently broke ties with Taiwan so it could hook up with China’s infrastructure largesse – like a $1.4 billion bridge over the Panama Canal.
Panama’s also been pounded by COVID-19. And while, according to the Wilson Center, the U.S. has contributed $750,000 in healthcare assistance, China has sent hundreds of thousands of surgical masks as well as ventilators and protective medical suits.
You might ask, Isn’t it a good thing for Latin America to have the world’s two heavyweights vying for its affections? Yes, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that yanqui hegemony doesn’t have a warm-and-fuzzy history in this hemisphere.
But neither does communism. What’s perhaps more ominous than Beijing’s economic invasion is its diplomatic onslaught – its so-called “sharp power” campaign of media manipulation in Latin America, via tools like the Confucius Institutes it’s installed on the region’s college campuses. It’s designed to market China’s iron-fisted, totalitarian brand as somehow a benign alternative to U.S.-style democracy. You’ll recall this is a hemispheric scheme dictatorial Russia is also up to.
Meaning, even if the average Mexican, Ecuadorian or Panamanian doesn’t care where COVID care is coming from, the average American should.