Latin America: China’s Huawei Maintains its Foothold

By Luiza Duarte*

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro meets with Zou Zhilei, regional president of Huawei Latin America/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Resisting U.S. pressure, Latin American countries are proceeding with Huawei as a potential or confirmed choice for their 5G wireless networks – while trying to attract other Chinese investments in their technology infrastructure.

  • Washington has been trying to shut out Huawei on security grounds since 2012, when U.S. companies were forbidden from using Huawei networking equipment. In May 2019, in the context of an escalating trade war, President Trump labeled the company a security threat and banned it from U.S. communications networks. The Biden Administration hasn’t reversed the sanctions.
  • These actions and the U.S. “Clean Network” campaign, emphasizing Huawei’s links to the Chinese government and alleged espionage activities, influenced Australia, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and others to institute similar bans. In 2018, at Washington’s request, Canada arrested Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer and Vice-Chairwoman, Meng Wanzhou, for alleged fraud, moving the issue into the international media spotlight.

Huawei has been present in Latin America for about two decades; it’s a key provider for the 4G network and associated infrastructure used by major telecom operators. Research for the CLALS China’s Messaging Project shows that 10 countries are likely to use Huawei technology despite U.S. concerns. Eight or so others are avoiding taking a position on the issue, but none have come forward to declare a ban on the company. 

  • At least 30 5G tests have been recorded in a dozen Latin American countries, more than one third of them with Huawei as the provider. The company secured an agreement with Uruguay to deepen cooperation on 5G and donated a telecommunications tower to Guatemala for training technicians on 4G and 5G networks. Colombia announced it won’t ban the company and Argentina has enabled five connection points for the new system in Buenos Aires using Huawei’s technology. Costa Rica and Venezuela’s 4G network relies heavily on Huawei’s infrastructure. In 2008, the Chinese company opened an office in Honduras, and it’s now the main provider for telecommunications companies in the country. It supplied nearly all of Cuba’s internet infrastructure.
  • Other countries are also unwilling to cut all ties to Huawei. French Guiana will comply with the French cybersecurity agency’s decision to grant time-limited waivers on 5G for wireless operators that use Huawei. This year, the United States has struck a deal with Ecuador – helping it reduce its debt – conditioned on the exclusion of Chinese companies from its telecom networks, according to the Financial Times. Two months later, the country’s National Telecommunications Corporation (CNT) and Nokia announced that they will begin to deploy 5G in the country, even though its pre-commercial tests were done with Huawei.
  • The COVID‑19 pandemic and the political battle around Huawei have delayed 5G-specific spectrum auctions in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. About one third of them don’t have concrete plans yet to adopt the next generation of mobile technology, and only Chile and Brazil have completed the tender to assign the 5G spectrum. Operators in ArgentinaUruguayPeruTrinidad and Tobago, and Suriname have launched the network in limited areas. Others are in different phases of the technological transition. 

The region’s two biggest markets have spoken of restrictions on Huawei, but continued reliance on the company suggests major collaboration will continue in one form or another.

  • Brazil’s main wireless firms already use Huawei for more than half of their networks and argue that banning Huawei would add billions of dollars in additional costs that would be passed on to consumers. The country’s auction was delayed several times and finally established a compromise involving a dual network – one (non-Huawei) for the government and all federal agencies, and one that did not block Huawei from servicing more than 242 million active mobile connections, according to the National Telecommunications Agency (ANATEL).
  • In Mexico, Huawei is excluded from the system’s “core” and areas near the U.S. border, but it’s present in other parts of the country. The company claims to be building the largest public Wi-Fi network in Latin America, with more than 30,000 hotspots in the México Conectado project. 

Huawei is undertaking robust lobbying campaigns to circumvent U.S. pressure and security concerns surrounding the firm’s hardware and software. Competitive pricing for its mobile, network, and cloud-based services has been key to establishing itself as “affordable, reliable and ultramodern.” Chinese diplomats are mobilized in the press and in social media to defend the company. But Huawei is also deploying a mix of traditional and controversial public relations strategies: large advertisement campaigns with local stars, events, partnership with universities and institutions, donations of equipment to governmental branches and businesses. It has donated 5G network kits to test agribusiness “Internet of Things” (IoT) services. It is also directly engaging decision makers, such as by hiring former Brazilian President Michel Temer to do its 5G lobbying in Brazil. 

  • Economic dependency on China made local governments fear retaliation and substantial financial consequences of a Huawei ban – a scenario that’s been even more sensitive during the pandemic. China holds a strategic position as a supplier of pharmaceutical items and COVID‑19 vaccines, while the region faces a public health and economic crisis.

November 19, 2021

Luiza Duarte is a research fellow at the Wilson Center, Brazil Institute, and CLALS. Her work focuses on Latin America-China relations. This research is part of a CLALS project on China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

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