U.S.-Guatemala: What does Washington Really Want?

by Ricardo Barrientos*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras / Government of Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Central America’s ongoing political, economic, migration, and narcotics-trafficking crises would normally allow a potential ally like Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to wriggle his way into Washington’s good graces, but his repeated efforts to thwart scrutiny of his and his allies’ corruption have been so blatant that the United States can no longer keep turning a blind eye.

  • Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua is now clearly authoritarian – elected fraudulently, arresting opponents, and openly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is increasingly aggressive in his anti-democratic and authoritarian actions, and explicitly defiant of the United States. Honduran Juan Orlando Hernández is in jail, but Xiomara Castro faces the monumental task of rebuilding the state – in the face of doubts, if not opposition, from many in Washington concerned about her supposed leftist views. All this comes against a backdrop of surging migration, massive drug-trafficking, and a hemisphere-wide “great powers competition” with China and some Russian advances in the region. Until recently, Guatemala could have put itself forward as a partner that, while regional problems festered, could – even if not as a friend – help the U.S. pursue its interests.

Nevertheless, Guatemala is now far from the ideal U.S. partner in Central America. In an explicitly defiant action, Giammattei reappointed Consuelo Porras as Attorney General in spite of the U.S. State Department’s inclusion of her on the so-called Engel List, because of her involvement in significant corruption. She has been blocking investigations of corrupt acts and allowed impunity by several individuals, including Giammattei himself. 

  • Giammattei has been unable to give Washington even the minimum image as a credible and reliable ally as his two most recent corrupt predecessors managed to do. Weak from the start, his presidency has been wracked by mismanagement of the pandemic, persistent scandals, and anti-democratic actions. Lacking the popularity levels of Bukele or even Ortega, he has had to purchase political support from tainted sponsors including former military officers accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide during the civil war; businesspeople accused of tax fraud or illicit electoral campaign financing; and corrupt officials – in return for promises that he preserve the impunity mechanisms that have so effectively protected them in the past. (Neo-Pentecostal groups are also an important part of his base.) For Giammattei, keeping control of the Attorney General’s office was paramount to fulfill that promise.
  • Under Giammattei, moreover, the government is failing in areas of direct interest to Washington, particularly addressing the “root causes” of the migration that ranks high on the U.S. agenda. Men widely suspected of collaborating with the drug cartels occupy high-ranking positions in Congress and government, making Guatemala a highway for drugs heading north. Cartel allies stand to increase their power in elections scheduled for June 2023.

Washington’s frustration with Giammattei is understandable, even though inconsistencies and favoritism in its own Central America policies have contributed to the estrangement. Guatemala’s democracy appears to be in its death throes – full of desperate people eager to risk their lives at the hands of a human-trafficking coyotes. While it remains high season for corruption, the government gives scant attention to public health (with the lowest vaccination rate and highest child malnutrition rate in Central America), and education. For many Guatemalans, the only hope of finding a better life is trying to reach the United States or cooperate with the burgeoning drug cartels.

  • Washington’s pressure on Giammattei (or any Guatemalan president) is long overdue, but it’s unclear whether it is driven by U.S. hubris at his failure to dump a corrupt Attorney General, or whether it represents a strategic shift toward a policy based on democratic values, wisdom, and prudence. Whatever the reason, the Biden Administration doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the failed Alliance for Prosperity that he strongly supported as Obama’s Vice President, appealing to Central American leaders to clean up their acts. A passive, laissez faire stand on Guatemala is not the proper way to address complex issues like the cartels, corruption, poverty, violence, and the other “root causes” of migration that Vice President Kamala Harris pledged to combat.
  • The day after Giammattei announced that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles next month, Washington sent his formal invitation – adding to the confusion about U.S. intentions toward him. Many Guatemalans wonder if the Biden Administration puts issues like migration and drug trafficking before democracy and combatting impunity.

May 25, 2022

Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

U.S.-Cuba: Putting the “Sonic Attacks” Myth behind Us?

by Fulton Armstrong and Philip Brenner*

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba / Ajay Suresh / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The Biden Administration’s recent announcement that it is resuming “limited” consular functions at the U.S. Embassy in Havana suggests that it’s prepared to put the “sonic attacks” meme – President Donald Trump’s stated rationale for closing the Consulate in 2017 – behind it, but Washington still appears unlikely to restart the normalization process. U.S. and Cuban officials met last month for the first time in four years to discuss implementation of a migration accord signed in 1995. Orderly migration is only one among several interests the United States could advance if it were willing to resume discussions with Cuba. But the Biden administration has placed electoral politics ahead of U.S. interests and appears unlikely to do more.

  • A State Department official told reporters that consular officers will process applications from only the Cuban parents of U.S. citizens, and that persons in all other non-emergency categories will still have to go to Guyana or another third country to apply. A few of the vice-consuls reportedly will fill previously permanent slots, but others will be assigned to the Embassy on a temporary basis.
  • When it ceased consular services in 2017, the State Department unilaterally abrogated a bilateral agreement, which enjoyed bipartisan support for two and a half decades, to process visas in a manner that would keep migration legal and safe. Renewing limited services, officials cited the surge in “irregular Cuban migrants” to the United States “via land and maritime routes.” Cubans are the second largest group arriving on the Southwest border – 16,531 in February alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 1,000 Cubans in the Florida Strait since October.

The State Department has not publicly reconciled its consular decision with its repeated allegations of a Cuban role in, or at least failure to prevent, the “sonic attacks” that the Trump Administration cited, after months of inaction, as reason for reducing the Embassy. Now referred to as “Havana Syndrome” and “unexplained health incidents” by the Biden Administration, those allegations have never been substantiated.

  • Various reports have seriously challenged the official claims, but the U.S. Government has continued efforts to find scientists who will corroborate them. As early as November 2018, scientists of the prestigious JASON advisory group concluded that the reported sounds “most likely” were caused by Caribbean short-tailed crickets; it found they were “highly unlikely” from ultrasound or microwave equipment as alleged. A half-dozen investigations later, CIA officials last January said that all but two dozen of the 1,000 reported cases could be explained by environmental conditions, undiagnosed medical conditions, or stress rather than a global campaign by a foreign power. (Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns soon came forward to stress that “while we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done.”)

The “sonic attacks” in Havana initially took place in late 2016, but the Trump Administration did not mention them in announcing its first round of measures in June 2017 to slow and eventually reverse President Obama’s normalization policies – perhaps because it too didn’t take the allegations seriously. Public complaints by self-identified victims in August 2017 found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, however, and legislators pressed the Trump Administration to use it as pretext to reduce the U.S. Embassy in Havana (and to force Cuba to cut back its Embassy staff in Washington). The Biden Administration embraced the same rationale three and a half years later, despite overwhelming evidence that the blame on Cuba was misplaced, with literally hundreds of victims from around the world (even in Washington, DC) coming forward with similar claims of unexplained head injuries. The Biden Administration seems now to seek a quiet way back to addressing a migration crisis for which it, like the Trump Administration, has been complicit.

  • The Administration seems to think its policies will help it win hearts and minds in Florida, but its failure to provide leadership on issues like “sonic attacks” is further narrowing its political space. Now it faces challenges not only from the usual characters in Congress who oppose normalization, but also moderates such as Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Mark Warner (Virginia), who cosponsored the “HAVANA Act.” In addition to permanently linking the issue to Havana, the legislation, which Biden signed into law last October, has contributed to a surge in alleged cases of anomalous symptoms by offering compensation to “victims.”
  • Neither does the Administration seem concerned about the implications of its Cuba policies for U.S. interests throughout Latin America – one of the main drivers of President Obama’s pivot on the island in 2014. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s statement this week that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas that Biden is hosting in Los Angeles next month if Cuba is not invited is a blow. Similarly, Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua & Barbuda, widely seen as “dean” of the Caribbean diplomatic corps, declared that Biden’s continued embrace of Trump policies on Cuba and Venezuela “has continued to haunt US‑Caribbean relations.”

May 13, 2022

* Fulton Armstrong directs AULABLOG. Philip Brenner is Emeritus Professor of International Relations and History at American University. His latest books are Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence and Cuba at the Crossroads.

Latin America: Is There a Constructive Side to U.S. Policy?

By Fulton Armstrong

President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez gathered at the President's desk in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden, joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, talks on the phone with Jeff Zients on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House / Adam Schultz / The White House / Flickr / Creative Commons License.

While many of the Biden Administration’s policies in Latin America – particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and China’s activities – remain largely the same as during the Trump era, some of its actions and statements suggest more nuanced approaches on other regional issues. 

  • National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, has been the point person for maintaining the hard line on Venezuela and Cuba. In early March, he met in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro, who later said, “we’ve agreed to work on an agenda going forward,” but the Administration vehemently denied this and has continued to maintain that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is President of Venezuela. In Cuba, according to various sources, Gonzalez last year vetoed a promised plan for reversing a Trump halt to the flow of remittances to the island. He recently stated that new U.S. sanctions against Russia were also intended “by design” to put pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

At Congressional hearings in February and March, other senior officials have laid out various Administration priorities.

  • Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified that the hemisphere is “under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland.” In addition to helping the region with COVID-19 and the “climate crisis,” she said U.S. policy is to counter China’s “relentless march” to expand its influence in the region and its “challenges [to] U.S. influence.” She also pledged to combat transnational criminal organizations, which “operate nearly uncontested and blaze a trail of corruption and violence that create conditions that allow the PRC and Russia to exploit, threaten citizen security, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.” She said her command is “putting integrated deterrence into action.” 
  • In testimony in February, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, praised President Biden’s recent “Summit for Democracy” and acknowledged that “too many ordinary citizens have seen their governments fail to meet their aspirations for a better future.” He also said the Administration’s “Build Back Better World” initiative, including investments that respond to partners’ infrastructure needs, will counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “will help demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people.” His counterpart in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stressed rule of law programs under the “Root Causes Strategy,” although he noted that “in some cases,” governments lack the political will to tackle the corruption that is a root cause of their nation’s problems.
  • USAID Assistant Administrator responsible for Latin America, Marcela Escobari, testified that her priority is mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 and climate change. While criticizing the state of democracy and human rights in “extreme cases” like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, she expressed concern about “democratic backsliding” elsewhere, noting that “even in more established democracies, authoritarian tendencies have emerged.” 

The Administration has not articulated how some of its steps diverge from the aggressive and transactional approaches that characterized the Trump Administration’s engagement with the region. The White House pressed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hard to reach an accommodation with Argentina, whose government Trump kept at arm’s length, and helped it avoid default on its 2018 stand-by loan. Vice President Harris has given strong support to Honduran President Xiomara Castro since her inauguration in January – and probably contributed to Washington’s decision to request the extradition on drug charges of her predecessor, Trump ally Juan Orlando Hernández. In their Congressional testimony, current officials have repeatedly made nuanced remarks about the perceptions and reality of homegrown challenges in Latin America. Their emphasis on corruption and lack of will to address those scourges suggests awareness that not all is well, even in those countries that Washington embraces as democracies. After a slow initial response, the Administration has been generous in providing support for vaccine availability and for the capacity of public health systems to effectively respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • These factors suggest that while tired regime-change policies on Cuba and Venezuela and “integrated deterrence” against China and drug cartels may remain central to Washington’s approach to hemispheric affairs, there is awareness as well of how deeper cooperation with the region could simultaneously promote both U.S. and Latin American interests. The upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles may be the Administration’s best chance to seek meaningful common ground around the imperative of strengthening democratic governance, a challenge which Washington’s leadership now perceives as one that it shares with virtually all of its Latin American counterparts. 

March 31, 2022

How Is the Crisis in Ukraine Like the Cuban Missile Crisis?

By William M. LeoGrande*

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev/ U.S. Department of State & Kennedy Presidential Library/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the standoff between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine could trigger a crisis akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he wasn’t just referring to the danger of nuclear war, narrowly averted. He was also reminding Washington that Russia is not the only great power jealous of its sphere of influence. Russia has its “near abroad,” and the United States has its “own backyard” as defined in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine warning European powers to stay on their own side of the Atlantic. 

Sixty years ago this October, the Soviet Union projected its military power into the Western Hemisphere by placing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s principal purpose, we know now, was to protect Cuba from another U.S. invasion. (The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed the year before, and Washington had plans for an encore using U.S. troops.) 

To President John F. Kennedy, this intrusion into the U.S. sphere of influence was intolerable, not just because it posed a military threat, but because a U.S. failure to defend its own neighborhood would throw Washington’s credibility into doubt. To Kennedy, it was worth risking thermonuclear war to repel the Soviet incursion. Had Khrushchev not backed down, agreeing to withdraw the missiles, the United States was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

To this day, the United States has not accepted the idea that a hostile government allied with a rival superpower should be allowed to exist just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This year marks not only the 60th anniversary of the Missile Crisis, but also the 60th anniversary of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba designed to overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with one more to Washington’s liking. As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, candidly proclaimed, “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” 

The Biden administration, however, appears not to recognize its own great power conceits. “We can’t go back to a world of spheres of influence,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN, chastising Russia for its attempts to exert influence over former Soviet states. “We’re not going back to that.” He apparently had not read the U.S. Southern Command’s annual Posture Statements for the past decade, each of which defines the growing influence of Russia, China, and Iran as one of the principal threats the United States faces in the Western Hemisphere. The 2021 version elevates these interlopers to a collective proper noun: External State Actors (ESAs) – external to the U.S. sphere of influence.

When Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov suggested that Russia might enhance its military posture in Cuba and Venezuela in response to the U.S. build-up in Eastern Europe, the U.S. warning was unequivocal. Any Russian attempt to deploy missiles in Latin America would be an “aggressive action,” declared United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and would be met with a “strong response.”  “If Russia were to move in that direction,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, “we would deal with it decisively.” 

Biden’s officials seem not to grasp the irony of defending a U.S. sphere of influence while condemning Russia’s claims to its own. Not much has changed in the 60 years since the Missile Crisis, when Soviet missiles in Cuba were, by definition, “offensive” weapons, whereas U.S. missiles in Turkey were merely “defensive.”

If President Joe Biden is serious about replacing spheres of influence with what Secretary Blinken called a “rules based international order” in which small states can decide their own future free of great power coercion, Biden can start in his own backyard. Washington’s policy of regime change toward Cuba, based on economic coercion and subversion – a policy Biden inherited from Donald Trump and continues unchanged – has not worked for more than 60 years. Replacing it with a policy of engagement and coexistence would set a good example for President Putin in his near abroad.

February 1, 2022

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

China-Latin America: Literature Shows Varying Perspectives on Beijing’s Intentions

By Andrés Serbin*

Communicating Influence: China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean project page logo

By frequently casting China-Latin America relations as a “triangular relationship” between China, the United States, and Latin America, much of the academic literature generates a series of misunderstandings. Studies in both the English-speaking community and in China generally portray Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) as a relatively homogeneous and unified area – ignoring regional fragmentation and diversity – in a triangular relationship with the two superpowers. But Latin American analysts are increasingly focused on the widely varying nature of countries’ bilateral and subregional ties with each.

  • Latin American analysts generally produce theoretically more complex, politically diverse, and ultimately contradictory approaches to the relationships. Whereas the theoretical disciplines of international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) are ubiquitous in the English-speaking community, recent debates and critiques in Latin America reveal accelerated development of their own theoretical and conceptual approaches.

The two sets of analyses overlap in several important areas, such as China’s primary interest in securing resources and in investing its booming wealth in the region, but they yield different interpretations of its strategic objectives. Most views center around China promoting a version of globalization based on its geostrategic objectives, generating an increasingly tense dispute between the United States, as the traditional hegemonic power, and the rising PRC. This competition occurs mainly in the commercial and technological arenas, but it has military and cultural elements as well.

  • The Western epistemic community, to some extent reflecting the demands and expectations of the political milieu in which they work, frequently regards the Chinese presence in Latin America as a threat to U.S. interests and the autonomy of LAC countries. In this dynamic, China’s objectives go beyond economics and into spaces from which the United States has withdrawn. Latin America, despite its peripheral situation, is immersed in and eventually subordinated to a broader and more global geostrategic dispute, even if (as most analysts believe) China is not trying to impose its political system and development model on the region. 
  • Others tend to view China’s modernization and transformation, its remarkable need for commodities, and its ability to finance large acquisitions and projects as having important bilateral effects for the region. China has incorporated countries into its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure megaproject. Recently, it has undertaken an aggressive “health diplomacy” project during the COVID‑19 pandemic. 

The Latin American perspective is independent of efforts by LAC-based and Chinese analysts to foster joint research and interaction in the past 25 years; Chinese input into LAC analysis is growing but still limited. 

  • The most prolific LAC authors maintain fluid links with U.S. and European academic counterparts, but their work draws on theoretical frameworks that are rooted in approaches developed in the region. This includes a wealth of economic analysis and statistical data developed by individual scholars, research centers, and networks (such as Red‑ALC China), and institutions such as the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Many aspects of China’s policies, such as their impact on labor, environment, regional industrialization, and increasing LAC indebtedness to China (the “debt trap”) have been criticized, but its “soft power” has expanded significantly and benefited many in LAC.

This significant body of research and publications about China’s activities in LAC reflects three predominant disciplinary and theoretical approaches in addition to analysts’ own perceptions of their national interests.

  • The focus of international relations neorealism on China’s potentially destabilizing effects in the region and its relations with the United States gives short shrift to other important actors in the region and world. It also stimulates an inaccurate vision of Latin America as a monolithic, unitary actor and deep down expresses a subtle neocolonialism and “neocolonialist paradigm.” 
  • The emphasis of the international political economy approach is on China’s intentions as predominantly linked to its development – and not as a threat to the United States. Most argue that Latin America must develop its relationship with China and maintain its links with the United States simultaneously, without getting involved in a confrontation between them. 
  • But LAC is showing a third, hybrid approach mixing IPE and geopolitical analysis to contextualize China’s influence. It has shown that some “benign” impacts have also generated new dependency and center-periphery relations that can be characterized as a “dependency with Chinese characteristics.”

The debate between these differing interpretations –viewing dynamics as either bilateral or triangular – will continue to mold U.S., Chinese, and LAC countries’ policies as China pursues its global projection strategy.

January 21, 2022

* Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a network of more than 70 research centers, think tanks, NGOs, and other organizations focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is adapted from his recent CLALS Working Paper, Latin America-China Relations: A Review of Recent Literature (2010-2020)

Chile: Astronomy Investments Help but Face Some Criticism

By Noah Rosen*

La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert/ European Southern Observatory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Exceptional atmospheric conditions in northern Chile, an image of political stability, favorable tax policies, and diplomatic credentials for researchers have made the country a leader in international astronomy, but some Chileans want to see more benefits from the cooperation. 

  • Experts estimate that, by the end of this decade, over 70 percent of the world’s astronomical viewing capacity will be concentrated in Chile. The United States – including the National Science Foundation (NSF), universities, and private foundations – and Europe and other global players have invested billions of dollars in observatories, creating significant opportunities for Chilean astronomy as well as its high-tech engineering and computing sectors. 
  • Chilean researchers are guaranteed 10 percent of the observation time on all international telescopes established in Chile, a policy Chilean scientists won in the 1990s. According to Wolfgang Gieren, astronomy professor at Chile’s Universidad de Concepción, “the 10 percent has been the most important factor to boost development of astronomy in Chile.” International observatory projects often include significant funding and scholarship activities, including a multi-million-dollar contribution from the NSF to CONICYT, the Chilean science agency, and an annual scientific scholarship managed by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo de Chile (ANID). 

The diverse range of support has helped Chile rapidly expand its astronomy capabilities. 

  • Four universities have opened new astronomy departments, bringing the total to eight, and PhD students have increased from five in the early 1990s to 40 by 2005. Joint work and technical exchanges have increased also. The Millimeter Wave Laboratory of the Universidad de Chile works with CalTech to develop advanced millimeter-wave receivers and other high-tech equipment. The Astro-Engineering Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica works with the multinational Gemini Observatory to develop adaptive optics and vibration mitigation instruments, in partnership with Harvard and other U.S. universities. 
  • Chile’s domestic high-tech engineering and computing sectors are benefiting as well. The government estimates that 15 Chilean companies have provided advanced engineering and technology services to the observatories. A local firm, AXYS Technologies, installed fiber optics at an Atacama-area observatory that, experts say, was groundbreaking in understanding how fiber optics operate at high altitude (5,000 meters). A Dutch-Chilean engineering company conducted geological studies and construction consulting for the Rubin Observatory and for another observatory in Cerro Tolar. 
  • The huge data processing and storage capacities required by the observatories is positioning Chile as a big data player. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are developing astro-data projects in Chile. The U.S. NSF is funding a data science summer school at Universidad de La Serena to build connections with the future generation of Chilean data scientists. 

Despite these advantages, Chilean scientists and civil society actors continue to question the relative balance of benefits they get for the globally unique natural attributes in their northern deserts, which make cutting-edge astronomy research possible. 

  • Chilean scientists are demanding more guaranteed observation time, in line with what hosts in Hawaii (15 percent) and Spain (20 percent) receive. They argue that current arrangements still make them too dependent on technologies and expertise from the Global North, which largely controls the research agenda. The Chilean government estimates that only 10-20 percent of the international dollars invested in the observatories enter the Chilean economy, the vast majority of which are channeled to goods and services – construction of roads, buildings, electricity, water and gas supply, hospitality, etc. – rather than building Chile’s scientific capabilities. Chilean scientists and engineers argue for new policies that more systematically involve Chileans in telescope construction and maintenance. 
  • Broader questions of justice also persist: in some places, the observatories consume significant amounts of water and electricity while nearby villages go without regular access. Labor strikes at the Atacama observatory some years back raised questions of fair working conditions, especially given that the favorable diplomatic status accorded to observatories limits oversight. 

Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

China in Latin America: Exaggerating Medical Diplomacy

By Christopher Kambhu*

Peru’s Foreign Ministry greets Sinopharm staff/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China has garnered positive media coverage throughout Latin America for its COVID‑19 diplomacy, but it is far from clear if these efforts have altered the country’s regional standing. Coverage of its medical diplomacy has oversold its impact compared to the United States and obscured varying levels of support between countries.

  • Since the pandemic’s emergence across Latin America in early 2020, China has engaged in diplomatic efforts to send medical supplies – and later vaccines – throughout the region. Research by CLALS shows that, as of this month, China has donated $253 million worth of medical supplies, from masks to field hospitals. In addition, Beijing and its diplomatic corps have facilitated donations worth tens of millions of dollars from other Chinese entities, including foundations, businesses, and provincial and local governments. China has sold 409 million doses of domestically developed vaccines and further donated 1 million doses in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Deliveries of vaccines and medical supplies typically include photos ops at the airport, with Chinese flags conspicuously placed on packaging. Announcements of medical donations often include ceremonies at the Chinese embassy in the recipient country, even when the donation is from a non-state entity. These events obscure the line between state and non-state aid, and between vaccine sales and donations. By blurring these distinctions, some media have given unearned credit to Beijing by reporting “Chinese donations” without specifying the source.

  • This communication strategy has effectively created a narrative that China is gaining influence in Latin America through its medical diplomacy. The resulting media coverage – particularly think pieces analyzing geopolitical implications – has overshadowed the fact that Washington has provided more regional assistance than Beijing. As of this month, the United States has donated $310 million in medical supplies and cash assistance, significantly more than what China has donated. The same is true with vaccines: the U.S. has sold 427 million doses of domestically developed vaccines and donated 46 million more, outpacing Chinese efforts.
  • The narrative surrounding China’s medical diplomacy has also buried differences between individual countries. None of the countries that recognize Taiwan – Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay – have received any medical donations, nor have they been able to procure Chinese vaccines. In April 2020, Paraguay’s legislature debated switching recognition to China from Taiwan to appease Beijing and gain access to Chinese support.
  • The Chinese government has also used vaccines to quell criticism from regional leaders. In May 2021, Sinovac executives reportedly told Brazilian officials that vaccine shipping delays were due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s continued ridicule of China as COVID-19’s country of origin. Acting under reported pressure from Beijing, the executives indicated that improved Sino-Brazilian relations would resolve the issue.

As the pandemic continues wreaking havoc on Latin American economies and societies, China’s medical diplomacy faces a changing landscape. The United States has increased its own vaccine diplomacy in recent months, including donations totaling 2.6 billion doses to COVAX, a UN-backed initiative distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income nations (China has only contributed 120 million doses). The Administration of President Joe Biden now is also promoting its medical diplomacy efforts with as much fanfare as Beijing.

  • While China’s efforts have generated a positive narrative, they have not fundamentally altered its standing in Latin America. Politicians, public health workers, and citizens appreciated the donations of masks and other medical supplies in the pandemic’s early days, but the response to China’s vaccines has been more muted. Access to Chinese-made vaccines is better than none, but they do not match the higher efficacy (real and perceived) of U.S. and European vaccines. Moreover, regional leaders are not rushing to embrace Beijing; Bolsonaro continues denigrating China even while its vaccines constitute more than one third of Brazil’s supply. Despite its successful communication strategies to date, China must look long-term to convert this generally positive narrative into improved public opinion.

November 23, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS. 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. 

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. 

Confucius Institutes: Building a Capacity for Business with China

By Madeline Elminowski*

Confucius Institute at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Brazil/ Universidade Federal do Ceará/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) in Latin America and the Caribbean form a cornerstone of its global public diplomacy efforts – with an increasingly clear emphasis on laying the groundwork for deeper business relations. As the U.S.-China rivalry has heated up, these educational and cultural promotion centers, which are partially financed by China’s Ministry of Education, have come under greater scrutiny in the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe. Questions about Chinese propaganda and free speech have led to the closure of a growing number of CIs in those countries.

  • Since the first CI was established in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2006 in Mexico, the number has expanded to 44 in 21 countries, and Chinese government statements indicate plans to create more. According to Beijing media, more than one million students across the region have so far engaged with CIs. While concerns about the CIs’ operations have also been raised in these countries, debate has been more muted and at least so far has not led to the closure of any.

CIs worldwide feature curricula focused on teaching Mandarin and Chinese government-approved courses on Chinese civilization and history. In Latin America and the Caribbean, they aggressively tie these courses to training in Chinese business practices. In 2012, for example, a “Business Confucius Institute” was established at the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado in São Paulo, Brazil. Courses on China’s business lexicon, how to interact with Chinese business partners, and how to leverage business opportunities with Chinese companies are now common in other Confucius programs.

  • In welcome ceremonies for students, CIs highlight these themes, promote study-abroad programs and business courses, and present themselves as places to develop specific business skills directly transferrable to the job market. They often offer classes of varying lengths, up to eight weeks, to help students acquire the interpersonal skills and practical knowledge for business transactions with Chinese companies.
  • Language classes in the CI at Chile’s Universidad Santo Tomás, for example, are pitched as a way to become fluent in the language of Chile’s “main commercial partner.” The CI at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (one of 11 CIs in Brazil) offers a business-oriented program of study designed for employment for Chinese companies in Rio and for Brazilian national companies seeking to develop a Chinese partnership. CIs serve as channels for interested Chinese companies to recruit employees and interns from the region. The Universidade Estadual Paulista’s CI routinely posts job opportunities on its website. It also offers an annual job fair to connect Chinese companies located in Brazil with local Brazilians interested in working in China-Brazil business relations.

The CIs are increasingly functioning as conduits to promote Chinese business relations with the region, often incorporating events to discuss Chinese business projects and showcasing potential professional avenues of advancement for students.

  • China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was the main topic of a World Forum of Chinese Studies at the Universidad National La Plata in Argentina in 2018. Speakers from both Latin America and China discussed inclusion of Latin America in the BRI and its potential to generate opportunities for Chinese tourism in the region.

The Confucius Institutes are a major element of China’s long-term strategy for promoting trade and economic relations with countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. While the Biden Administration is now slowly rolling out its “Build Back Better” initiative, China’s expanding Belt and Road Initiative has momentum – 18 countries in the region have signed on to the BRI since 2017. CIs support this effort by helping to train a generation of Latin American professionals to work more closely with Chinese partners. The potential long-term implications for the United States of a Latin American workforce and business class better positioned to leverage attractive opportunities in and with China are clear.

November 11, 2021

*Madeline Elminowski is a master’s student in International Affairs, with a focus on Comparative and Regional Studies. This post reflects work carried out for 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.

The Interamerican Democratic Charter Turns 20: Is it Becoming Irrelevant?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, September 2011./ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the clear merits of its text, the Interamerican Democratic Charter (IADC) has been enforced inconsistently over the 20 years since its singing; its effectiveness in curbing democratic backsliding remains unclear; and, with little chance of being reformed, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant.

  • The Charter was speedily adopted in Lima on September 11, 2001, while the world was reacting to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It emerged from a proposal by the government of Peru after the resignation of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori to reinforce existing multilateral instruments for democracy. It became the main multilateral framework to deal with breakdowns of democracy and backsliding in the hemisphere.
  • The IADC developed a shared and precise definition of representative democracy; expanded the scope of action of the OAS to address coups and violations perpetrated by the elected governments; and defined procedures for various enforcement actions ranging from the dispatch of missions to the imposition of sanctions and the suspension states from the OAS.

Limits on the IADC mandate have compromised its enforcement and effectiveness, however. The enforcement of measures is under the control of governments, which take decisions through consensus or qualified majority-voting (in the case of suspensions from the OAS). Even though the IADC is grounded on the principle that democracy is a “right of the people” (Art.1), non-state actors and state institutions other than the executive branches have limited capacity to activate the IADC, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights does not play any role in its enforcement.

  • The IADC has not been invoked in cases in which member states have conflicting interests. For instance, it was not applied against Haiti in the wake of the forced removal of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 or against Honduras after the electoral fraud of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017. In both cases, Washington obstructed enforcement of the Charter for reasons other than “the defense of the right to democracy” of Haitians and Hondurans. More recently, Mexico has obstructed enforcement against Nicaragua despite the serious violations of the opposition’s political rights by President Daniel Ortega. Similarly, the IADC has been altogether ignored when the attacks against democracy have taken place in powerful states, such as after the assault against the U.S. Capitol in January.
  • Against this backdrop, the activism of current Secretary General Luis Almagro – who has pressured member states to take a stance through social networks and moral shaming on various occasions – has sought to work around governments’ monopoly of enforcement and break gridlocks. But his actions often compromised the impartiality of his post as he has been perceived as taking sides in the conflicts at hand and overreaching his powers under the IADC.
  • Disappointment with the IADC and Almagro’s performance has led Mexico and other governments to advocate for reinforcing alternative regional forums such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). However, these announcements have little credibility if they are not accompanied with sustained political leadership – in the face of certain U.S. opposition – and commitment of resources to build strong regional institutions.

Ironically, the IADC came into existence precisely when the conditions that made it possible – a liberal consensus and an international agenda on democracy promotion – were fading away. These two decades have demonstrated that the democracies of the hemisphere, including Washington, are not always willing to put the defense of democracy in the neighborhood before other foreign-policy interests. Governments are also prone to bypass the OAS and the IADC and go unilateral if they feel that a crisis affects their interests, as the Lima Group and the U.S. unilateral sanctions against Venezuela have recently shown.

  • These two decades have also demonstrated that member states are not up to even discuss reforming the IADC. They are reluctant, for example, to create an enforcement authority, which would render the application of the Charter more impartial and possibly more effective. This is certainly disappointing news for those who believe in Inter-American relations based not only on Realpolitik but also on principles and norms. The IADC will continue being a roadmap for the states in the region and a reminder of the commitment to democracy, but it will be – paraphrasing the first OAS Secretary General Alberto Lleras Camargo – what the states want to make of it.

September 28, 2021

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.