Latin America Moves Closer to China Amid Ukraine Crisis

March 23, 2022 Updated: March 24, 2022

News Analysis

The Ukraine crisis allows the Chinese regime to increase engagement in Latin America, expand its power, isolate Taiwan, and threaten U.S. dominance in the region.

Russia sought to increase ties with Latin America days before the Ukraine invasion, sending delegates to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Moscow and Caracas discussed increasing their “strategic partnership” with Russia, even going so far as stating that they might station military hardware and personnel in Cuba and Venezuela if negotiations with the United States failed.

This would have dramatically increased tensions between the United States and its Latin American neighbors, threatening these nations’ trade with the United States and the European Union. The resulting isolation would have made these countries less valuable to China, which could benefit from positioning itself close to the U.S. southern border and southern coast.

Earlier this month, Cuba and Nicaragua joined Pakistan and China in abstaining from the United Nations vote on the Ukraine invasion. As close friends of Russia, these countries were expected to vote in support of Russia but chose not to vote instead. Venezuela was also expected to support Russia but was barred from voting due to unpaid dues. The fact that Latin American countries failed to support Russia suggests a shift away from Russia and toward China.

China and Cuba were once on the opposite sides of the Sino-Soviet split, but today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ranks Cuba as a “good brother, good comrade, good friend.” The CCP’s State Council Information Office published a statement condemning the U.S. sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela.

For the first four decades after the socialist revolution, Cuba depended on the Soviet Union for economic support. When the USSR collapsed, Cuba lost 70 percent of its export market and most of its financial aid, according to Chinese state media CGTN. At one point, the USSR was providing Cuba the equivalent of $11 million worth of aid per day.

In 1999, under Hugo Chávez, Venezuela became the patron of the socialist island nation. Since 2015, Venezuelan aid has diminished as Venezuela’s economy descended into crisis. Increasingly, China is filling the void with financial and technological support, drawing Cuba deeper into the CCP’s orbit.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese Navy ship Type 054A frigate 548 Yiyang moors at the port of Havana on Nov. 10, 2015. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

China is Cuba’s largest goods trading partner, while Cuba is China’s second-largest Caribbean trading partner. Chinese firms are expanding into a wide range of the island’s industries. Chinese biopharmaceutical firms are operating in Cuba’s Mariel Free Trade Zone. The country’s roads are dotted with trucks from Chinese manufacturer Sinotruk and buses from Yutong. Chinese appliance company Haier Group Corporation now has an assembly plant on the island. The University of Havana hosts a Confucius Institute. And Cuba’s Santiago container terminal was financed by a $120 million loan from a Chinese bank.

Last year, the two nations signed a cooperation plan to promote the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road”). This escalation in relations came weeks after Nicaragua switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

Zhou Zhiwei, a research fellow on Latin American studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the bilateral relationship is beneficial because Cuba is rich in minerals, oil, and nickel ore. At the same time, it has potential for agriculture and tourism.

According to state-run media Global Times, BRI membership aligns with Cuba’s development plans, including infrastructure, technology, culture, education, tourism, energy, communications, and biotechnology. The CCP’s approach to Cuba is similar to its pattern in other countries, providing loans and investment capital in exchange for natural resources and geopolitical and strategic support.

Over the past decade, and notably leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has stepped up its engagement with other nations in the region. Since 2017, four Latin American countries, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, have switched their recognition from Taiwan to China.

Currently, the CCP has numerous port operations through Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, including seven in Mexico, three in Panama, three in the Bahamas, one in Buenos Aires, and a “polar logistics” facility in Ushuaia, Argentina.

Other Chinese firms are engaged in port projects in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Jamaica, while the CCP discusses projects in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana.

CCP Activity Threatens US Interests

The U.S. military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is responsible for Latin America, south of Mexico, the waters adjacent to Central and South America, and the Caribbean Sea, including 12 island nations and European territories.

In its Feb. 24 report, SOUTHCOM expressed strong concerns about China’s activities in the region across several domains, cyber, space, mining, and energy industries.

Twenty-one countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined China’s BRI. Apart from its economic and geopolitical engagement with these nations, China increased its military exchanges. Over the past two decades, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted hundreds of visits to the region.

cuban police china training
Cuban special forces, called the Black Berets, pose alongside their Chinese trainers from paramilitary in a government-run training school in Cuba in an undated photo. (Courtesy of ADN Cuba)

The CCP has established a defense forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), offering military education to regional military personnel. PLA troops have also attended jungle warfare training in these countries, while the CCP is increasing its arms sales, including aircraft, tanks, and other military equipment.

Additionally, Chinese scientists have aided these countries in developing satellites and ground control systems. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also called on regional ports, including in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States.

The CCP is installing surveillance technology and enabling authoritarianism while positioning China to cut off U.S. shipping.

Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, told Voice of America (VOA) that investment from China brings economic and technological advancement. Still, it also provides the means for these nations to restrict civil liberties.

Venezuela and Cuba already have repressive regimes of censorship and digital authoritarianism that are strengthened through their alliance with the CCP. Chinese software, used to identify Chinese citizens on social media, is now employed in Venezuela. The “carnet de la patria,” developed by Chinese tech firm ZTE, was introduced in 2016 and is a requirement for access to certain goods and services, including doctor’s appointments and government pensions.

Venezuela’s Homeland cards allow the government to process large amounts of data, enhance citizen control, and track political opposition. Control measures include television camera systems, fingerprints, facial recognition, and word algorithm systems that monitor chats and conversations on the internet and phone apps.

A team of ZTE employees works at the state telecommunications company CANTV, helping to manage the homeland card database. Through the card, CANTV employees can track citizens’ birthdays and family information, “employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party, and whether a person voted,” according to VOA.

The state-controlled CGTN news said that Cuba is vital to the CCP because of its strategic location. CGTN also acknowledged that closer relations with Cuba give the CCP access to the Caribbean, where it can “influence the maritime approach of the southeastern U.S.”

By placing the PLA Navy in Cuba, the CCP could control the waters between the U.S. southern coast and Central America, restricting shipping through the ports of Miami, New Orleans, and Houston.

Most recently, Colombian President Iván Duque condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prompting President Joe Biden to designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally. Consequently, the CCP’s influence in the country needs to be addressed. Beijing has been courting Colombia with post-pandemic economic aid and investment, financing the Bogota regional railway, 4G and 5g projects, and a gold mine in Antioquia.

The Ukraine invasion has demonstrated a shift in allegiances in Latin American countries away from Russia and toward China. As Russia’s influence is diminishing, CCP loans and investment are winning the friendship of Latin American countries. This expands the CCP’s surveillance operations while providing the PLA a perfect launching pad to threaten U.S. freedom of navigation.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Graceffo works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."