China Moves in on America’s Blind Side

I bet that if you were to ask any of the Republican presidential candidates to name the president of Suriname or Paraguay, they would be stuck for an answer. Indeed, they would be hard pressed to identify the prime minister of Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados.

American politicians neither know nor care about the nations that share this hemisphere. They are focused on the Middle East and North Africa, turbulent oil producing regions where the world’s elite make their millions.

Americans generally know almost nothing about Latin America and the Caribbean. And what they think they know is vastly inaccurate.

America has come a long way since the declaration of the Monroe doctrine, the United Fruit Company and Standard Oil. In a way, that’s a good thing. Looked at another way, it’s reckless disregard.

Uncle Sam has never been a folk hero south of the border. The American government’s role has hardly been benevolent. In the early days, the government provided iron-fisted support to the American corporations that plundered the region. Later, American administrations provided funds for death squads and dictators in a crusade to combat the spread of “communism.”

More recently, American administrations have concentrated on establishing military bases in places like Colombia, on fighting the Mexican drug war, and on trying to deal with massive illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, China has been moving into the region. Not militarily, of course.The Chinese are too smart to do that. They prefer to dominate development and trade. And the Chinese have allied themselves with the biggest Latin American economic power,  Brazil, to form BRIC  – Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Now, a new organization – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – has emerged to complement or rival (depending on how you look at it) the U.S. dominated Organization of American States. And China is among the group’s most enthusiastic backers. In a “Toward Freedom” news analysis,  Benjamin Dangl states:

The creation of the CELAC  … is one of various recent developments aimed at unifying Latin America and the Caribbean as a progressive alternative to U.S. domination. Other such regional blocs include the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which has successfully resolved diplomatic crises without pressure from Washington, the Bank of the South, which is aimed at providing alternatives to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America (ALBA), which was created as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a deal which would have expanded the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout Latin America, but failed due to regional opposition.

Dangl observes that:

While the U.S. is the leading trading partner for most Latin American and Caribbean countries, China is making enormous inroads as well, becoming the main trade ally of the economic powerhouses of Brazil and Chile. This shift was underlined by the fact that Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a letter of congratulations to the leaders forming the CELAC. The letter, which Chávez read out loud to the summit participants, congratulated the heads of state on creating the CELAC, and promised that Hu would work toward expanding relations with the region’s new organization.

The U.S., for its part, did not send a word of congratulations. Indeed, Washington’s official take on the CELAC meeting downplayed the new group’s significance and reinforced U.S. commitment to the OAS. Commenting on the CELAC, U.S. Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said, “There [are] many sub-regional organizations in the hemisphere, some of which we belong to. Others, such as this, we don’t. We continue, obviously, to work through the OAS as the preeminent multilateral organization speaking for the hemisphere.”

Click here to read the article.

As China develops closer and closer ties not only with Latin America but also with Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, America becomes ever more estranged. (Regardless of the merits of the dispute, the Dudus affair created a huge rift between Jamaica and Washington, for instance. Click here to refresh your memory.)

The people who tell Americans what to think would probably dismiss this trend as “creeping Socialism” and advise the United States to build a fence – preferably electrified – along its southern border to keep out “aliens” from Latin America. But such policies are palpably self destructive.

There are vast riches in South and Central America. And whether you approve of their politics or not, you have to admit that some of the larger countries are making giant economic strides.  Brazil, for example, has been a sleeping giant, but is now awakening to play a prominent role in the global economy.

Here is what the Jamaican Observer had to say (in a recent editorial) about Brazil’s growing importance to the island:

Brazil’s economic size, economic diversification and growth performance (4.2 per cent since 2003) has made it the seventh largest economy in the world. By 2009, Brazil’s economy was 40 per cent of the total GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean, and 55 per cent of the GDP of South America. It has a population of just under 200 million and a per capita GDP of US$10,500. It is the dynamic core of the MERCOSUR integration group including Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

The Brazilian economy has at its disposal enormous natural resources, a massive agricultural sector which achieves economies of scale and draws on inexpensive labour and plentiful water supplies. Industrialisation is extensive, with production of everything from consumer goods and automobiles to submarines, steel and aircraft. It is involved in research and development across a range of products and has a satellite launching centre. It is the home market for many Brazilian-owned multinational corporations, including Petrobas, which is among the 10 largest companies in the world.

When I lived in Miami, I was struck by the annual influx of Brazilian shoppers. Miami has long been the capital of the Caribbean and the United States has long found eager consumers for its products throughout Latin America. But now the goods Latin Americans come to Miami to buy are mostly made in China.

If I were one of the policy makers in Washington, I would be taking a closer look at Latin America and the Caribbean, and reviewing Uncle Sam’s trade, economic and immigration policies in the context of a closer alliance with his neighbors to the south.