In the 1980s, the Reagan administration used Central America as a testing ground to rehabilitate US imperial “hard power” after defeat in Vietnam. The results were predictable: death squads, massacres, and murderous repression of left-wing movements.

While the US pushes NATO onto Russia’s doorstep, raising the ire of President Vladimir Putin whose military might is now poised to strike Ukraine in fierce retaliation, the US appears to be getting a taste of its own medicine in Central America.

According to a report in the Washington Examiner, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has unveiled an “action plan for cooperation” with Latin American countries that amounts to a “comprehensive” plan to influence the region and threaten longstanding US interests.

“The Chinese don’t say, ‘We want to take over Latin America,’ but they clearly set out a multidimensional engagement strategy which, if successful, would significantly expand their leverage and produce enormous intelligence concerns for the United States,” US Army War College professor Evan Ellis said.

Chinese officials reportedly outlined their ambitions following a summit with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. 

The China-CELAC summit on December 3 culminated in the adoption of a plan not only to tighten economic ties, but to enhance “political and security cooperation” while deepening China’s involvement in high-tech spheres from cyberspace and artificial intelligence to “space science, satellite data sharing, satellite applications, construction of ground infrastructure,” and even nuclear energy.

Just days later on December 9, Nicaragua severed ties with Taiwan, switching its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing, Newsweek magazine reported.

That decision came close on the heels of the victory of leftist Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro, who has promised to establish formal relations with Beijing. 

While the country’s first female president has acknowledged corruption contributed to the country’s many problems, it’s also no secret that US involvement has ruined many Latin American countries for political gain — a fact that plays right into President Xi Jinping’s ambitions.

After the US successfully prevented a major Chinese investment in a Salvadoran port project in 2019, the year San Salvador severed ties with Taipei, China persisted. 

It now appears set to significantly upgrade and expand La Unión, a deep-water port in the Gulf of Fonseca that abuts the Pacific Ocean, and to establish special economic zones benefitting Chinese exporters, port operators, logistics firms and construction companies. 

But even if Beijing does not seek sovereign control over La Unión, its commercial management of the port and its political influence in the country may well open the door to a regular if not permanent Chinese naval presence in El Salvador.

“Chinese influence is global, and it is everywhere in this hemisphere, and moving forward in alarming ways,” warned Adm. Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command, in an interview with NBC News.

“China is pursuing multiple portals in this hemisphere,” he continued, referring to seaports, airports and other transit hubs. 

“Depending on the day, count them as 40, or so. And as I look at where they’re focused strategically — West Coast, East Coast, South Panama, Caribbean — I absolutely can see a future where these ports will become a hub for their growing blue water Navy.”

This intergovernmental forum was launched in 2011 under the auspices of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who wanted a venue to rival the Organization of American States and challenge US influence in Latin America, the Examiner reported.

It now stands to furnish President Xi with the ideal platform to gather a coalition of leaders fed up with US foreign policy.

China’s exploitation of ideological fault lines in Latin America was made apparent earlier this month when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega opted to close the Taiwanese Embassy in favor of a new relationship with Beijing.

This came just weeks after the OAS General Assembly rebuked him for overseeing elections that “were not free, fair, or transparent.” 

“Without the mandate that comes with a free and fair election, Ortega’s actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people, who continue to struggle for democracy and the ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The US statement comes with more than a tinge of hollow irony.

Experts argue when Latin American politicians or activists have come forward on behalf of its dispossessed, the US has consistently intervened on the side of the powerful and wealthy to help crush them, The Guardian reported.

For example, when Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’s reformist president, was seized by the country’s military in 2009 and flown out of the country to Costa Rica, still in his pyjamas. 

Inexplicably, the administration of Barack Obama refused to call it a coup.

Zelaya had been trying to resolve conflicts over land that pitted local Campesinos against the powerful agro-industry. After the coup, that conflict was militarized and more than a hundred Campesinos were duly murdered. 

Organized crime spread through the country’s institutions and the murder rate soared. Within a year, Honduras was the most violent country in the world not actually at war.

That brutal policy, backed by the infamous Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and spanning decades, is now coming home to roost — and this time, it’s not the Soviets taking advantage, it’s the PRC, who operate much differently.

US officials call it a “geo-strategic approach,” where if they deem they need something necessary for their investment purposes, the government orders it to happen — this fast-tracking policy allows China to move quickly and decisively.

“The region is ripe for investment, for engagement, with a partner of China’s size in different sectors,” Heritage Foundation researcher Mateo Haydar told the Examiner. “That threat is growing, and it’s a different kind of threat than what we saw with the Soviet threat.”

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada expressed interest in joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the overseas infrastructure investment that US officials regard as a predatory lending scheme to “buy” an empire.

Rolled out in 2013, these New Silk Road superhighways connect China with 70 countries and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, parts of Europe and South America in a maze of infrastructure projects.

AidDate research shows Xi’s ruling Communist Party has saddled lower- and middle-income nations with liabilities of $385 billion.

Alarmed by Beijing’s growing influence across four continents and allegations of “debt-trap diplomacy,” the United States and the European Union struck back.

Up to Є300 billion, or $340 billion, will bankroll the EU’s Global Gateway strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road program. Another alternative will be the multi-billion-dollar Build Back Better World blueprint, unveiled by US President Joe Biden.

For their part, the nations of Latin America have borne the brunt of a violent and indifferent US foreign policy that has destroyed economies, functioning democracies and left massively militarized societies.

Nobody is saying it publicly, but it’s clear America is paying for its sins in the region and China stands to benefit in a big way.

Some might even say they have it coming.

Dave Makichuk is a Western Standard contributor

He has worked in the media for decades, including as an editor for the Calgary Herald. He is also the Calgary correspondent for ChinaFactor.news and has written extensively on Asian military issues.

Columnist

Dave Makichuk is a Western Standard contributor. He has worked in the media for decades, including as an editor for the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun. He also wrote extensively on military and security issues for the Asia Times in Hong Kong.

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