China in Latin America: Partner or Predator? Chapter one.

SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras




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Whether they’re new colonisers or a vital source of cash and technology, the jury is out on Beijing’s investment in the region – but one thing is certain, the US will not relinquish its control without a fight

For the United States, China’s widening presence in Latin America has been much more than a minor nuisance in its geopolitical backyard.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on a tour of the region in April that “predatory” lending practices and other “malign or nefarious” behaviour by Beijing had injected “corrosive capital into the economic bloodstream, giving life to corruption and eroding good governance”.

As the Americans see it, Chinese companies are harming Latin America by investing mostly in the extraction and transportation of its precious raw materials. This, they say, has led to a greater dependence on commodities as opposed to US companies which focus on manufacturing and services.

Many in Latin America share these concerns, but for others the difference between the long-standing American influence and the growing Chinese role is not so black and white.


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured four Latin American countries – Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Colombia – in April 2019. Photo: AP


Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro to Beijing before their talks in September 2018. Photo: Xinhua


The Middle Kingdom may be seen as a 21st century coloniser, but it has also presented alternative investment options. The main problem, some argue, is that local governments across the continent have not been able to take full advantage.

Latin America has for centuries grappled with different forms of foreign influence. The grievances and wounds created by hundreds of years of Spanish and Portuguese rule are today still present in the collective psyche, despite formal foreign control ending more than a century ago.

The US then quickly became the hegemonic power, but its strategic control has been hard to sustain over the past two decades, partly because of China, whose growing economy has driven up demand for commodities.

Trade between China and Latin America has surged, from US$12 billion in 2000 to almost US$306 billion last year, and China has become a major investor. The value of its loans – mostly for energy and infrastructure projects – has surpassed financing from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.

But America and international financial institutions say transparency is lacking and the recipients of these loans face growing debt traps.
Others bristle at what they see as attempts by China to leverage its newfound economic power for geopolitical gain. In recent years several nations, including Panama and the Dominican Republic, have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

The importance of the region was acknowledged last year when Beijing invited Latin American and Caribbean countries to join its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – a global trade strategy that aims to expand economic links through ports, roads, airports, pipelines and other infrastructure projects.

China’s foothold can also be seen on the streets of cities across the region. In Ecuador, a country of more than 16 million which some say has been a laboratory for Sino-Latin American investment, Chinese characters can be found sewn into the white covers on seat headrests inside new long-distance buses.


In the capital, Quito, Chinese-made CCTV cameras are perched on street corners and inside buildings. The devices have been installed across the country since 2011, when Ecuador introduced a monitoring system to public spaces that includes facial recognition technology.

According to the local authorities, the system has proved a powerful tool in combating crime, but experts suggest the images captured have also been used for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

The adoption of Chinese technology elsewhere on the continent has given rise to similar human rights concerns.

Bolivia in the past two years launched an “emergency response system” developed by a Chinese company and financed with a loan from Beijing.

Venezuela, also using Chinese tech, introduced its “fatherland card” in 2016, an identity document human rights activists fear will be used for surveillance or to infringe on privacy.

But the Chinese presence in Latin America goes deeper, with the focus largely on extracting natural resources and infrastructure.

Dams and hydroelectric power plants are being built by Chinese companies in the Amazon rainforest and Patagonia. Thousands of kilometres of rail track are being laid in Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. China and Argentina are negotiating over construction of a US$8 billion nuclear facility in the province of Buenos Aires.

Despite many of these projects having been met with opposition from locals, Chinese interest in the region shows no sign of slowing.


Protesters block the road to the Las Bambas copper mine during a protest against Chinese mine operator MMG Ltd in Fuerabamba, Peru, in March 2019. Photo: Reuters

Police officers stand guard outside the Episcopal Conference of Peru in April 2019, the site of negotiations between the Fuerabamba community, Chinese mine operator MMG Ltd, the Peruvian government and the Catholic church.


Gregorio Rojas, president of the Fuerabamba community, arrives to take part in negotiations aimed at ending a dispute with the indigenous community that blocked roads to MMG Ltd’s Las Bambas mine. Photos: Reuters


“There’s a perception that these new investments should have more of a positive connotation because they are done between governments and not using ‘gringo’ or imperialist capital. But the input from the community isn’t saying that,” she says.

Viola, who has closely studied several Chinese-backed projects on the continent, says Chinese companies have made little effort to interact with their hosts.

“For Chinese companies, the community is not a valid interlocutor, only the government is. The difference is that gringo imperialism deals with civil society, the Chinese don’t … They don’t try to understand where they are,” Viola says. “And they consider that social peace is not their problem.”

She also argues these companies do not have high environmental standards and labour rights are not observed. “They follow a corrupt pattern … and the logic of ‘Chinese for Chinese’ prevails.”

Po Chun Lee, a Taiwanese-Ecuadorean economist and scholar based in Quito, says Chinese investment is a new option for Latin America to turn to in finding solutions for its myriad problems – but it comes with a price.

Residents of Molleturo, Ecuador, gather to discuss strategies of resistance against the Rio Blanco mining project, which is operated by a Chinese-owned company. Photo: Raquel Carvalho


Argentinian President Mauricio Macri visits a Buenos Aires cold storage plant in April 2019 to announce that his country will begin exporting pork to China. Photo: AP

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in December 2018. Photo: AP


Milton Reyes, a professor and researcher with the Institute of Higher National Studies of Ecuador, says Chinese cash presents both an alternative and “relative autonomy”.

“It’s a better option in the Ecuadorean context over North American interference,” he says. “Yes, we are in debt, but there is technological development and it’s still cheaper than if we had to deal with international institutions.”

Many of the failures involved in Chinese projects are actually the responsibility of local authorities, he argues. “Building schools and community centres is the government’s responsibility … The obligation of the companies is to pay their taxes, and the government should do the rest.”

The poster on the right reads “Rio Blanco resists”, referring to the local community’s fight against a Chinese-backed mining project in Ecuador. Photo: Raquel Carvalho

Reyes also says blame goes both ways, with authorities knowing little about Chinese culture, which leads to an inability to effectively negotiate with the foreign investors.

At the same time, “many non-governmental organisations here have a very negative view of Chinese investment. They see these investments as predatory. And that has a lot to do with a Eurocentric vision that is still very ingrained in Latin America,” he says. “Here, the ideal is still the Western world.”

Sofía Jarrín, coordinator of the Collective on Chinese Financing and Investments, Human Rights and the Environment in Latin America, brushed off the idea that advocacy groups are targeting the Chinese. The organisation – which includes several non-profit groups on the continent – submitted a report to the United Nations last year that claimed 18 Chinese-backed mining, oil and hydroelectric projects had systematically violated human rights in five Latin American countries.

“There is a certain construction of the ‘yellow threat’ as the new public enemy, which is very much the US agenda. But that is not our approach,” she says.

“China arrived in Latin America at a time when the countries needed to diversify their economy. Our argument is that there needs to be a clear set of rules ensuring these financial entities and companies respect human rights and the environment.

“We don’t see China as a public enemy, but we want to create structures that guarantee certain standards are followed.”

Waorani indigenous people in Ecuador protest against the exploitation of oil in their territory. Photo: AP

Beijing has been given “preferential conditions” in countries such as Ecuador, including security guarantees that could jeopardise national sovereignty, she adds.

In March this year, China agreed to 284 recommendations for upholding human rights in its international investments. The orders were issued as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. The country now has about four years to take steps to ensure that development and infrastructure projects within and outside its territory are fully compatible with human rights obligations and respect the environment.

But for people such as Taish Mercedes, 65, part of the Shuar minority, who are indigenous to Ecuador and Peru, there is little difference between Chinese, American or any other foreign source of investment.

Her home was bulldozed by the local government to make way for a Chinese-backed mining project in the Ecuadorean region of the Amazon basin.

“Our motherland can provide us with everything. That is our way of life. But the colonisers came and taught people how to live with money. Many became greedy,” she says, describing the impact of the Spanish.

“Now the Chinese are the new colonisers – just like the ones before. They are ruining the harmony of our land.”

By: Raquel Carvalho

Source: South China Morning Post






Mariana Almeida

Arno Ambrosius

David Dunham

Gustavo López Ospina

Gertjan Storm

Editor: Pieter Jan Brouwer


“Amazon Pink Dolphin” is the official blog of SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras. The intention of the blog is to generate debate on environmental issues; the Amazon Rain forest in particular. Contributions and support are done on a voluntary basis and do not imply institutional affiliation.  Similarly opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the official position of SVSF.


All Title photographs of the Amazon Pink fresh water Dolphin are the creation of Kevin Schafer.

~ by SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras on 13 June, 2019.

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