Deep but deeply un­equal

▶ Im­bal­anced re­la­tions be­tween S and Cen­tral Amer­ica em­bolden re­gion’s ties with China

Global Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Bai Yunyi and Li Siqun

○ De­pen­dent on the US in var­i­ous as­pects, peo­ple of Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries worry that the US is tight­en­ing its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, set­ting up tar­iff bar­ri­ers, and re­duc­ing aid

○ The US has cut fi­nan­cial aid to Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries, but this does not change their re­liance on the US, ex­perts say

“If for any rea­son it be­comes nec­es­sary, we will CLOSE our South­ern Bor­der.” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted this on Novem­ber 24 to deal with a grow­ing car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans.

More than a week ago, US law en­force­ment of­fi­cers used tear gas to stop mi­grants from cross­ing the bor­der, caus­ing chaos along the US-Mex­ico fron­tier.

Peo­ple flee­ing their homes – driven by ram­pant vi­o­lence in their own coun­tries – have col­lided with tough US anti-im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies. This col­li­sion has be­come a fo­cal point of re­la­tions be­tween Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries and the United States.

The US me­dia has ac­knowl­edged that the tur­moil in Cen­tral Amer­ica is partly be­cause of fre­quent US in­ter­ven­tions over the past few decades. In Septem­ber, the United States abruptly with­drew its diplo­mats to El Sal­vador and two other coun­tries as a “pun­ish­ment” for their sev­er­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions with Tai­wan.

The US used this as a threat to the three coun­tries, claim­ing that the es­tab­lish­ment of re­la­tions with the Chi­nese main­land “should take into ac­count the long-term in­ter­ests of both United States and them­selves.” That rep­re­sents the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the US and Cen­tral Amer­ica: deep but deeply un­equal.

Long­ing mixed with com­plain­ing

In­grid Milena Por­ras is a Costa Ri­can woman in her 20s. As a child, the US had a dream-like ex­is­tence in her mind. “That is the most mod­ern and rich­est coun­try in the world, with sky­scrapers, ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy and smart and hard-work­ing peo­ple.” But af­ter ar­riv­ing in the US, she found re­al­ity was far from what she had imag­ined.

“I found that there were a lot of poor peo­ple and dirty places. There were also ar­ro­gant peo­ple,” Por­ras told the Global Times.

Por­ras said that many of her rel­a­tives and friends en­joy vis­it­ing and shop­ping in the US, and agree that the US and Costa Rica have a “good re­la­tion­ship,” which, of course, is not based on “equal­ity” and “mu­tual re­spect.”

Her com­pa­triot Emilio Ol­mos, 30, de­scribed the two na­tions as hav­ing a “one-to-one re­la­tion­ship of equals.” But the US does not treat all Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries as equals.

“For El Sal­vador, it is like a rich friend to a poor friend. To Nicaragua, like a boss to an em­ployee. To Gu­atemala, like a cred­i­tor to a debtor,” Emilio told the Global Times, us­ing an in­ter­est­ing set of metaphors.

Emilio’s own im­pres­sion of Amer­ica is “ex­pen­sive, re­stric­tive, se­ri­ous and some­times racist, with some strong lib­er­als in the coun­try.” That may be be­cause Costa Rica has a bet­ter econ­omy and fewer im­mi­grants flock­ing into the US than any other county in the re­gion.

She dis­likes the bi­ases and cau­tion with which the US pro­cesses tourist visas.

“I had to prove to Amer­i­can of­fi­cials over and over again that I re­ally had no in­cli­na­tion to em­i­grate. My fam­ily and friends hate Amer­ica and think it’s ar­ro­gant,” she said. Be­ing ques­tioned and de­nied visas for no rea­son is a com­mon oc­cur­rence among Cen­tral Amer­i­cans. Emilio’s mother has been re­fused visas four times and her step­mother 12 times.

“When that hap­pens to you, it’s hard to have a good im­pres­sion of the coun­try. In fact, few Costa Ri­cans want to set­tle in the US. I don’t un­der­stand what makes some Amer­i­cans so ig­no­rant to think that things are aw­ful out­side the US.”

Maria Ale­jan­dra is a re­porter for the Daily Panama Star and Her­ald, Panama’s largest news­pa­per. She calls the US “a great peo­ple,” and she es­pe­cially ad­mires peo­ple like Martin Luther King, who fought for racial equal­ity.

“We are very proud to have the sovereignty and man­age­ment of the Panama Canal now, thanks to those who fought for it. But for­mer US pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter’s wise de­ci­sion to re­turn the canal that has al­ways be­longed to us should not be un­der­es­ti­mated,” Ale­jan­dra told the Global Times.

She ad­mits there were “some flaws” in the res­o­lu­tion of this his­tor­i­cal prob­lem. “For ex­am­ple, un­der the cur­rent terms, if Panama can­not man­age the canal well, the US can take it away from us. I think it needs to be im­proved,” she said.

The sta­tus of back­yard

Be­cause of its geo­graph­i­cal prox­im­ity to the US, Cen­tral Amer­ica is “de­pen­dent” on the US in many ways. Asked what would hap­pen if an an­tiAmer­i­can gov­ern­ment formed in their coun­try, all the re­spon­dents told the Global Times it was “un­think­able” or “im­pos­si­ble.”

“That’s go­ing to cre­ate a set of prob­lems that Costa Rica would find hard to face, be­cause we are al­most com­pletely de­pen­dent on the US, eco­nom­i­cally and oth­er­wise,” Por­ras said.

Emilio put it more bluntly: “For e US, we are a vi­tal re­gion, their ack­yard,’ a place where China or us­sia are not al­lowed to come close. he Costa Ri­can gov­ern­ment has ever wanted to have any con­flict ith the US. The na­tion­al­ism here is ot strong, and it is safe to be a ‘back ar­den’ for Amer­i­can tourists.”

On a re­cent visit to El Sal­vador, is Global Times jour­nal­ist found at lo­cal peo­ple, on the one hand, elieved that es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic la­tions with China was a “brave and rrect de­ci­sion.” On the other hand, Pro­fes­sor Or­lando Ben­itez of the er­ardo Bar­rios Univer­sity and oth­ers ave ar­gued, their ex­pec­ta­tions for the nited States are high and mixed with ncern.

Ac­cord­ing to an Au­gust re­port by e Eco­nomic Com­mis­sion for Latin mer­ica and the Caribbean, El Sal­vaor’s eco­nomic growth is ex­pected to e 2.4 per­cent in 2018, mainly based n two fac­tors: over­seas re­mit­tances nd ex­ports. More than 90 per­cent of l Sal­vador’s re­mit­tances come from e US, which is also its top ex­port es­ti­na­tion. Res­i­dents of El Sal­vador’s pital told the Global Times that once e US tight­ens its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, ts up some tar­iff bar­ri­ers or re­duces d, El Sal­vador will be left in a pas­sive os­i­tion.

More­over, Nicaragua, a coun­try led by a vo­cal anti-Amer­i­can left­ist, ceives rel­a­tively lit­tle Amer­i­can aid nd is eco­nom­i­cally un­der­de­vel­oped. Coun­tries such as Costa Rica, which as bet­ter re­la­tions with the US, are early bet­ter off and more pros­per­ous. he US is both a threat and a temp­taon.

Mil­i­tar­ily, Costa Rica, Panama and other coun­tries do not even have mil­i­tary forces. Their na­tional de­fense re­lies on the “pro­tec­tion of the US,” while Wash­ing­ton has mil­i­tary and Coast Guard war­ships and he­li­copters in Gu­atemala and Hon­duras. To some ex­tent, Cen­tral Amer­ica is the “south­ern bor­der” of the US. In fact, the elim­i­na­tion of the Pana­ma­nian army is be­cause more than 30 years ago, the Pana­ma­nian gov­ern­ment stopped be­ing pro-Amer­i­can and tried to take back the man­age­ment of the canal. The coun­try was in­vaded by the US, and has had no de­fense force since then.

The les­sons of his­tory make ev­ery Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try think twice. Be­tween 1900 and 1933 alone, US troops were sent to Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean more than 40 times, ac­cord­ing to British me­dia. In the 1980s, the US un­scrupu­lously sup­ported the Nicaraguan rebels and even­tu­ally over­threw the left-wing gov­ern­ment in power.

The fu­ture

“Vi­o­lence is par­tic­u­larly per­va­sive in Cen­tral Amer­ica. Poverty is the rea­son and the drug trade is the di­rect form of ex­pres­sion,” Wu Baiyi, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Latin Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences, told the Global Times.

He added drugs and il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Cen­tral Amer­ica are the prob­lems the US is most con­cerned about.

Some ex­perts said that sup­port for Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries is the only way to re­duce the pres­sure that leads to il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. How­ever, it is ob­vi­ous that Trump doesn’t want to pro­vide this sup­port.

Ac­cord­ing to VOA, fi­nan­cial aid from the US to Hon­duras, Gu­atemala and El Sal­vador was one-third less than the ex­pected. This Oc­to­ber, ahead of US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s trip to Cen­tral Amer­ica, Trump threat­ened to cut aid to those coun­tries if they did not stop a car­a­van of mi­grants head­ing to­wards the US bor­der.

Aus­tralian me­dia out­let The Con­ver­sa­tion called Trump’s Cen­tral Amer­ica strat­egy “both cruel and in­com­pe­tent.”

“Trump called those coun­tries ‘shit­hole coun­tries’ – the most di­rect ex­pres­sion,” said Wu, adding pre­vi­ous US pres­i­dents loved to do “ad­di­tion,” such as in­creas­ing fi­nan­cial aid, but Trump thought these ap­proaches were fail­ures. That’s why he “closed the door.”

The im­bal­ance of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions re­sulted in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. In Septem­ber, the US re­called top en­voys to Panama, El Sal­vador and the Dominican Repub­lic and later called off the con­fer­ence of the Al­liance for Pros­per­ity with Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries. In Oc­to­ber, US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence warned Cen­tral Amer­i­can na­tions to be cau­tious when build­ing re­la­tions with China.

It is in­ter­est­ing that the Dominican Repub­lic and Panama, which es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions with China in May and June re­spec­tively, were both “pun­ished,” but Costa Rica wasn’t.

Ex­perts from El Sal­vador ex­plained that this be­cause Costa Rica had es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions with China in 2007, which was ear­lier than the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion held power.

Adolfo Quin­tero, econ­o­mist at the Univer­sity of Panama, told the Global Times that Panama’s econ­omy no longer re­lies on the US and the cargo be­tween the US and Asia will go across the Panama Canal. Canal ex­pan­sion will also boost the Amer­i­can econ­omy, hence, there is more two-way traf­fic and de­pen­dence be­tween the US and Panama.

How­ever, it is very hard to say “no” to the US for most of the coun­tries in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

“Coun­tries in Cen­tral Amer­ica are look­ing for sources of power to de­velop them­selves since they don’t have en­doge­nous power. The coun­tries can­not change their dependency on ex­ter­nal forces,” Wu said.

He noted Cen­tral Amer­ica turn­ing to be­come closer to China is an op­tion.

How­ever, he said that Cen­tral Amer­ica is ge­o­graph­i­cally closer to the US than China, so a full strate­gic re­align­ment does not make sense.

In Septem­ber, the US re­called top en­voys to Panama, El Sal­vador and the Dominican Repub­lic and later called off the con­fer­ence of the Al­liance for Pros­per­ity with Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries. In Oc­to­ber, US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence warned Cen­tral Amer­i­can na­tions to be cau­tious when build­ing re­la­tions with China.

Pho­tos: VCG

Peo­ple climb a sec­tion of bor­der fence to look to­ward sup­port­ers in the US as mem­bers of a car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers ar­rive to a rally on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja Cal­i­for­nia Norte, Mex­ico. Top: Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CBP) of­fi­cers block the Otay Mesa port of en­try from Mex­ico into the US early on De­cem­ber 1.

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