US and Central America embolden region’s ties with China DEEPLY UNEQUAL
Emilio put it more bluntly: “For the US, we are a vital region, their backyard,’ a place where China or Russia are not allowed to come close. The Costa Rican government has never wanted to have any conflict with the US. The nationalism here is not strong, and it is safe to be a ‘back garden’ for American tourists.”
On a recent visit to El Salvador, this Global Times journalist found that local people, on the one hand, believed that establishing diplomatic relations with China was a “brave and correct decision.” On the other hand, as Professor Orlando Benitez of the Gerardo Barrios University and others have argued, their expectations for the United States are high and mixed with concern.
According to an August report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, El Salvador’s economic growth is expected to be 2.4 percent in 2018, mainly based on two factors: overseas remittances and exports. More than 90 percent of El Salvador’s remittances come from the US, which is also its top export destination. Residents of El Salvador’s capital told the Global Times that once the US tightens its immigration policy, sets up some tariff barriers or reduces aid, El Salvador will be left in a passive position.
Moreover, Nicaragua, a country ruled by a vocal anti-American leftist, receives relatively little American aid and is economically underdeveloped.
Countries such as Costa Rica, which has better relations with the US, are clearly better off and more prosperous. The US is both a threat and a temptation.
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.
“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.