By Georgie Anne Geyer
Thu Apr 20, 8:05 PM ET
WASHINGTON -- Chinese President Hu Jintao came to town this week and, not surprisingly, almost all of the talk was about China's insatiable appetite for oil and America's incredible $203 billion trade surplus with Beijing.
But lurking far in the background -- the subject was not on the schedule for any of the talks -- is a rapidly developing change in our Western Hemisphere that has essentially gone unnoticed, but would represent a historical shift of epic proportions.
We know, after a series of high-level Chinese visits to the Latin countries last year, that China has pledged almost half of its direct foreign investment to Latin America, with the expectation that it will reach $200 billion within the next five years in steel, transport, energy and military exchanges. But what has been little attended to is the fact that the "Chinese model" is becoming the new model for Latin America.
In one of the few articles to grasp this stunning reality, BBC correspondent and Asia specialist Humphrey Hawksley recently wrote that, while focus has been on the Islamic countries, "an alternative economic and political system has begun to test itself in the Americas -- one that may end up seriously challenging Western democratic thinking. Under the slogan 'peaceful rising,' China is 'selling' itself to Africa and Latin America as the model for ending poverty."
New factors have come together all at once in Latin America, making a turn away from the United States and toward China not only possible, but plausible.
Both the American political and economic models have failed in the last six years, beginning with radical leftist Hugo Chavez coming to power in 1998, followed by leftists of one sort or another from Argentina to Chile to Bolivia to Peru. The old traditional parties LOOKED democratic and satisfied the United States' qualifiers for "democracy." But in truth, those parties were simply playgrounds for greedy oligarchs.
During the Clinton years, in the name of "neo-liberalism," many Latin countries were convinced to open their economies to foreign investors and renounce their years of almost Stalinist state control of major industries. But neo-liberalism didn't work because, unlike in the countries where it has worked wonders, such as Singapore and Taiwan, the Latins did not combine it with heavy investment in education and health and with a genuine redistribution of wealth.
Today, in both Bolivia and Peru, the masses of the people are voting against the foreign investment in gas, oil and minerals which that era allowed. It really isn't so hard to figure. Many of the Indians and mestizos in those countries still harbor their historical memories of the horrific Spanish conquistadors -- the "foreigners" who came and destroyed their great empires. To them, "the state" is not oppressive, but liberating.
Even in Mexico, where NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was to open the Mexican economy to provide jobs for the millions of young men roaming around without employment, the free-market solution has not worked. (In part, ironically, this is because between 2000 and 2004, China's huge manufacturing zones, with far lower costs and literally indentured workers, took over from countries such as Mexico.)
There is also the fact that the Chinese model seems natural to many Latinos. Political power held closely at the center, a relatively free economy still guided by the state, a huge national income, with the country one immense factory for the world, and a high education rate: In China, it remains communism. In Latin America, it is simply the traditional statist caudillismo of a Castro, a Peron, a Chavez or many others.
Not surprisingly, too, the Chinese have been busily wooing Castro's Cuba -- and in so doing, probably post-Castro's Cuba. William Ratliff, Latin American specialist at the Hoover Institution, points out that "everyone on the Cuban politburo has been to China. The Chinese now have investments in nickel and two oil companies, in biotech, pharmaceuticals and trains -- and they have postponed their debt." In 2004 alone, there were 10 exchanges between the militaries of the two countries.
In his excellent and revealing recent book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader," former
CIA Cuba-watcher Brian Latell foresees Cuba run by Raul Castro. "But Raul's intent ...," he says, "most likely would be to gain implicit American acceptance for a tough Chinese-style regime in Cuba" -- while at the same time having some appropriate relations with the American military, which Raul has wooed, and controlled foreign investment, a la his Chinese friends.
We might ask: Does it make any difference if Latin America tries to follow the Chinese model?
In 1823, American President James Monroe introduced his Monroe Doctrine, which, until Fidel and the Soviets in 1962, cut off Latin America from European or any other mischief. The major threat to the American homeland came in 1962 with the missile crisis. It's geopolitical foolishness to say that we are threatened by Ramadi and Fallujah, but that we could not be by our neighbors -- not to forget the long and often idealistic history of close relations between the "two Americas."
Whether the Chinese model could even work in Latin America, with all its problems, phobias about the U.S. and paternalism, is still another question. But to just not notice that President Hu's "Who's Who" of diplomats and generals is spreading out across the Americas, always thought of as most susceptible to the "democratization" the White House so dearly loves, is just plain madness.