A high-level delegation from the White House was in Mexico City this week to discuss Central American migration to the United States. The visit was brief but fruitful, although on the way Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council's Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, displayed his government's worries regarding the growing Russian and Chinese presence in the region. It is not an issue related to immigration, but with Covid-19 vaccines - where the three superpowers are battling to conquer the greatest number of minds possible and influence political decisions.
Gonzalez gave an interview to Milenio Television, and said that the Mexican government should be cautious about the Russian and Chinese vaccines it is receiving. Sometimes, he said, they are given "with conditions" and in exchange for "political interests" as part of a political calculus with those interests in mind. It's not the first time that Washington has pressured Mexico to close its doors to the Chinese and Russians.
There were the three megaprojects in the government of President Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto. A bullet-train connecting Mexico City with the region of the where technology firms are located was cancelled as a result of these pressures. Prior to that, commercial development in Cancun, designed for the entire Rivera Maya, closed before it opened. A third, north of Los Cabos in Baja California Sur, was scientific, economic and cultural didn't prosper for the same reasons.
President PeÃ±a Nieto opted to not antagonize the United States - whose economy depends on Mexican productivity - and instead cancelled his plans with the Chinese. Now, of course, the situation is different, because the conditions are different. Mexico has opened itself to Russian and Chinese Covid vaccines, as have various Latin American countries, without stopping as a result of strategic considerations.
These are not economic or development projects. They are for the people. The response of president AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador came quickly. When it comes to obtaining vaccines, he said, it's necessary to build relations with all countries. Translation: the United States can say what it wants, because Mexico will continue taking Chinese and Russian vaccines.
The position of Mexico is the same as that of a growing number of Latin American countries who have turned to them instead of seeking vaccines from the greatest western labs, because of the facilities that have been made available and the doses that have been supplied. In a region in which the number of infections and deaths have had such a high cost, the government has turned not only to wherever it can, but to whoever can provide health solutions quickly.
The coronavirus pandemic has given Russia and Chinese a grand opportunity to expand in the region, quickly and without obstacles, in conditions that have never existed since they adopted their strategies of expansion and influence at the end of the 1990s. Provoking a geopolitical struggle with those two countries has been a subject of interest for the United States for several years.
In 2015, for example, General John Kelly - who at the time was the commander of the US Southern Command responsible for military operations in Central and South America - said that since 2008 Russia has sought to increase its presence in the region through propaganda, weapons and equipment sales and commerce. This forms part of a strategy to challenge the leadership of the United States and develop more influence in Latin America. With its vaccines, Russia has consolidated its relationships with Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
China, which committed itself fully to the region during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 to financially help several Latin American countries, launched its Belt and Road Initiative - a long-term program of investment and politics that seeks to create infrastructure and expedite economic integration. Panama was the first Latin American country to join the initiative in 2017. Since then, 17 have participated.
Politically, it has produced results. In the last four years, Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic distanced themselves from Taiwan and recognized China, that developed a political and diplomatic campaign in the region to change the negative perception that the coronavirus was born there. The vaccine is being used as a lifesaver.
In an accelerated way, the two countries have amplified their relations in Latin America, with has not gone unnoticed in Washington. In September of last year, Air Force Lieutenant General Michael Plehn, the former commander of Southern Command, said in an annual defense conference that the opaque political accords of Russia and China in Latin America threaten to destabilize the region if countries were not alert. He added that neither country shares the same democratic values as Western democracies and don't rely on the same principles.
The old struggle of the Cold War has reinvented itself, although the incentives for Latin America today are greater than they were before. Health and the lives of millions hang in the balance politically. The vaccines are a strategic priority. The speed at which the Russians and Chinese acted to supply vaccine doses showed that authoritarian regimes can achieve important objectives. The necessities caused by the pandemic forced other, more democratic countries to ask for their help.
At least 10 Latin American countries have received the Russian Sputnik V vaccine or the Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. Countries such as Mexico, which originally only envisioned using two Western vaccines and one Chinese one, quickly turned to Russia and expanded their purchases from China when AstraZeneca and Pfizer had supply issues and failed to supply the doses they had promised.
Together with Mexico, the other great Latin American economies of Brazil, Argentina and Chile saw the Russian and Chinese vaccines as a great alternative for their immunization plans, which, objectively speaking, could not have been accomplished using supplies solely using options from the great western laboratories.
The government of the United States does not like that this is happening in Latin America, but it's ability to apply pressure is stretched thin. Meanwhile, Russia and China will continue to provide their supplies and grow, much to the alarm and frustration of Washington, which is losing ground in the geopolitics of vaccines.
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