China and progressive Latin America share a project of solidarity

Friends of Socialist China co-editor Carlos Martinez was invited by the World Anti-imperialist Platform to speak on 4 March 2023 at Bolívar Hall, London, alongside the ambassadors of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the death of comrade Hugo Chávez.

Carlos addressed the accusations so often levelled at China that it is a new imperialist power in Latin America. He gave a brief history of US imperialism in Latin America in the postwar era, and compared that with China’s engagement with the region. He notes for example that, in stark contrast with the US, “China has precisely zero military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean. It has sponsored no coups, waged no wars, imposed no sanctions, and engaged in no destabilisation, economic coercion or propaganda.”

He further noted that Chinese loans and investment are carried out on the basis of equality, consensus and mutual benefit, and bear no relation to the notoriously predatory behaviour of the IMF and the major Western lending institutions. What’s more, China has excellent relations with the major progressive forces in the region, including Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

He concluded by opining that the rationale for these accusations of Chinese imperialism are to “break the inexorable trajectory towards a multipolar world”, and called on the audience to rebuke this slander and join hands with the peoples of the planet in the struggle against imperialism.

We reproduce the text of the speech below.

Since the themes for today are Latin America and the global anti-imperialist struggle, and since I’m here representing Friends of Socialist China, I’d like to talk about the relationship between China and Latin America, and in particular the accusations levelled by certain Western politicians – echoed in the media, and unfortunately also in some parts of the left – that China is a neo-colonial or imperialist force in Latin America.

These accusations have been repeated to such a degree that they’ve acquired the force of accepted truth.

Every US government over the last 20 years and more has sought to sabotage the rising economic and political ties between Beijing and the countries of the region – the US’s “back yard”, or as upgraded by Biden, “front yard”.

And the line they use is, approximately: be careful of those Chinese, they’re imperialist! The US Secretary of State under Trump, Rex Tillerson, directly accused China of being a “new imperial power” in Latin America. Hillary Clinton and Antony Blinken have levelled similar accusations.

Clearly we need a frame of reference. What does modern imperialism look like in Latin America? What examples do we have of a foreign power imposing political and economic domination on the countries of the region?

There are a few well-known examples.

The US-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954, which overthrew the popular and democratic government led by Jacobo Arbenz.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, in which the US trained, supplied, and transported Cuban exiles to overthrow the revolutionary government in Havana.

US support for the vicious coup in Brazil in 1964 that overthrew the government of João Goulart. The US went on to provide consistent support to the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for the next two decades.

The US was deeply involved in the process of undermining and destabilising the Allende government in Chile from 1970-73. Henry Kissinger famously talked about the need to “make the Chilean economy scream”. The CIA was involved in the military coup that removed that government, and the US came to be a top supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Indeed Chile in the 1970s was the site of the first early experiments in the application of neoliberal economics: whilst Pinochet’s soldiers were engaged in a campaign of murderous repression against communists, socialists, trade unionists, democrats and indigenous people, the so-called Chicago Boys group of economists, along with the likes of Milton Friedman, were given free reign to organise the Chilean economy along the lines of free-market fundamentalism.

The US was a strong supporter of the military regime in Argentina from 1976.

The US was the primary motive force behind the Contra War in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A decade-long war that was waged to punish the people of Nicaragua for pursuing a path of socialism and sovereign development. That war would never have taken place were it not for the backing of the CIA and the State Department.

The Contra War was financed in no small part by cocaine trafficking conducted by the Contras and actively facilitated by the CIA. There’s a direct line between that war of regime change in Nicaragua, the crack cocaine epidemic in the US, and the War on Drugs which has been waged against the peoples of Latin America and oppressed communities within the United States.

But maybe that’s all ancient history? We’ve only gone as far as the late 1980s. Maybe the imperialist leopard has changed its spots since then?

Sadly not. In April 2002, the US was involved in an attempted coup against the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. And it has consistently, over the course of more than 20 years, attempted to destabilise Venezuela and punish the Venezuelan people for their path of revolution.

The US was behind the coup in Honduras in 2009 that brought down the government of Manuel Zelaya.

In Brazil, the US provided explicit and implicit backing for the lawfare coup against Dilma Rousseff, paving the way for four years of quasi-fascism under Jair Bolsonaro.

The US is up to its neck in subversion and destabilisation against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

It applies illegal, unilateral sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The US has never given up on the idea of using economic suffocation, in the form of a criminal blockade that is rejected by the whole world, in order to foment counter-revolution in Cuba. This strategy has been in place for over 60 years. Albert Einstein reportedly said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well, the US ruling class is insane.

The US has 76 military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean. It uses sanctions, destabilisation, coups, economic coercion and propaganda in order to buttress its domination, in order to create a “favourable business environment”, to make sure that it can maintain its control over the region’s natural resources, its land, its markets, its labour.

So, we know what modern imperialism looks like in Latin America.

Does China’s involvement in the region look anything like that?

China of course has precisely zero military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean. It has sponsored no coups, waged no wars, imposed no sanctions, and engaged in no destabilisation, economic coercion or propaganda.

Where the US uses every trick in the book to attack the progressive and socialist countries of the region – most notably Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – China has excellent relations with those countries. Indeed Chinese support is extremely important to those countries.

What China does a lot of in Latin America is trade and investment. Bilateral trade has multiplied by a factor of 40 or so over the course of the last 20 years. Chinese investment has multiplied by five.

Out of 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, 21 have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Is this imperialism?

The countries of the region certainly don’t think so. China is very purposefully and specifically helping other countries of the Global South to break out of underdevelopment. To break out of precisely the underdevelopment that colonialism and imperialism have held these countries in for 500 years.

Chinese investment is building schools, hospitals, housing, railways, energy infrastructure, telecoms infrastructure, ports, roads. This means creating a situation where the countries of the region are able to modernise, to upgrade their economies, to produce more and meet the needs of their people, without having to give up their sovereignty, without having to accept a permanent position at the bottom of the global economic hierarchy, which is what the US offers them.

For example, China provided the technology for Bolivia – a small and poor country – to launch its first satellite, which now provides internet and phone signal to the whole of the country. China invested in the project; China brought its technical expertise to the project. But the satellite belongs to Bolivia.

The Bi-Oceanic Railway, which was conceived of jointly by Xi Jinping and Eco Morales, will run from the Pacific coast of Peru, through landlocked Bolivia, to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. This is a project that’s directly contributing towards continental integration.

China’s support and solidarity has been essential in the fight against Covid-19. Of all the Covid vaccines taken in Latin America, a majority have been supplied by China. Actually in 2021 I attended a speech by Bolivian president Luis Arce in this very hall. He said that in Bolivia’s hour of need at the height of the pandemic, the US did nothing for them. Europe did nothing for them. They needed vaccines – Bolivia is a country where around half the population works in the informal economy, they can’t just switch to remote working! Who came to the rescue with vaccines? It was China, Russia and Cuba.

Critics will argue that China is engaged in business, not charity. And it’s true – generally speaking, Chinese companies invest with a view to sharing in the profits. But, very different from the West, China deals with other countries on the basis of equality, respect for sovereignty, and mutual benefit. When China invests in projects, there’s none of the economic coercion that’s associated with Western lending institutions and the IMF. There’s no loan conditionality, no conditions of austerity, privatisation, liberalisation or de-unionisation.

So we have to conclude that the label of imperialism simply is not a good fit.

What do Latin Americans themselves think? What do the leaders of the working peoples in the region think about China?

Hugo Chávez, who we’re honouring today, was certainly a great friend of China, visiting six times over the course of his presidency. He said about Chinese socialism: “We’ve been manipulated to believe that the first man on the moon was the most important event of the 20th century. But no, much more important things happened, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century was the Chinese revolution.”

Chávez talked about an alliance between progressive Latin America and China as being a “Great Wall against American hegemonism.” He said: “China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.”

Trade with China, and investment from China, have been hugely important in helping Venezuela to roll out its social programs, which have transformed the country.

Fidel Castro is someone that knew very well what imperialism looks like – he dedicated his entire life to fighting against it. He said that “China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries … an important element of balance, progress and safeguarding of world peace and stability.”

China’s friendship has been very important to Cuba. The two countries are cooperating on a number of biomedical and renewable energy projects. While the US imposes its crippling blockade, China extends assistance and solidarity, most recently donating 100 million dollars to help Cuba recover from a series of natural disasters.

So the accusations of Chinese imperialism simply do not stick. They have no basis in reality. Why then do they exist? Why do we hear them so often? Not just from the ruling class but, tragically, from parts of the left?

They exist because the US ruling class and its allies want to break the unity of the socialist countries, the progressive countries, the countries that refuse to go along with the so-called rules-based international order, which is of course their codename for a brutal, oppressive, racist and exploitative US-led imperialist world system.

They want to break the inexorable trajectory towards a multipolar world.

The idea of countries such as China, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Vietnam, North Korea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Belarus and so many others working together, uniting, building a project of solidarity – what Xi Jinping refers to as a community with a shared future for humanity – is something that scares the living daylights out of these scoundrels.

All the more reason that we do everything we can to support it and contribute to it.

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