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

By Bai Yunyi and Li Siqun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/6 18:27:51

○ 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

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. Photo: VCG

"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.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers block the Otay Mesa port of entry from Mexico into the US early on December 1. Photo: VCG

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 anti-American 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 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.


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.



Newspaper headline: Deep but deeply unequal

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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