Business as usual – but in the shelter of the Chinese presence

"Since 2009, president Obama has made a series of visits to Latin America in the context of motivating a new relationship between the United States and that region".

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This text belongs to the file titled “Five Years after the visit of Barack Obama to Cuba.

Within a few weeks, five years will have passed after the visit of president Obama to Cuba. As it happens with many events, the pictures that circulated in the media from the very beginning of this visit, as well as the inner mechanisms of memory, have contributed to mythologize them with some sort of mark. Given these circumstances, Temas invited a group of scholars on inter-American relations from the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and particularly from Cuba, to reflect on their connotation. We are retrieving these observations because of their effectiveness to think critically and equably about some problems of today and about future scenarios.

Published March 21, 2016

Since 2009, president Obama has made a series of visits to Latin America in the context of motivating a new relationship between the United States and that region. Four of these visits have been to Mexico and one to Brazil, among other countries, but none to Cuba—which has not been visited by a president of the United States for 88 years, and none to Argentina—which has not received a North-American president since 2005. All together, these visits show that, despite the strategic priorities of the United States being oriented to the Middle East or Pacific Asia, there does exist a sustained interest in the Latin-American region.

This interest is associated both with the concern for the regional stability in a period of strong internal political unrest—as is the case with Brazil and Venezuela—with an emphasis on the topics of organized crime, terrorism and, in some cases, migration, but also with a clear concern for the advancement of China in the region, especially in the economic and diplomatic fields. Latin-American commerce with the United States fell from 53% of Latin-America’s world-commerce in 2000, to 35% in 2013, while the percentage of Latin-American commerce with China rose from 1.9% to 12% in the same period, and continues to rise at this time. The growing presence of China in the region has not only been characterized by the demand for raw materials during the accelerated growth of this country during the previous years, but also by the broadening of its financial presence through investments and loans in different fields.

At the global level, the economic growth of China and its international projection, together with the pending topics of security in the South China Sea, have motivated Washington to accelerate the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which excludes the Asian giant. The TPP includes three Latin-American countries—Chile, Mexico and Peru, which in their turn are members of the Pacific Alliance—and is organized with the endeavor to move forward with the TIPP, with the European Union. Together with the prominently economic objectives represented by these two initiatives, they also essentially respond to a strategy of containment of China in other spheres.

Conversations started with the Cuban government in December of 2014, even if they have their own characteristics, are not dissociated from this strategy. The start and the progress of the bilateral discussions, the personal meeting of the two presidents in multilateral environments during recent months (the Panama Summit and the United Nations in New York), telephone conversations between the two, visits of high-level Obama cabinet members to Havana (as also of top Republican leaders), and the visit of Obama to Cuba, have sent a very important signal to the rest of the region, which highlights the new perspective of the current Washington administration towards Latin America and the Caribbean.

The current visit to Cuba and to Argentina responds to this perspective, but it also reveals the economic competition with Chinese interests. Commerce between China and Cuba rose by 57% in 2015. China is becoming a leader in the building of an internet infrastructure on the Island. In this context, every political or judicial step that contributes to the dismantling of the framework of the United States embargo of the Island, accelerates the possibilities of North-American entrepreneurs to start a business here. On the other hand, in response to the loss of the influence of the United States in Argentina in the preceding decade and the growth of the Chinese presence, especially after the visit of Xi Jinping in 2014, the election of Macri to the presidency opens the possibility of a new and more active dialogue—in political and commercial terms—with that South-American country.

Within this framework, the choice of the two Latin-American countries to be visited by Obama goes together with a powerful political message to the rest of the region, as well as a new opportunity to do business, with new strategic partners. Paradoxically, in spite of their pragmatism, and even if both governments could be considered as being diametrically opposed in their political orientations, in the current circumstances the region does not offer any other attractive opportunities for a visit by Obama during this last period of his presidency.

Traductora: Catharina Vallejo

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