Over the past two decades, democracy has been in retreat around the world, and Latin America is no exception. The region has suffered significant setbacks: the rise of dictatorships in Nicaragua and Venezuela, an emboldened totalitarian regime in Cuba, a hybrid authoritarian regime in Bolivia, and dangerous populist movements and democratic erosion from Mexico to Brazil.
At the same time, the world has seen two major world powers, the Chinese and Russian dictatorships, devolve into more aggressive, authoritarian regimes and greatly expand their influence across the globe, including in Latin America. Although these regimes might project their power in different ways, they’ve formed natural partnerships with the worst human rights abusers in Latin America, like Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. They’ve established mutually beneficial relationships, helping preserve and empower their regimes and weakening democracies in the Americas.
Authoritarian Alliances: Chinese Influence in Latin America
By Luciana Talamas
China’s growing influence in Latin America has been a boon for authoritarian regimes in the region. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased its aid and direct investment across the entire region, it has strategically strengthened its ties with the dictatorships currently ruling Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba — countries notorious for their dismal human rights records.
In Venezuela, China is not only expanding its economic influence on the country but also exporting elements of its draconian surveillance system. Technology provided by the Chinese company ZTE allowed the regime of Nicolás Maduro to create a nationwide database using “fatherland cards.” These ID cards track citizens’ personal information and social behavior, and the government is using this technology to monitor and control the population, directly infringing on individual freedoms.
China has also heavily invested in Venezuela’s oil sector, providing the government with loans and financial support. This has helped prop up Maduro, providing respite from United States sanctions while ignoring the regime’s corruption and crimes against humanity. China’s support has enabled Maduro to stay in power despite challenges and given him greater leverage in negotiations with international actors.
Similarly, in Nicaragua, China has provided President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo loans and investments in infrastructure projects. Just like Venezuela, the Chinese regime has had no qualms about Ortega’s widespread human rights abuses and sanctions.
In 2021, Nicaragua joined the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama in breaking official ties with Taiwan, switching diplomatic recognition to China. Nicaragua had received financial assistance from Taiwan for over 30 years, but the change in alignment appeared to be Ortega’s latest response to international pressure: strong international condemnation of the country’s corrupt electoral process, sanctions from the US, and a looming threat of suspension from the Organization of American States (OAS). Nicaragua’s adoption of the “One China” policy thus aimed to strengthen its waning domestic base and find an alternative source of financial assistance. Less than a year after breaking ties with Taipei, Nicaragua joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), strengthening their bilateral relationship while further isolating Taiwan on the international diplomatic stage.
China has offered economic incentives, infrastructure development, and political benefits for ruling parties and occasionally co-opted elites to lure governments away from Taiwan. In some cases, China has resorted to significant coercion, such as conditioning its offer of COVID-19 vaccines on ending formal relations with Taipei. Regrettably, its efforts are working. Earlier this year, Honduras was the latest country in the region to make the switch, ending more than eight decades of diplomatic relations with Taiwan to embrace the “One China” policy.
Even when “private” Chinese companies invest in the Latin American region, there is often little to no separation between these companies and the Chinese government. In practice, Chinese companies operate within a system heavily controlled by the CCP, and any critical investment decisions are made with the explicit approval of the regime. This strategy allows the government to advance its economic and geopolitical interests in the region while maintaining a level of control over Chinese businesses.
Large multinational Chinese technology companies such as ZTE and Huawei fall under this category. Huawei has been involved in several projects in the Latin American region, including constructing a fiber optic network in Brazil and developing a 5G network in Mexico. Huawei has also been involved in espionage activities, providing the Chinese government with surveillance technology to control and monitor its citizens. It was recently revealed that Huawei’s technology has been used to target and identify ethnic groups in Xinjiang, where the Uyghur population is systematically detained in forced labor camps by the Chinese government. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have already banned or restricted the company’s operations and ordered domestic telecommunications companies to remove Huawei’s technology from their networks.
While the use of surveillance technology in China is not exclusive to the country, the extent and invasiveness of the regime’s mass surveillance is both unparalleled and unprecedented. Therefore, it’s especially worrisome when this kind of technology is exported to totalitarian countries in the Latin American region.
Moreover, many state-owned Chinese companies, such as the China State Construction Engineering Corp (CSCEC), the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), and the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), are involved in infrastructure projects around the continent. These include building canals, highways, bridges, and shipping ports, among others. And CHEC, for example, has been accused of engaging in corrupt practices while supporting authoritarian regimes. In Brazil, 14 Chinese electric companies, including State Grid, China Three Gorges (CTG), China General Nuclear Power (CGN), and State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), have invested over $36.5 billion in the country’s electricity grids, with their assets altogether accounting for almost 12% of the total length of transmission lines in the country.
In the last 20 years, China’s banks have provided Latin America with over $140 billion in loans, more than the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the CAF Development Bank combined.
Although China’s presence is strong in both democratic and authoritarian countries in Latin America, it has more political weight and influence in authoritarian countries — as they’re less likely to condemn China for its undemocratic behavior and poor human rights record. The Chinese regime is unique in that it exports an authoritarian model difficult to reject; it offers a gradual transition to a totalitarian system through a combination of technology and soft power. At the same time, it presents a supposedly innovative form of governance — of authoritarian leadership — that delivers modernity, stability, and progress.
Latin America has historically been subject to the influence of authoritarian superpowers, a dynamic that has been detrimental to democracy and peace in the region. For a region that has continuously suffered under authoritarian influence and pleaded for international support and solidarity, it would be hypocritical for current Latin American governments to abandon their commitments to democracy for Chinese money. Turning away from Taiwan, for example, sends a message to the world that the silence of democracies in Latin America can be bought.
Luciana Talamas is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation.
Vladimir Putin is seeking equally corrupt partners to avoid sanctions and continue its brutal wars of territorial expansion. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is looking to assert Chinese economic power globally and gather support for his plans to isolate and crush Taiwanese democracy. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, among others, they have found eager partners. These Latin American regimes have lent their support in exchange for diplomatic cover and economic lifelines in the face of sanctions from democracies. If there is to be a serious effort to support democratic change in the region, standing up to Moscow and Beijing must be a priority.