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Beyond the hard facts of China’s growing presence in the region, its involvement appears to have had a detrimental effect on the nature of Latin America’s political development. For many years Latin America looked like the success story of democratisation as successive dictators were overthrown and democracy became a hallmark of regional government.

China’s rule-free economic engagement and its concentration on commodity trade have contributed to growing threats to Latin American democracy, and with it stability. The military dictatorships and threat of Marxist coups may well have been relegated to the past. The new threats come from elected leaders who steadily erode democratic freedom and threaten the independence of the judiciary and legislature. Autocrats in Venezuela and elsewhere are extending their terms of office, circumscribing political discourse and enabling the entrenchment of corruption. The Latin American commodity boom that China has fuelled is a prime component of this democratic slippage as it has profoundly destabilised economic development. The demand for commodities and their relative high prices has generated export concentration. Most Chinese foreign direct investments and loans have been invested in a few countries and in natural resources. So China has become both a major trading partner for the region and a source of investment for all kinds of infrastructure and development projects, while simultaneously causing a form of deindustrialisation as Latin America refocuses on commodities.

Unsurprisingly this has gone hand in hand with the corruption that has been both a hallmark of and cause of democratic decline. The ongoing crisis over the investigation into Argentina's former president Cristina Kirchner is symptomatic of this process — a populist leader who for reasons of political expediency and corruption is probably beyond judicial sanction. A recent authoritative survey into Latin American political opinion saw people’s satisfaction with democracy in their own country plummet compared to previous years. In Brazil it fell from 49 per cent in 2010 to 9 per cent in 2018. The effects are worrying. In 2010 61 per cent of respondents agreed that democracy was the best form of government; now only 48 per cent agree with the statement.

Of course, China cannot solely be blamed for Latin America’s political and economic woes but the nature of their economic involvement has exacerbated the situation. With declining belief in democracy comes a concomitant decline in the reach of the international rules based system. China’s economic policy is helping it to achieve its politico-strategic goal of weakening the values that underpin US international leadership. While Latin American voters don’t feel that democracy is working for them they are increasingly indifferent to the political system that comes in its stead. The victory by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the constitutional changes in Venezuela and elsewhere that remove term limits all offer an insight into Latin America freed from the confines of Washington consensus rules.

Both Trump and Obama were correct in identifying the rise of China as a strategic challenge to the US. It is far from clear that either man responded successfully. China has started a process that challenges a fundamental precept of US foreign policy for over a century — hemispheric security and freedom from foreign challenge. China is slowly transforming Latin America into a liability for the US. The danger is that US strategic and trade policy is now exacerbating that trend because of insufficient engagement in Latin America and because vestiges of the pivot to Asia are serving to exacerbate China’s interest in America’s vulnerable flank. 
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January 6th, 2019
11:01 AM
Curious isn't it how the world is viewed as resting peacefully until the undesired appearance of actors on the stage who fail to stick to the script so lovingly written by the unseen Hand of Spontaneity? That China was the last stop on the Silk Road, the vector of the Green Death, does not mean that their "One Belt One Road " initiative will see the global adoption of Mandarin and the enslavement of the deplorable. "Democratic slippage"? Isn't that Nancy Pelosi and her ACA?

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