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American hegemony and the predatory elites

Nicholas Virzi
25 de mayo, 2021

If one wants to understand the rivalry between the US and China, and the role Central America can play in that competition, one need only to look at a map. The US has a military presence on almost every flank of China. The US has military presence in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the sea, etc. To be sure, China wants the same thing.

China is accumulating the economic power to finance its geopolitical ambitions. This includes augmenting its presence in the countries of the Central American region, particularly Guatemala. China is already in Argentina. However, between Argentina and Guatemala, Guatemala is much more important geopolitically to China, because of its proximity to the US.

There is a latent threat present in the American strategy in Central America. The US says it wants to end corruption in the region. That laudable vision is widely shared. The leading questions regarding that goal should be: How fast can it happen? At what cost? It would surely be counterproductive to American security interests if US pressure on political decision-makers in the region led them to make the decision to establish closer relations with communist China. China, after all, does not interfere to the same degree in the internal politics of the countries where it wants to make a presence.

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In the push to rush institutional reforms in Central America, the first priority of national security for the United States has been neglected. Noone is talking about a scenario where US pressure on America’s regional elites in its allied countries could provoke a reaction to facilitate China’s military entry into the most proximate sphere of influence for the US, Central America. So far it has been treated as an unthinkable scenario.

This is an enormous mistake on the part of the experts who inform US policy in Central America. It is as if they assign a null probability to the scenario of Chinese penetration of Central America. As a consequence, they do not measure

well the range of unintended consequences that could result from their policies of ever greater pressure for rapid institutional reforms.

Strategically, a country does not always necessarily prepare for the most likely scenario. Sometimes the most catastrophic scenario, however unlikely it is, should be taken into consideration first and foremost, and every effort should be taken to avoid that scenario.

That was the logic of the Cold War. The probability of nuclear war between the USSR and the USSR was always infinitesimal, but it was not zero. And that low probability was correctly weighted with the huge negative cost of the catastrophic scenario if it were to occur. This logic determined the foreign policy of the US, as well as that of the USSR. The two superpowers did their best to prevent the least likely scenario, because it was impossible to contemplate that it should come to pass.

America is not proceeding with the same abundance of caution in the Central American region today. The analogy to the nuclear scenario would be China’s penetration into the region, an eventuality that would be a disastrous game-changer for United States security. Throughout its history, the US has been geographically distant from its principal enemies and rivals. Even with technological advancements that have reduced the costs of time and space, the benefits of spatial security have held true for the US even to the present time. A Chinese presence in Central America would radically alter that reality.

Aggressive American pressure for rapid institutional reform in Central American countries is opening up China’s strategic space, providing the opening China needs to establish a toehold in the region. As is typical of its recent foreign policy, the US wants a quick solution to a complex problem that it does not completely understand. The US wants to rapidly and radically remake the region in its image, when institutional changes require time and patience, a more gradual approach. In this effort, the US puts enormous pressure on the political and economic elites of its allied countries, with the intention of improving the institutional quality and development prospects of the countries. Even if one grants that there is underlying logic to that strategy, there can be no denying that it also generates resentment among the key players in the region. Contrary to the premise underlying the US policy of ever-increasing pressure, the decision-

makers in Central America have options. China is one of them.

The lack of prudent caution by the US is a foreign policy mistake that China is eager to exploit. Curiously, China would do so with the help of the civil society actors that the US has treated as its most important allies in the region. The Central American left that today applauds America’s interference is unreliable ally of the US. The Central American left has long wanted to sacrifice Taiwan and establish closer ties to China. Its motivation is precisely the anti-American animus that has long characterized the Central American left. This should not surprise anyone outside of the US State Department, as the Central American left has always been the source of the harshest criticism of American interference in the region, until recently.

If the Central American right should also adopt the stance of those who today claim to be US allies, that China is better than Taiwan, the unthinkable [for the US] becomes more feasible, and achievable in real time. China would love nothing more than to have a military base in Guatemala, as a case in point. This would give it access to both the Pacific and the Atlantic approaches to the United States. The ability of US foreign policy to influence events in the region would be inversely proportional to the degree of access given to China by Central American nations. The relevance of the civil society actors in the region, with which the US has established a relationship of mutual interdependence, would also significantly diminish. China has no use for politically correct measures, preferring concrete measures that directly translate into political and economic benefit for the decision-makers that partner with China. This is the greaty irony behind the US policy in the region. If the Central American countries were to be pushed closer to China, the principal winners would be the economic elite and the military, not the civil society organizations on the left.

It is common to hear that the US would never allow a greater Chinese presence in the region, much less a military one. The reality is that the US has no workable, credible deterrent threat. The “nuclear option” of preventive military action is certainly also a scenario with non-zero probability, however the costs to the US would be inordinately severe in a region historically weary, and wary, of US military interventions. The memories of the US military interventions and coup d’ etats in Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Chile and other countries are still vivid and livid in the sociopolitical landscape of not just Central America, but Latin America in general. American allies on the political

left see to it, endlessly.

What about the other forms of hard power the US could bring to bear in the event that one or more Central American nations pivot towards China? They are also severely limited. If Taiwan is abandoned and relations are established with China, there is little chance that the US will permanently cut off trade, tourism and commerce with the countries of the region, especially Guatemala. From a strategic geopolitical standpoint, Guatemala’s position in the US sphere of influence is too important. All migrants from Central and South America have to pass through Guatemala to reach the United States. Guatemala has sea-access on both its western and eastern coasts.

Simply put, the US is not going to cut off trade, economic, financial, political, diplomatic relations with any country in the region that opens up to China. That would be an enormous mistake. In the context of a significant Chinese presence in Central America, the logical imperative would be to increase all manner of relations with the Central American nations, not decrease them. Whatever happens in Guatemala, to take a specific example, the US should, and likely would, continue to buy exports, send tourists, and make investments in Guatemala. As for accepting its migrants, there is little to nothing that the US can do to stop them, given current policies emanating from the White House.

It is important to note that Guatemala, or El Salvador or Honduras, would not have to choose between the US and China. Their choice is whether to accept American hegemony, or not. What the countries of Central America would have to evaluate is whether they would be better off with two great powers struggling to capture and maintain their attention, goodwill and cooperation, rather than just one. This is what US diplomacy has failed to take into consideration in its application of an increasingly aggressive and combative foreign policy in the region. From any standpoint, the governments in the region are better off establishing close relations with both China and the US. In this game, it is the US that has the most to lose, not the countries of Central America.

It is never good policy to overestimate one’s power and influence to shape events. The narrative underlying US foreign policy in Central America is false. It is possible to defy the US. Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have not let US threats dictate their internal political outcomes. The leaders of these countries have proved that they are willing to pay the high cost of opposing the US,

perceiving that the benefits to them of defying the US are even greater. That their populations would be better off in alliance with the US, as opposed to China, may be true, but it is also irrelevant in the present context.

For a long time now, the perception among regional elites has been that Central America benefits enormously from its relationship with the US, and even American tutelage and, yes, intervention. Between communism and capitalism, Central American elites have traditionally opted for capitalism and consequently have looked negatively upon any foreign encroachments that were not American. These are the same elites that US diplomats have recently disparaged as predatory elites, an ill-advised message that may please left-leaning agents in the US State Department, but hinders the prospects of US foreign policy success in the region.

The reality is that the US needs local elites not only to move its agenda in the region, but also to maintain the narrative that Central American fidelity to the US should be unwavering. It is the private sector elites, and the military, that have kept the countries of Central America firmly in the American camp, not the civil society organizations that the US promotes in the region. If local elites perceive that the US will reward their allegiance as it did with the Guatemalan military, i.e. turning against its former Cold War allies who fought the Marxist guerrillas in furtherance of American interests, it should come as no surprise that they should eventually entertain the notion of treating the US as the US treats them.

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