As Latin America struggles to prepare its underfunded public health systems for a surge in coronavirus cases - the most challenging crisis in recent history - many are looking to China for aid.
From the Southern Cone to Central America, governments have received or are expecting a wide range of donations, from testing kits to ventilators, revealing a new face of Chinese diplomacy and soft power: “facemask diplomacy”.
Direct cooperation between governmental, regional, and local medical and health institutions is listed in a joint action plan published in 2018 by China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States' (CELAC). CELAC is a western hemispheric regional bloc that excludes the US and Canada.
CELAC-China documents also consider universal access to health to underpin cooperative efforts towards achieving broader economic, social and cultural rights.
While the region benefits from aid and expertise, for China it presents an opportunity to steer the narrative about its role in the coronavirus pandemic: from its origin to its solution.
These countries are realising that having a strong industrial base is actually a matter of national security
Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says the move enables China to highlight the stark difference between its current position and that of powerful western democracies, now struggling with fast-growing death tolls.
“It’s the confirmation of a trend we've been watching for many years, the decline of Europe and the US in face of the rise of Asia and the Pacific,” he said.
For Enrique Dussel, coordinator of the China-Latin America Academic Network (RED ALC-China), China is in the “best position” possible to support requests from Latin American countries “in terms of transmitting experiences in general and with human and financial resources”.
As western leaders face intense criticism for weak governance and poor preparation for the crisis, and fights within the EU show deep cracks in an already troubled bloc, Chinese officials highlighted their leading role.
“China will ride out the storm with people from other countries, strengthen cooperation and strive to win the last victory in the fight against the virus,” Luo Zhaohui, a vice minister at China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference in Beijing last week.
Coronavirus aid: jabs over Venezuela
Venezuela was one of the first to receive Chinese medical supplies in Latin America, as a shipment carrying 4,015 coronavirus testing kits, plus chemical reagents, air purifiers, masks and gloves, arrived on March 19.
the IMF loan requested by Nicolás Maduro that was rejected (US$)
Both countries turned the it into a political statement, shortly after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) turned down President Nicolás Maduro’s request for a US$5 billion loan to strengthen his country’s crumbling health system.
“We want to thank President Xi Jinping, his government and his people from the bottom of our Bolivarian heart,” said Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez, promising there will be an “open humanitarian air corridor” with China over the health crisis. She also announced that the government’s covid-19 response team was holding online meetings with Chinese specialists.
“This is evidence of the solidarity of friendly countries,” Maduro echoed.
That first shipment was followed by a second one last weekend with 500,000 rapid testing kits, 70,000 infrared thermometres and a delegation of medical specialists.
Any nature of assistance is welcome
In a rare break from its non-partisan and pragmatic diplomacy, Ambassador Li Baorong publicly underscored his country’s “clear support for the Venezuelan government and people in the midst of so many efforts to guarantee preserving the health and lives of people despite the most severe, inhuman and criminal sanctions”.
Li was liekly referring to the US, which has frozen assets belonging to the Venezuelan state and offered a US$15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest. His surprising remarks come at a moment of heightened tension between Beijing and Washington, given Donald Trump’s frequent use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to refer to the new coronavirus.
While Bolsonaro bashes China, governors seek its help
President Jair Bolsonaro and his family went in the opposite direction. As covid-19 tightened its grip on Brazil, his son, congressman Eduardo, blamed China for spreading the virus. He took a page out of Trump’s playbook and said on Twitter that if the Chinese government hadn’t hidden the disease for so long, it wouldn‘t be spreading globally.
After a week of tensions and the Chinese ambassador’s stern warning that the incident “would hurt China-Brazil relations”, Bolsonaro finally got president Xi Jinping on the phone and apparently made amends. In the meantime, governors from several Brazilian states and some mayors decided to bypass Bolsonaro and write to the Chinese government requesting help.
“Allow me to underscore that any nature of assistance is welcome,” wrote governor Ibaneis Rocha, of the Federal District, which includes the capital Brasilia.
Meanwhile the New Development Bank, the Beijing-based financial institution managed by the Brics countries, is ready to issue a US$1 billion loan to Brazil to improve its health and social infrastructure.
Southern Cone gets donations from China
With over 900 cases detected and amid a general lockdown, Argentina also received aid to battle coronavirus in the form of equipment and health supplies from China, as well as technical advice from Chinese health experts via videoconference.
The Alberto Fernández administration received over 50,000 tests to diagnose the Covid-19, 10,000 disposable protection suits, 2,000 protection goggles, 200,000 face masks, 20,000 disposable gloves, 10 respirators, and 550 digital thermometers, with more to come.
In neighbouring Uruguay, the order was reversed. The country first donated supplies to China and now is receiving donations in kind. In February, the Lacalle Pou administration shipped dozens of cases of facemasks, gloves and alcohol-based hand gel to China, Uruguay’s main trade partner.
Meanwhile, in Chile, with over 3.700 cases, among the highest in the region, China agreed to send 1.000 ventilators, given that the country only has 1.700 ones, fewer than in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.
With no formal relationship diplomatic ties with China, Paraguay remains the lone country not to receive coronavirus aid. The Frente Guasu, an alliance of leftist parties, sent a bill to Congress, which is already closed, asking the country to establish relations with China in order to get aid and deal with the coronavirus.
Private Chinese philanthropy in Latin America
It isn't just the Chinese government that has offered to come to the rescue. Jack Ma, founder of online retailer Alibaba and one of China’s wealthiest citizens, has also rushed to Latin America’s rescue.
the number of masks billionaire Jack Ma donated to 24 Latin American countries
On Twitter, Ma announced a donation of medical supplies to 24 Latin American countries, including 2 million masks, 400,000 testing kits and 104 ventilators. He also offered to cover transportation costs. Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru are among the countries to benefit.
In many ways, China is one of the only countries able to supply the world with much-needed medical equipment given the strong manufacturing industries it has built in recent decades as wealthy nations moved operations there to lower operating costs, according to Santoro.
“Now these countries are realising that having a strong industrial base is actually a matter of national security,” he said. “This is not something you can solve overnight. But, in this crisis, that’s how fast you need solutions."