The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Latin America?

The U.S. should view Latin America and the Caribbean as partners rather than pawns in a great power competition against China and emphasize this partnership in their relationship.


Image: Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with youth leaders in Bogota, Colombia, in October 2021. Source: Luisa Gonzalez / AP.

On February 7, 2022, Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez introduced the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022. The bill largely frames U.S. concerns in the region as rising from growing Chinese and Russian influence in the Americas. Given Senator Rubio’s concerns about China’s Confucius Institutes in the United States, he is likely to push for the inclusion of a strategy to counter Confucius Institutes in Latin America. However, the U.S. already has many tools that can counter the repercussions of Confucius Institutes. Doubling down in strategic areas and highlighting U.S. commitment to working with the region will have a greater impact on combating Chinese influence than framing the entire relationship as a struggle between extra-regional powers.

The world has watched as China finances and expands ports, railways, industrial parks, and 5G networks across the globe, a process that has accelerated since the inception of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Just over the past decade, Chinese investment in Latin America has increased exponentially and caused a great deal of consternation within U.S. policy circles and Latin America observers. Between 2005 and 2021, Chinese banks lent over USD $136.8 billion to Latin America. Chinese trade with the region has grown 26-fold over the past 20 years, and experts expect it to double by 2035. In addition to loans, investments, and trade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has strengthened its foothold in Latin America by garnering support for the One China policy in countries like El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, and by joining regional policy groups like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). COVID-19 has created gaps for aid and partnerships in many Latin American countries and a need for investment for pandemic recovery. The BRI has already begun filling these gaps, which will only improve popular opinion toward China as the world shifts gears into the post-pandemic era.

One Chinese policy causing concern for U.S. policymakers is the expansion of Confucius Institutes. The CCP has designed Confucius Institutes as educational centers, typically at universities, that provide courses on Chinese language, culture, history, and politics—courses that critics say promote a world view that emphasizes China’s return from its “Century of Humiliation.” While designed as educational centers, critics maintain they represent a Chinese soft power tool that undermines their educational purposes. Multiple reports claim that Confucius Institutes have leveraged their positions to silence views that oppose the official Chinese narrative, thereby providing an uncritical portrayal of the Asian nation. A recent paper from the Perry Center highlights that within Latin America, China has been particularly strategic in determining where to place Confucius Institutes, with many established in countries with ideologically favorable governments and areas important to China’s economic interests. Confucius Institutes in Latin America appear to be paying off as perceptions of China have improved. These institutions’ lack of transparency and partnerships with universities exacerbate these concerns.

The challenge with combating the rise of China’s Confucius Institutes is that they serve a significant role in supporting Latin American education systems. As Chinese companies have entered the region, there is a clear demand for Latin American businesses to have employees that understand Chinese culture and speak Mandarin to facilitate business. Additionally, financial support for the region’s educational initiatives is critical due to the impact of the pandemic on the region’s financial resources and educational opportunities. Given Latin America’s need for these resources, it is unlikely that regional governments will want to end these partnerships and are instead likely to seek additional Confucius Institutes. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that at the 2021 China-CELAC Summit, agreements were reached to expand Confucius Institutes in the region and to provide scholarships to encourage Latin American students and professors to study in China. Similarly, China has worked to develop different forums to expand academic exchanges with the region.

Given the role that China’s Confucius Institutes are playing, U.S. efforts to combat Chinese influence will require not just highlighting the dangers of Confucius Institutes, but also providing viable and more attractive alternatives to them in the region. This is something that the U.S. is already doing but often receives less attention than their Chinese counterparts.

The U.S. has several educational initiatives that aim to boost connections between the U.S. and Latin America. These include programs like Fulbright and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas programs, which aim to support international student and faculty exchanges. They also include American Spaces and Binational Centers in Latin American countries that provide English education and cultural programming. Before the pandemic hit, the U.S. remained the top location where Latin American students wanted to study abroad. These educational initiatives are not new. For example, U.S. educational initiatives and cultural centers played an important role in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Additionally, much like in the United States, schooling and education in the region took a hit in 2020. Lack of resources and technology makes online learning virtually impossible in some communities, presenting an opportunity for U.S. investment in digital infrastructure across the Americas. These programs provide important educational support for the region and highlight the inter-connectivity between the U.S. and Latin America.

While these initiatives are important, they get far less attention than China’s actions because the U.S. does not spend as much time emphasizing its collaborative programs with the region. The lack of exposure is similar to what has happened with U.S. COVID-19 vaccines. Although the U.S. provided more vaccines to Latin America as a whole, China’s Vaccine Diplomacy and early provision of vaccines made it appear that they did more to support the region. Further hampering the U.S.’s perception in Latin America is the lack of confirmed ambassadors in many countries. Expanding aid to support Latin America’s recovery from the pandemic and exchange programs would not only help the region, but also improve attitudes toward the United States.

If U.S. officials are concerned about Chinese influence and Confucius Institutes, then the U.S. simply needs to start doing more. They also cannot frame U.S. aid as contingent on combating China, as this could erase the goodwill developed from these policies. Instead, the U.S. needs to focus on mutual benefits for the region and provide a holistic image of what the U.S. stands for vis-à-vis China. The U.S. should proudly discuss its educational initiatives and expand aid and educational initiatives in the region. The U.S. should view Latin America and the Caribbean as partners rather than pawns in a great power competition against China and emphasize this partnership in their relationship. At the end of the day, if the U.S. wants to improve Hemispheric relations, it needs to do the work of being a good neighbor rather than just calling China a bully.

Adam Ratzlaff is a specialist in Inter-American Affairs and an editor and analyst with The World in 2050. Ratzlaff’s work on Latin America has been featured in Global Americans, The National Interest, and Diplomatic Courier, among other publications. He holds an M.A. from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a B.A. from Tulane University. He is currently pursuing his doctoral education.

Emma Woods is the co-chair of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Latin America discussion group. She holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Global Studies.

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