The acronyms – USAID, DFID and CIDA – are emblazoned in my memory from having grown up in the Caribbean: United States Agency for International Development, the British Department For International Development and the Canadian International Development Agency.
For decades, these agencies were instruments for uplifting colonies and former colonies from poverty to progress.
Today, however, Caribbean and Latin American people are learning a new acronym: CDB, for China Development Bank. According to a recent report, the Chinese have invaded America’s backyard with cash, winning favors and changing allegiances.
The report released in time for next week’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, is titled, “The New Banks in Town” and details how the Chinese are pouring billions of investment into Latin America as part of an unprecedented courtship that comes at a time of extreme American neglect for its neighbors to the south.
More than 150 years after the Chinese first came to the region as indentured servants, a new wave of Chinese are coming as investors and engineers.
The numbers are startling. As of 2010, the Chinese loaned more to Latin America than the World Bank, the US Export-Import Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank combined, according to the report published by the InterAmerican Dialogue based in Washington.
It doesn’t end there. According to the New York Times, the Chinese paid to build a $35 million stadium in the Bahamas and are financing a $3.5 billion Baha Mar tourist resort. They’ve loaned $400 million to Jamaica for road and infrastructure development. They’ve built the island of Dominica a school, a stadium and renovated a hospital. And generations of Antiguans and Barbudans will be thanking the Chinese for a power plant and cricket stadium.
Chinese loans tend to focus on infrastructure and heavy industry, while Western loans cover a range of government, social and environmental projects. Chinese banks channel 87 percent of their loans into the energy, mining, infrastructure, transportation and housing sectors, the report says.
The Chinese courtship of Latin America and the Caribbean is even more extraordinary when we think of the checkered U.S track record in the region. Like much of our foreign policy, our attitude has alternated between benign neglect and military intervention. We know the history.
Since the early 1960s, when President Kennedy established the Alliance for Peace and the Organization of American States, we’ve done more talking than acting. The last major outreach, the Caribbean Basic Initiative, was a Reagan-era vehicle that provided duty-free access to the American market. CBI was a carrot to placate the region in the wake of the stick -- the 1983 Grenada invasion.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the most tangible fruits of American attention are harsh and heavy-handed airport security precautions, the drug war and the massive repatriation of convicted criminals. Like an international version of Con Air, every day commercial airlines disgorge scores of violent felons to countries ill-equipped to cope with the criminally sophisticated deportees.
Here is the rub. It doesn’t make any difference whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House or who controls Congress. While the Chinese are negotiating major trade deals and placing a stamp on the region, we remain hung up on an outdated Cuban policy. Our idea of serious dialogue about the region is to badger Florida Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen into an apology for saying nice stuff about Fidel Castro.
This isn’t an anti-China diatribe. This is a call for U.S re-engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean beyond the token gestures of the past few decades.
Like the Chinese, our engagement needs to be constructive – beyond just our reactionary response to the perceived problem of the moment. As one colleague said recently, if we neglect our backyard, it’s going produce nothing but weeds. But unlike the garden variety we know too well, uprooting the Chinese won’t be easy.
Andrew Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at andrewjskerritt.
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