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Iran, Russia, China beat a path to Latin America's door

Recent visits to Latin America by China's Hu Jintao and Russia'a Dmitry Medvedev underscore how sometime US rivals are competing for business and geopolitical influence in the US's backyard.

By Staff writer, And Andrew DownieCorrespondent / April 23, 2010

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (l.) of Brazil shook hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to Brazil earlier this month. Russia and Iran are also competing for political and business interests in Latin America.

Andre Penner/AP


Mexico City; and São Paulo, Brazil

Latin America suddenly finds itself with many suitors.

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In the same week, Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Brazil hammering out investment deals and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Argentina, taking the first such trip by a Russian head of state before going on to Brazil for a meeting of emerging world economies known collectively as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries.

And if that weren't enough, after inking a major military deal with Brazil, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set off on his own Latin American tour, strengthening ties with allies and referencing the budding friendship between Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the region.

Latin America is now one of the most popular belles of the global economic ball, with countries vying for its commodities and friendship. Many say the new attention is a good thing. It has helped buoy several economies even during the worst of the global financial crisis.

But there are growing questions as to whether China's huge appetite for soy and iron ore, Russia's vigorous sale of weapons, or Iran's search for allies in the Western Hemisphere is ultimately good for the region – and whether the United States is missing out.

"One dynamic we are beginning to see is resource competition between China and other external powers in the region, when we are used to the US telling everyone to keep their hands off of Latin America," says Evan Ellis, a professor of national security at the National Defense University in Washington. "There is new engagement in the region, and the emergence of competition between multiple outside players."

China, Russia lead race

Leading the race for commodities is China. On this visit, and on a previous trip to Brazil in 2004, President Hu sought to secure access to raw materials critical to China's growth. (Hu was also supposed to visit Venezuela and Chile but cut his trip short after a major earthquake in China.) China became Brazil's No. 1 trading partner in 2009, taking the spot from the US, with trade between the two surging from $6.7 billion in 2003 to $36.1 billion last year, according to Brazilian government figures.

Meanwhile, Mr. Medvedev's visit to Argentina to discuss deals on nuclear energy, space, and transportation, among other things, came as Russia boosts arms sales to Venezuela and others in the region. Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Vlad­imir Putin was in Venezuela to discuss a series of deals that could top $5 billion.

And as Russia and China compete over markets, Iran's Mr. Ahmadinejad is finding a welcome platform in several countries in Latin America. His friendship with Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will visit Tehran in May, is particularly important to Ahmadinejad since the South American giant supports Iran's nuclear program.

The rise of China and the fall of the US's Monroe Doctrine ("Hands off South America, Europe!"), in particular, have given the region new global importance. But are its new partners simply the latest economic imperialists?