Latin America asked for pandemic help. Russia and China heard the call.

Agustin Marcarian/Reuters
People wearing protective face masks wait in line outside the Luna Park stadium to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 9, 2021.

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Russia and China have spent decades trying to make economic and diplomatic inroads in Latin America. Could 2021 be the year their work starts to pay off?

So far, Moscow and Beijing have delivered vaccines to the hard-hit region more quickly than its neighbor to the north. That could have lasting geopolitical effects in countries long seen as relying on the United States for international leadership. Long-term payoff for China and Russia could go beyond strengthened trade ties, to greater soft power in the region and support in bodies like the United Nations – at a time when both countries face criticism over human rights. 

Why We Wrote This

Latin America has long been considered de facto allied with its northern neighbor. But could pandemic help from Russia and China challenge the status quo?

“No one [receiving doses] is worried about human rights violations or democracy in these countries right now,” says Andrés Serbin, president of a regional think tank. “What is clear and will be remembered is that they came to help before the U.S. or the EU. That’s the perception of the people.”

“The U.S. should see this as an alert signal that it’s losing influence,” says José María Ramos, a professor at Mexico’s College of the Northern Border. “It needs to rethink its approach.”

Latin American governments – hard hit by the coronavirus – have been doling out their thanks for international help in recent weeks. But one nation has been notably missing from their thank-you’s: the United States.

“Who would have guessed that … the only vaccines we’d receive are Russian and Chinese?” mused Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last week.

Some 2.7 million doses arrived in Mexico City from the U.S. this week. For the most part, however, Russia and China have delivered more quickly than the U.S. and Europe. This could have lasting geopolitical effects in a region long seen as relying on its behemoth northern neighbor for international leadership.

Why We Wrote This

Latin America has long been considered de facto allied with its northern neighbor. But could pandemic help from Russia and China challenge the status quo?

Russia and China have spent decades trying to make economic and diplomatic inroads in Latin America – through Spanish-language media broadcasting, arms sales, and trade – with varying success. But observers say their prioritizing Latin America now could have long-term payoff, from support in bodies like the United Nations to trade deals and stronger economic relations.

“It’s really clear that this is not just vaccine diplomacy, but the geopolitics of vaccines,” says Andrés Serbin, president of CRIES, a regional think tank dedicated to social and economic issues that is based in Argentina. “In Latin America we’re often seen as peripheral [in global affairs] but we have suddenly become an objective for countries to strengthen their own interests through a stronger presence – whether economic or strategic.”

What do Russia and China want?

The U.S. decision to focus on supplying its own population first has amplified a leadership void in the region that arguably began after 9/11, when U.S. interests shifted firmly toward the Middle East and fighting terrorism. Russia and China saw an opportunity to step in.

Today, shipments are a way to demonstrate that “if you’re in trouble, [Russia] is here to help you,” says Victor Jeifets, a professor at St. Petersburg State University who focuses on Russian relations with Latin America. “We have the ability, we have the technology. The same goes for China.”

That’s a message some countries, like Paraguay, heard loud and clear. The country of 7 million is one of the last in Latin America that still recognizes Taiwan as the “true China.” Senators attempted to change allegiance to Beijing last April, arguing China would better aid Paraguay amid the pandemic, though the bill failed to pass.

This week, Foreign Minister Euclides Acevedo said on television that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had encouraged Paraguay’s president to stick with Taiwan. But Paraguay has to ask its allies for “proof of their love,” Mr. Acevedo said.

After COVID-19 arrived in the region, China made timely, strategic contributions, Cynthia Sanborn, a professor at Peru’s University of the Pacific, writes in a Wilson Center report. Beijing donated medical supplies and provided quick sales of ventilators, ambulances, masks, and oxygen plants, in addition to $1 billion in loans to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. 

“While the United States abandoned a global leadership role in fighting this pandemic, many governments in Latin America turned to China for assistance,” Dr. Sanborn notes.

China was already the primary trade partner for many South American nations, and those commercial ties could strengthen. There’s also the benefit of soft power, which Russia is seeking as well, particularly as both countries face strong criticism for clamping down on citizen rights at home.

“No one [receiving doses] is worried about human rights violations or democracy in these countries right now,” says Mr. Serbin, referring to China and Russia. “What is clear and will be remembered is that they came to help before the U.S. or the EU. That’s the perception of the people.”

But unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today is interested in more than just geopolitics, Mr. Jeifets says – it’s looking for new or deeper commercial opportunities. “It doesn’t have only an ideological stance with Latin America. Russia considers [the region] as one of the pillars of a future multi-polar world. Latin America is important for its many new voices in the United Nations. It’s important for Russia as a place to sell and possibly buy goods” and commodities, he says.

It’s also an opportunity to stick out its tongue at the United States. Mr. Jeifets says it had to irk the U.S. that Sputnik V – the Russian vaccine, whose name harks back to Soviet leadership in science – landed and was lauded in Mexico before the U.S. sent support of its own.

Warning for Washington

That’s a fact some in Mexico think their government should leverage more, given how deeply intertwined it is with the U.S. through labor, the economy, and migration.

“The U.S. should see this as an alert signal that it’s losing influence,” says José María Ramos, a professor at Mexico’s College of the Northern Border who studies U.S.-Mexico relations. “It needs to rethink its approach.”

It’s long been in Washington’s interest to maintain close working relations with its neighbors – most clearly demonstrated during the Cold War, when tensions between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. played out in many Latin American countries. But the need for support and investment in Latin America has been on display more recently, as well, with the uptick of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border.

Mexico shouldn’t shy away from pointing out who’s shown up to help, and who hasn’t, Dr. Ramos adds. Latin America has struggled through the pandemic, tallying some of the highest death tolls in the world, and faces a dismal economic outlook. Getting support to reopen economies ­and sending children back to school is top of mind.

“I think there’s a justification for moving closer with [Russia and China]. The pandemic is a critical situation and these countries can be a counterweight to the U.S.,” he says. Dr. Ramos stresses that lending a bigger hand to the region would be an easy diplomatic win for the U.S.

Doses are just beginning to roll in, and some critics of the deals doubt Moscow and Beijing can deliver all they’ve promised. But if they can, pandemic assistance will “certainly improve Russia-Latin America relations, China-Latin America relations,” says Mr. Jeifets. “I wouldn’t say it will worsen relations with the U.S., but it will make it more difficult for the U.S. to recover influence in the region.”

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