After Nicaragua’s Overthrow, US Sanctions Push Central America Towards China

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A screen shows news footage of the flags of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Nicaragua, in Beijing, China on December 10, 2021. REUTERS / Tingshu Wang

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December 12 (Reuters) – A creeping barrage of US sanctions against top Central American officials has made China an attractive partner for governments resisting pressure from Washington to tackle corruption and democratic retreat in the region, according to officials and analysts.

The trend was accentuated this week when Nicaragua reestablished ties with Beijing, severing a long-standing relationship with U.S. ally Taiwan, which relies heavily on diplomatic recognition from small countries.

Other countries in the region are also courting China. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele ratified his country’s new economic cooperation agreement with China earlier this year after Washington put his close associates on a corruption blacklist.

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Bukele, who this week accused Washington of demanding “absolute submission or collapse,” celebrated in May that China had made $ 500 million in “unconditional” public investment.

Nicaragua’s decision to embrace China follows a string of sanctions against aides to President Daniel Ortega after he was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term in a campaign marked by the arrest of opposition figures.

While Nicaragua’s case is “unique” in Central America because of its increasingly authoritarian leanings, Ortega’s international isolation played a role in its transfer to China, according to a senior US official, who has noted:

“As the sanctions tighten, they seek other avenues and economic partners, there is an element of that.”

US pressure on Central American officials ranges from visa revocations to Treasury sanctions, effectively cutting them off from the global banking system. For El Salvador, Washington is also preparing criminal charges against two high-ranking allies of Bukele.

Beijing is offering a respite from US pressure, a strategy that has already thrown economic lifelines for isolated Western leaders elsewhere in the region, including Venezuela, said R. Evan Ellis, US Army professor. War College.

“China, by pursuing its strategic economic interests, keeps authoritarian populists in power, leading to an increasingly less democratic region,” said Ellis, an expert on China’s engagement with Latin America.

“DEBT DIPLOMACY”

Seeking to push back Chinese advances in the region, U.S. officials have made Beijing an unreliable partner for desperate countries seeking investment to revive faltering economies.

Highlighting China’s investments around the world that the United States calls “debt diplomacy,” US officials allege that Beijing is leaving poorer countries overwhelmed by debt.

Beijing, which refutes such claims, says it treats allies as an equal partner and does not interfere in their internal affairs – an attractive prospect for leaders in a region where the United States has historically wielded great influence. .

Privately, however, Guatemalan business leaders, for example, fear that the United States’ pursuit of political elites could push government officials into more lenient allies.

Yet Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who was not invited to a US democracy summit this week, still visited Washington and pledged his loyalty to Taiwan.

Also in Honduras, the new government of President-elect Xiomara Castro has so far committed to Taipei and close relations with Washington, although it has openly considered a move to Beijing during its election campaign.

The United States welcomed this, with the senior US official saying Washington was prepared to provide an “increase” in aid to help Castro meet his priority of alleviating the dire economic situation in Honduras.

Still, some of Castro’s allies, including Rodolfo Pastor, a senior member of his transition team, say his country must keep its options on China open, harboring the possibility that Honduras may recognize Beijing in the future.

“I suspect that the price that Honduras will try to extract from its Taiwanese customers so as not to tip has just increased significantly,” Ellis told the US Army War College, pointing to Nicaragua.

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Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Sarah Kinosian in San Salvador; Editing by Dave Graham and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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