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Trump soured relations in Latin America. China and Russia have welcomed the chaos.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/20/2019 Alex Horton
a group of people standing in front of a large ship in the background: A Chinese Navy ship moored in Havana, Cuba, in 2015. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images) © YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images A Chinese Navy ship moored in Havana, Cuba, in 2015. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

With Venezuela in flames, China and Russia are seeking claims in the rubble.

But the United States has been caught flat-footed, and the Pentagon is struggling to develop ways to blunt the countries’ influence in Latin America since President Trump has antagonized and distanced himself from nations in the Western Hemisphere.

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Defense officials have sought non-force options to deter China and Russia in Venezuela, CNN reported this week, through a mix of humanitarian missions and more training in Latin America led by U.S. Southern Command, the Pentagon arm that oversees a sixth of the world’s land mass.

Yet experts said those efforts and others are in opposition to pressure and rhetoric from the White House, which has made significant demands to Latin American nations to curb migration and drug trafficking without offering much in return — all while ceding influence and support that Russia, and particularly China, have been happy to take over.

“The Trump administration’s policy has supercharged China’s increased presence in the region,” said Benjamin Gedan, former National Security Council official under the Obama administration and a senior adviser to the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “It’s entirely counterproductive.”

For years, China and Russia have sought more influence in the Western Hemisphere, but are increasingly emboldened to bolster their economic and security positions in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

China has pledged to invest $250 billion there and reach half a trillion dollars in trade, while Russia has taken root to antagonize the United States and demonstrate its might. Both have invested billions in Venezuela, though some experts have questioned Russia’s true prominence and focus on the region.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s approach to Latin America is a house of mirrors and contradictions as it emphasizes relations mainly through migration and crime.

Citing a crush of immigrants at the border, Trump plans to slash aid for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where assistance is aimed at combating corruption, stimulating economics and reducing violence — the issues that have driven migration to the United States. Administration officials have said they do not think the aid has been effective.

Trump has also leveled sanctions on Cuba and Nicaragua for their support of the embattled Maduro government in Venezuela, recalled a trio of diplomats after Central American nations no longer recognized Taiwan, imposed steel tariffs harmful to Brazil and told a former Mexican president he would consider sending U.S. troops over the border of its neighbor and ally to battle cartels.

Those and other measures have angered Latin American officials and have led some to reassess the worth of a U.S. relationship.

“There is harsh rhetoric coming from the White House but not a lot offered by way of replacement,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program. “The reaction has been: The U.S. treats us as the enemy, in economic terms.”

Other parts of the administration have scrambled to assert the United States as the favored power in the region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has toured the hemisphere and criticized China and Russia for what he has described as strengthening authoritarian leaders and spreading corruption.

“On this continent, the United States is showing up as never before — reminding our friends of how much we have in common, of how much our interests align, and how much we love you,” Pompeo said April 12 in Lima.

Pompeo added: “China, Russia — they’re showing up at the doorstep, but once they enter the house, we know the debt traps. They will use debt traps, they will disregard rules, and they will spread disorder in your home.”

But those nations are already there, and China particularly has marbled South America with military hardware, technology and direct military relationships that have signaled deeper interest.

Some has prompted concern, most recently over a $50 million, Chinese military-built satellite control center that towers over the Patagonian steppe, triggering speculation it may also double as a surveillance station.

What is even less clear is how concerned the White House has been with recent Chinese expansion in the region. The National Security Council and U.S. Southern Command did not return a request for comment.

China has sold aircraft, weapons and military equipment in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and other nations to burrow itself in local infrastructure and political decisions.

It has also ramped up military exercises and humanitarian missions, and in distributing arms and technology, it has created an environment where it can fine-tune its equipment and distribution networks.

“China is trying to rewire the world,” said R. Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College.

It is the same playbook that Southern Command has used for years, he said.

China’s recent influence is even more stark when compared to that of Russia, Ellis said. Russian proliferation of arms and military hardware, most notably in Venezuela, has declined as nations look to China for more reliable systems.

And Chinese mobilizations and invitations for young Latin American officers to train in China demonstrates a seriousness that Russia has not often shown. Russian deployments of warplanes and vessels to Cuba and Venezuela for years have pointed more to provocation than strategy, but Russia has far less to lose in the region, Ellis said.

“Everything about Russian presence shows weakness far more than it shows strength,” he said. “It doesn’t have any logic or sustainability.” 

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