In the busy central plaza of San Salvador, an elderly lady – visibly impoverished, skinny and alone – stares at me. Una moneda, she asks me, whispering. Any spare change? I hand her two measly quarters. It’s hardly a unique anecdote – everyone has witnessed the cruelty of poverty, and the nauseating experience of having little power to help.
But what does make this striking is what lies behind her: a daunting building site. In front of a tall scaffolding tower is a makeshift wall of wooden planks, each plastered with digitally created images of a futuristic glass building. The site will soon be home to a new National Library.
Shiny, modern, and imposing. The library, when complete, will look more like the Shard than a classic Latin American building.
On this so-called national project, the Salvadorian flag is cast aside by a deep red one, decorated with yellow stars. The Spanish descriptions of the project are small and inconspicuous compared to the large Chinese characters. The new library is being funded by the Chinese government.
It represents a common trend in the Global South, where the West’s adversaries use their economic power to tempt more vulnerable countries into their bubble of influence. China and Russia have spent huge amounts of money, and put lots of effort, into trying to bring African and Latin American governments closer to them.
It can be tempting, as progressives, to celebrate the demise of western and US intervention around the world. Indeed, too often, these ‘democracies’ have committed vile acts of hypocrisy to expand their influence. But the enemy of our enemy is not our friend.
Progressive, democratic governments should strive to counter the threat of autocracies by investing and engaging with the world’s poorest countries; many of which are the most vulnerable to the climate emergency and military instability.
It’s hardly surprising that an infrastructure project the size of this is being built with Chinese money. The CCP government has made huge steps towards increasing its economic and political influence in Latin America in recent years. The infamous Belt and Road Initiative has pumped eye-watering amounts of cash into the region.
The grandeur of the modern building visibly stands out; the rest of San Salvador is largely made of rundown, crumbling buildings, damaged by repeated earthquakes. In the last year alone, El Salvador has experienced 141 earthquakes. Central America is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. But with little economic might, the small Latin American nation struggles to rebuild after each quake. It leaves houses, shops, and streets looking half complete, desperate, and stripped of life. It’s bizarre, then, that the new National Library should be made entirely of glass.
Since 2005, Chinese banks have provided more than $141 billion in loans to Latin America – that’s more than the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America combined. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. In return for their support, China wants a thank you card written in the form of political loyalty to Beijing. And so far, it’s working.
Central American states used to make up a significant proportion of the short list of countries in the world that had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. After Panama became the first Latin American country to sign up to Belt and Road, they dropped ties with Taipei five months later, switching to relations with China. El Salvador followed the same year, then Nicaragua in 2021. Then came Honduras just this year. Costa Rica was ahead of the game, switching to allegiance with Beijing in 2007. As things stand, just Guatemala and Belize still keep ties with Taiwan.
The statistics speak for themselves. In 2000, 3% of Latin Americans lived in a country where the economic weight of China was greater than that of the United States. Two decades later, that percentage had grown to 60 percent.
But why does this matter? It matters for the kind of world we want to live in. The West has turned its back on the world’s most vulnerable countries. US protectionism never stopped with the end of the Trump administration. If the West is serious about nurturing democracy across the globe, it needs to put its money where its mouth is. It’s hardly shocking that countries across the Global South are being left to slide into authoritarianism. From Niger to Nicaragua, the economic and political vacuum of the United States and Europe is allowing Russia and China to cosy up and then exploit them.
Decisions such as Britain’s to gut the International Development office have had and will continue to have reverberations across the world. Countries with acute poverty will turn to anyone promising quick cash, and who can blame them? But when that quick cash is being used to buy up a wall of loyalty to those who have no interest in democracy or human rights, something far more sinister is waiting in the distance.
El Salvador’s new library is surely earthquake proof. But something will soon come crashing down.