The news that China has been operating a spy base in Cuba since 2019 grabbed much of Washington’s attention last week, evoking instant comparisons to the height of the Cold War. But the listening facility is just one piece of what U.S. officials have described as a much broader effort by Beijing to build potential military footholds across Latin America that could help it challenge U.S. dominance in the region.
The Pentagon’s Southern Command estimates that Chinese state-owned companies are developing deep-water ports in 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries, specifically positioned at maritime choke points that could deny the U.S. military freedom to operate.
U.S. officials are particularly focused on Beijing’s efforts to build “dual use” ports in the region that could be activated for military operations in the event of a conflict, including in the Panama Canal and at Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip. The latter sits astride the Strait of Magellan and could control access to the Arctic.
“In any potential global conflict, the PRC could leverage strategic regional ports to restrict U.S. naval and commercial ship access,” General Laura Richardson, commander of the Southern Command, testified in March before Congress.
Richardson said the Pentagon is also monitoring Beijing’s role in developing facilities in five Western hemisphere countries that could provide the People’s Liberation Army with tracking and surveillance capabilities in outer space.
China isn’t the only U.S. rival attempting to make Latin American inroads.
Leaders of Russia and Iran have been touring South America and the Caribbean in recent weeks to shore up alliances with traditional U.S. foes, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited all three countries this week. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Havana, Caracas, Managua, and Brazil at the end of April. During their trips, both stressed the need to create an alternative currency to the U.S. dollar in order to evade pervasive American sanctions.
The Pentagon and American intelligence services are concerned about how Moscow and Tehran can use their Latin American alliances to threaten U.S. interests, particularly in a time of conflict.
Russia maintains deep defense relationships with Cuba and Venezuela, in particular. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence that Iran has developed terrorist and espionage networks in Latin America, both through its elite Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah proxy..
An American intelligence official told Semafor Tehran could use these networks to make Washington think twice about striking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, or responding if it does. The U.S. Justice Department has indicted a string of Revolutionary Guard figures in recent years for allegedly attempting to assassinate American and allied officials inside the U.S.
China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s recent activities may pose an unprecedented challenge to the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine, which holds that intervention in the Americas by foreign powers is a direct and hostile act against the U.S. (To be sure, every other major power has had foreign powers or their proxies on their doorstep; the Monroe Doctrine is the U.S. expression of its unease with that.)
Of course, the Soviet Union jockeyed for influence in Latin America during the Cold War, leading to confrontations like the Cuban Missile crisis. But China may pose an even greater threat to U.S. sway in the region, in part, thanks to the sheer size of its economy, and willingness to work together with the Kremlin.
China’s current trade in Latin America and the Caribbean stands at $450 billion, up from just $18 billion in 2002. This two-way commerce is predicted to reach $700 billion by 2035, on par with the U.S.’s trade in the region. The Soviet Union simply never had the economic might to influence wills in the Western Hemisphere as China can now.
The View From Washington
The Biden administration has said in recent days that it has warned Cuba and other countries in the region against hosting Chinese surveillance and military installations. Senior administration officials say they believe their intensified efforts are generating results against Beijing.
“We’ve engaged governments that are considering hosting PRC bases at high levels and exchanged information with them,” an administration official told Semafor. “Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts have slowed the PRC down.”
Still, U.S. officials acknowledge that this regional competition against China and its allies is much more about winning the battle over political systems and economies than narrow security issues. China, Russia and Iran are seizing on rising anti-Western sentiment in South America to make gains, said these officials. Countries like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are seen as particularly critical to setting the region’s future trend.
Room for Disagreement
China continues to deny that it’s operating a spy base in Cuba. “The Cold War was at its height during US President Joe Biden’s formative years,” the editorial board of the government-controlled People’s Daily, wrote this week. “That perhaps explains why he is so eager to turn back the clock to the days of his childhood, and recreate a ‘threat from the reds’ that must have thrilled him as a kid.”