Latin American politics are so infected by the virus of ideology that local politicians seldom read the signals properly.
From Mexico to Argentina, it would seem that politics (well, taking the money and running, too) is the only thing that matters. In these countries facing critical poverty problems, where economies have been unable to take off in close to a century, no government – right-wing, left-wing, communist or neocon – has been able to find substantial social and financial solutions.
But, suddenly, along came China. Beijing has deployed considerable diplomatic and financial muscle to win (or shall we say buy?) the hearts and minds of Latin America's political establishments.
In the past six years, President Hu Jintao has spent more time on Latin American soil than his US counterpart George W. Bush. Wen Jiabao and Zeng Qinghong, premier and vice president respectively, have also put in valuable face time.
Ready to deal
Their first interest in the region is strictly economic. Latin America is chock full of natural resources and China wants to buy the lot. It has even devised strategies to target individual nations.
For instance, Chile, the world's leading producer of copper, signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in late 2005. At more or less the same time, Beijing obtained a huge percentage the country's copper by striking a deal with CODELCO, Chile's state-run copper company.
Brazil has been promised infrastructure investments in the hope that these can be exchanged for iron ore. Argentina, which has planted half of its soil with soybeans devoted to Chinese consumption, is set to be rewarded with new railways.
Official Chinese sources say that almost half of overall foreign investment enters the Americas.
Beijing's secondary objective is purely political. Several nations that still recognize Taiwan as China's true representative are to be found in Latin America, notably Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica.
As far as China is concerned, every dollar it commits to strong ties with these nations represents one dollar less in diplomatic goodwill directed at Taipei. One case has seen Beijing lean on Mercosur, a Latin American commercial regional organization comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. If Mercosur doesn't push Paraguay into jettisoning its sympathies for Taiwan, is the whisper, the organization will never secure a trade agreement with the PRC.
Most Latin American countries, though, can expect to receive Officially Approved Destination status from Beijing and the potential tourism revenue this delivers. Minor grumbles over Taiwan aside, China's hard currency and soft words represent an enormous opportunity for the region.
However, Latin America, locked in a state of "magic realism", is unable to properly read the signals. For example, Mexico sees theoretical losses much clearer than potential gains, with the blame for the collapse of local textile industries stubbornly placed at China's door.
Argentina, where President Nestor Kirchner has shown himself as a controversial leader, is also failing to take advantage of good opportunities. According to the Buenos Aires government, the main objective of its burgeoning bilateral relations with China is to get UN backing for Argentina's claim over ? the Falkland Islands.
Crackers in Caracas
But no one can top Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez in the political delusion stakes.
Ch?vez honestly believes he can drag China as an ally into his very own ideological conflict with the US. But China still operates on diplomatic tiptoes in the region, aware that it is treading in the United States' backyard.
Despite being the new favorite of Latin American countries, Beijing is not about to trade a carefully fashioned equilibrium with Washington for the love of a minor country with some oil – most of which is extremely-low quality – to sell.
Ch?vez may boast of a "privileged" relationship, but Beijing has repeatedly said that it wants to stick to strictly non-ideological business.
China's intentions in Latin America are opportunistic and tied to finite resources. If the continent's leaders continue to push their political demands at the expense of building long-term plans based on the Beijing bonanza, they may find China's interest dies with the oil.
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