Vaccine diplomacy

US administration finally throws Latin America a vaccine bone.

Latin America has been one of the regions most severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The health systems of a number of countries in the region have been unable to cope with the stress caused by the pandemic and most lag behind global standards in terms of vaccinations.

“Although a multipolar world is on the horizon, the great battle currently taking place is the hegemonic competition between the US and China. And the fact that Latin America is caught in the middle may be good news for the region, depending on how its leaders seize the moment,” believed a Bolivian diplomat.

“The great battle currently taking place is the hegemonic competition between the US and China. And the fact that Latin America is caught in the middle may be good news for the region.”

Diplomat, Bolivia

The President of the US, Joe Biden, recently announced that the US will export 80 million vaccines abroad. Central and South America, the largest beneficiaries of this decision, will receive 14 million doses. This includes 3 million doses to Brazil, 2.5 million to Colombia, 2 million to Peru, 1.5 million to Honduras and Paraguay, 1 million to Peru and 1.35 million to Mexico.

The measure was applauded by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) which said that these donations will help Latin America pave the way for the prompt and safe vaccination of communities which desperately need them.

At the same time, Washington DC’s efforts are part of a larger geopolitical strategy to counter-balance the influence of China and Russia in the region. Many senior public officials in Latin America have complained about having received political and economic pressure from Beijing and Moscow to advance their political interests in the region while negotiating deals for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.

An Argentine academic sees Russia and particularly China as better partners, “It is not a vertical relationship like with the US but a horizontal one, of partners. A win-win strategy based on business rather than the US’s previous interference in politics. Russia and China sell the vaccines, they don’t give them away but without them the region would not have seen any vaccines until May or June this year.”

“Russia and China sell the vaccines, they don’t give them away but without them the region would not have seen any vaccines until May or June this year.”

Political academic, Argentina

However, it is unlikely that we will see a sudden change in geopolitical dynamics in the region. Although the US will find it easier to work together with government, economic and social actors in these countries, including Bolivia and Guatemala, traditional governance systems in Latin American countries are currently paralysed as a consequence of the pandemic, economic crisis and social protests throughout the continent. Thus, governments are currently short-sighted and welcome any assistance with little consideration of its origin.

The Bolivian diplomat explained, “Contrary to what would have been expected from the Trump administration, Biden is moving towards retaking the leadership that the US had on the global stage and has already given signals to Latin America. With regard to China, a clear containment policy is foreseen.”

And so, taking into account this renewed US interest in Latin America and the Caribbean, the big question that arises is how China and Russia will react? Cooperation is low and even, since 2020, Chinese loans to the region are zero. They are re-evaluating their strategy.

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