(Reuters) – A creeping barrage of U.S. sanctions on top Central American officials has made China an attractive partner for governments resisting Washington’s push to tackle corruption and democratic backsliding in the region, officials and analysts say.
The trend was thrust into focus this week when Nicaragua re-established ties with Beijing, severing a longstanding relationship with U.S. ally Taiwan, which relies heavily on diplomatic recognition from small countries.
Other countries in the region are also courting China. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele ratified his country’s new economic cooperation accord with China earlier this year after Washington put close aides of his on a corruption blacklist.
Bukele, who this week accused Washington of demanding “absolute submission or bust”, in May celebrated that China had made $500 million public investments “without conditions.”
Nicaragua’s decision to embrace China followed a slew of sanctions against aides to President Daniel Ortega following his re-election for a fourth consecutive term in a campaign steeped in the arrests of leading opposition figures.
While Nicaragua’s case is “unique” in Central America due to its increasingly authoritarian bent, the international isolation of Ortega played a role in his switch to China, according to a senior U.S. official, who noted:
“As the sanctions tighten, they look for other avenues and economic partners, there is an element of that.”
U.S. pressure on Central American officials ranges from visa revocations to Treasury sanctions, effectively cutting them off from the global banking system. For El Salvador, Washington is also readying criminal charges against two senior Bukele allies.
Beijing offers respite from U.S. pressure, a strategy that has previously thrown economic lifelines to leaders isolated from the West elsewhere in the region, including Venezuela, said R. Evan Ellis, a professor at the U.S. Army War College.
“China, in pursuing its strategic economic interests, is sustaining authoritarian populists in power, leading to a region which is ever less democratic,” said Ellis, an expert on China’s engagement with Latin America.