China, Venezuela And The Limits Of Pandemic Diplomacy

Latin American countries are, for the most part, appreciative of Beijing's donations of much needed medical supplies. But the goodwill isn't guaranteed to last forever.

Chinese medical experts arrive in La Guaira, Venezuela, sent to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Chinese medical experts arrive in La Guaira, Venezuela, sent to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Parsifal D'Sola Alvarado


BOGOTÁ — For some time now, the People's Republic of China has been donating medical supplies to countries all around the world. Analysts call it "facemask diplomacy," and in the United States and Western Europe there are plenty of skeptics.

In Latin America, in contrast, Beijing's efforts have mostly been well received. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the positive feelings last. And that could depend in the coming months on China's posture toward Venezuela.

With the exception of certain Latin American states that have ties with Taiwan, countries all across the region have received some form of aid from China. Little wonder that in late March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Latin American and Caribbean department organized a videoconference, with some 200 government officials and health experts from China and Latin America exchanging views on the pandemic and responses to it.

China's private sector is also reaching out. In late March, Jack Ma of the Alibaba Group announced that he would make donations to 24 regional countries. Firms like Tencent, Huawei, COFCO, China Communications Construction and the Bank of China are helping as well.

The cooperation is driven, of course, by larger interests. China seeks to promote its geopolitical primacy and political influence, consolidate economic and trade ties, gain access to natural resources, and boost its image abroad. As a new, soft-power tool, facemask diplomacy is means, therefore, for China to increase its presence in the region's socio-political sphere.


People walk near signs depicting bats, a symbol of where the coronavirus is believed to come from, in the streets of Guacara, Venezuela. Photo: Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA

Interestingly, the first Latin American country to receive Chinese medical staff, in late March, was Venezuela, which is also one of the region's most vulnerable when it comes to containing the pandemic. A poll taken by the country's National Assembly showed that 88% of hospitals lack basic medicines and 79% have shortages of surgical equipment. The poll also showed that all laboratories in the country have insufficient reagents needed for their work, 53% of operating rooms are not working, and 79% of hospitals do not have regular water supplies.

A sociologist and food security specialist at Venezuela's Central University, Édison Arciniega, estimates, furthemore, that 8 million Venezuelans are suffering from acute hunger, which affects the immune system. He worries, as a result, that the coronavirus may become five times as infectious there as in countries with stable sanitary conditions, and 10 times as lethal.

"These figures indicate a worsening of the humanitarian crisis that pushed 5 million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years," he said.

As a new, soft-power tool, facemask diplomacy is means, therefore, for China to increase its presence in the region's socio-political sphere.

China's donations to Venezuela are being made, however, through the government of President Nicolás Maduro, the same administration that caused this crisis. This is the political group that has wasted the biggest oil bonanza of the country's history and mismanaged $65 billion of loans from China.

Just as the country's petrodollars were used to buy political allegiance in the region, the Maduro regime employs the aid it receives from China, or any other, as a political weapon rather than to benefit ordinary Venezuelans. A case in point was Maduro's announcement that Venezuela would send testing kits to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a relatively prosperous country, just two weeks before the UN Security Council was to discuss the state of Venezuela. Along with Russia, Saint Vincent was one of just two states that then emphatically defended the Maduro regime.

The Chinese government hasn't said so publicly, but it has long been aware of the state of Venezuela. In 2016, it sent a delegation to Caracas to convey its concerns over security and the money owed to China. Certain Chinese officials stated that there was consensus in Beijing that no more money should be invested in Venezuela and the regime be abandoned. An increasing number of Chinese analysts have also decried loans to Venezuela as a waste of public money, or just bad debt.

Most Latin American states recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's provisional president and legitimate head of state. Thus the Chinese government's position and actions there will affect how the region perceives China in the short and medium terms, since the Venezuelan crisis has already spread beyond its frontiers.

If Venezuela were to become the pandemic's regional hotspot, it would seriously affect the ability of neighboring countries to contain the virus, with unforeseen consequences. And while Maduro clings to power and Venezuela's situation worsens, any country perceived in the hemisphere as Maduro's friend would be risking its relations with the region.

There are limits, in other words, to just how far facemask diplomacy will go.

*D'Sola Alvarado is head of the Andrés Bello Foundation in Bogotá, a private research group focused on China and Latin America.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!