Power Shift: Chávez, China And Obama's Big Pacific Ambitions

Analysis: Changes are afoot in Latin America, where the influence of Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president, Hugo Chavez, is waning. President Obama, meanwhile, is looking to forge new ties – in both Latin America and Asia – via the Trans-Pacific Partnersh

U.S. President Barack Obama at the Royal Army Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia (Nov. 17, 2011)
U.S. President Barack Obama at the Royal Army Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia (Nov. 17, 2011)
Susan Kaufman Purcell

MIAMI -- China's hunger for Latin American resources and Hugo Chávez's cancer have combined to trigger some notable -- and unexpected -- geopolitical shifts.

No doubt China hoped to continue increasing its influence in Latin America at the expense of the United States. Chávez also viewed the United States as a declining power, and China as an emerging one, sure that America's relative weakness would serve his efforts to become the dominant force in the region.

Chávez's illness, however, has prompted his ideological allies – who are grouped together in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – to hedge their bets by improving their respective relationships with Washington.

At the same time, the United States has begun promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which promises closer trade and security ties between countries on both sides of the Pacific. The TPP would also serve as a counterbalance to Chinese influence in Latin America.

Prior to his illness, the Venezuelan president used his oil wealth to support left-wing governments in several South American countries. Those governments, in turn, were happy to follow Chávez's lead in challenging U.S. influence in the region and encouraging greater influence for China.

Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela itself all expelled their U.S. ambassadors. By refusing to sign a new contract with the U.S. military, Ecuador sent the Americans packing from its Manta Air Base. Along with Bolivia, it also gave the boot to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents. To varying degrees, all three countries followed policies that were adverse to U.S. private investment in the region.

But when Chávez announced that he was suffering from cancer, his allies concluded that should he die, they would be likely to lose the economic assistance he's long been providing. "Chavismo" isn't likely to survive without Chávez – which is why it's hardly surprising that Bolivia and Ecuador decided once again to exchange ambassadors with the United States. Ecuador's ambassador to the United States will be a former cabinet minister who studied at Harvard and is anxious to attract American investments.

Even if rumors about Chávez's deteriorating health turn out to be exaggerated, it's unlikely the presidents of the ALBA nations will follow their Venezuelan counterpart with the same enthusiasm as before. All of this means that there's an opportunity now for those countries to develop much more constructive relationships with the United States.

A regional realignment?

Washington has also recovered some of its lost influence in Latin America thanks to the free trade agreements it finally approved with Colombia and Panama. Coupled with those deals is a similar accord with South Korea, which represents an important step toward President Barack Obama's goal of expanding U.S. commercial interests in the Asia-Pacific region. After the South Korea deal was approved, Obama set off on an eight-day trip around the eastern Pacific Rim to send the message that the United States is a Pacific power keen to strengthen its regional relations.

Washington's interest vis-à-vis the Pacific is about both economics and security: with an eye on China, the United States wants to mark its territory. With China flexing its military muscle, Washington wants to reassure the Asian nations that it isn't planning to reduce its military presence in the Pacific.

Washington's ulterior motive is to eventually join the incipient TPP, which so far includes just a handful of small Pacific Rim nations: Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore. The United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are negotiating to become members. Japan, Mexico and Canada have also announced interest in participating in the trade partnership.

U.S. efforts to increase trade between countries on both sides of the Pacific will mean new economic growth opportunities for the countries of Latin America, assuming of course they take measures at home to be more competitive. Washington's maneuvering also looks to level the economic playing field not only between the United States and China, but also between Latin America and China – for the benefit of the Americas as a whole.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

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