MIAMI – The New England Patriots team plane delivered 500,000 Chinese-made COVID vaccines to El Salvador – and inadvertently got into a geopolitical and grueling struggle for influence in Latin America.
The “Pats Plane” was greeted on its arrival in San Salvador early Wednesday, just after midnight, by China’s top diplomat in this small Central American country.
As the Boeing 767 sported the red, white and blue logo of the six-time Super Bowl champions, the cargo bay opened to unload a huge crate bearing the Chinese inscription. Ambassador Ou Jianhong said China “will always be a friend and partner” of El Salvador.
His comments were a not-so-subtle dig into the Biden administration, which in recent weeks has slammed President Nayib Bukele on the dismissal of several Supreme Court judges and a high-ranking prosecutor, which he says undermines democracy in El Salvador.
Bukele, who did not hesitate to take advantage of nascent ties with China to seek concessions from the United States, touted the delivery of the vaccine – the fourth to El Salvador from Beijing since the start of the pandemic – in several posts on social networks. To date, the country has received 2.1 million doses from China, but not a single injection from the United States, its traditional ally and major trading partner, as well as the country of more than 2 million Salvadoran immigrants.
“Go Pats,” Bukele tweeted Thursday with a smiley face with emoji sunglasses – even though the team itself had little to do with the theft, which was organized by a company that hires the plane when the team is not using it. .
All over Latin America, China has found fertile ground for so-called vaccine diplomacy which seeks to roll back decades of American domination. The region is the hardest hit in the world by the virus, with eight countries among the top 10 deadliest countries per capita, according to Our World in Data, an online research site. Meanwhile, a deep recession has wiped out more than a decade of economic growth, and governments in several countries are facing increasing pressure and even violent protests from voters outraged by the inability to control the outbreak. infection rates.
This week, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which advises Congress on national security implications of China’s rise to power, warned that the United States must start sending its own vaccines to the region or lose the support of its longtime allies.
“The Chinese have turned every delivery on an airport tarmac into a photo op,” R. Evan Ellis, a Chinese-American expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the US Army War College, said Thursday. “The president comes out and the boxes roll with Chinese flags on them. So the Chinese unfortunately did a much better job marketing. “
Stacey James, a spokesperson for the Patriots, said the team had no direct role in delivering the vaccine and dismissed suggestions they were picking sides in a geopolitical fight. At the start of the pandemic last year, Patriots owner Robert Kraft negotiated a deal with China using one of the team’s two planes to transport 1 million N95 masks from Shenzhen to Boston. The plane, when not in use by the team, is leased for charter flights from Philadelphia-based Eastern Airlines, James said.
“It’s great to be associated with positive missions to get vaccines to where they are needed,” said James. “But it was not a political mission.”
As part of its vaccine diplomacy, China has pledged about half a billion doses of its vaccines to more than 45 countries, according to an Associated Press tally. And only four of China’s many vaccine makers claim they can produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year.
U.S. health officials have not certified Chinese vaccines as effective, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained about China’s politicization of its vaccine sales and donations. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans have harshly criticized China’s human rights record, predatory business practices and digital surveillance as a deterrent to closer ties.
But many in the developing world struggling to vaccinate their populations have little tolerance for insults from China and accuse the United States of hoarding more sophisticated, West-made clichés. President Joe Biden on Monday pledged to share an additional 20 million doses of the vaccine from his own stocks over the next six weeks, bringing the total US commitment abroad to 80 million.
Latin American countries are also grateful for chinese investment in major infrastructure projects and purchasing the region’s commodities amid the recession caused by the pandemic.
Also this week, the congress in El Salvador, dominated by Bukele’s allies, ratified a cooperation agreement with China that provides for an investment of 400 million yuan – about $ 60 million – in an oil purification plant. water, a stadium and a library, among other projects. The deal was the result of the severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2018 by the previous Salvadoran government and the establishment of relations with communist Beijing.
“The Biden administration should stop giving public advice to Latin American policymakers vis-à-vis China,” said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international affairs at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, Brazil, s ‘addressing to the Congress Advisory Committee. “It sounds arrogant and dishonest given the many positive economic consequences that trade with China has had in Latin America.”