Sharp power’s main weapon is message manipulation. In China’s case that means getting Latin American governments, media and citizens to believe it’s a beneficent buddy even though it pillages their commodity-based economies. It also means marketing the Beijing brand – convincing fledgling Latin American democracies, via tools like the Confucius Institutes it’s installing on the region’s college campuses, that iron-fisted Chinese communism is a kosher menu option.
In Russia’s case, panelist and former Pentagon official Frank Mora of Florida International University said it means “undoing the health and credibility of democratic regimes” in Latin America. Especially through the kind of social-media arson it’s famous for right now in the U.S. And that’s troubling since new polls show only half the region’s citizens are satisfied with democracy – the rest potentially amenable to more despotic, Russia-friendly leadership.
China and Russia certainly have the right to promote their interests in Latin America, said panelist Christopher Walker of the National Endowment for Democracy. “But,” he noted, “interests are always accompanied by values – and that’s where the rubber hits the road in this discussion.” Especially in a year when no fewer than six Latin American countries – including the largest, Brazil – are holding presidential elections.