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Masked Rivalry

As the hardest-hit region by the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America relies on outside assistance to combat the devastating health, economic, and social impacts caused by unprecedented virus surges in the region. From field hospitals to life-saving ventilators, the U.S. and China have taken action to help Latin America curb the spread of COVID-19, donating millions of dollars in medical supplies and simultaneously improving their individual reputations as trustworthy allies.

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Masked Rivalry
By Beatriz García Nice and Catherine Soltero

The Trump administration spent years bemoaning China’s increasing influence in Latin America, but the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified Beijing’s role in the region.

Latin America has suffered 30 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths and a seven percent economic contraction, leaving governments desperate for outside assistance to combat the virus’s health, economic and social shockwaves. From the onset of the pandemic, China saw an opportunity to expand its influence through coronavirus aid. While the United States struggled to control the virus at home, China launched a “mask diplomacy” campaign that involved rapid and large-scale distribution of critical medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment. Lately, it has also been shipping vaccines to Latin America, earning praise from leaders overwhelmed by the pandemic’s devastating second wave.

Though belatedly, the United States has also responded to Latin America’s pandemic challenges, providing over $250 million through USAID, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Southern Command. Comparisons are difficult given the lack of transparency in China’s assistance programs and the U.S. preference for a multilateral pandemic response, including U.S. funding for vaccine distribution through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. But it is clear that “medical diplomacy” is shaping Latin America’s international relationships and the images of rival powers. This is especially true in countries including Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Paraguay and Uruguay, which are experiencing the most rapid COVID-19 spread since the start of the pandemic.

To explore the U.S. and Chinese COVID-19 responses in Latin America, visit our Latin American Program interactive database and read our reports by Cynthia SanbornJorge HeineHaibin NiuJean Manes and Annie Pforzheimer.


Latin American Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin American Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Argentina Project

The Argentina Project is the premier institution for policy-relevant research on politics and economics in Argentina.   Read more

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors.  Read more