The increasing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 might have originated in a Wuhan laboratory is sparking an intense global battle of credibility between Washington and Beijing. The People's Republic of China (PRC), however, has already been fighting this war through an aggressive disinformation campaign against the U.S. in various parts of the world, including in Latin America.
Not since two Chinese colonels warned in 1999 that the country was engaged in "Unrestricted Warfare" against America has the U.S. government been on alert to the threat posed by China's offensives worldwide.
In Latin America, this influence is shaped by China's economic engagement: China has extended the region upwards of $142 billion in Chinese policy bank loans since 2007. Almost half these loans went to Venezuela, now bankrupt, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro has joined China and others in accusing the U.S. of manipulating the virus as a biowarfare weapon.
That belligerent behavior was followed by a medical "charm offensive" by China and Cuba, who have been sending doctors, medical supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to various countries in its geopolitical orbit. Even the Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and one of China's wealthiest citizens, has pledged to donate two million masks and 400,000 testing kits to 24 countries in Latin America.
The massive public relations campaign by China seems to be an effort to erase the stigma it earned by allowing COVID-19 to spread around the world, then in January trying to cover up its treachery by using the World Health Organization (WHO) as a mouthpiece incorrectly to state that the virus was not transmissible human-to-human. Since then, the virus has spread to 184 countries, and caused more than 200,000 deaths in addition to economic devastation.
Currently, China is trying to convince14 countries worldwide, including Spain, Italy and Latin American nations, that it is part of the solution in combatting COVID-19 and not the source of the problem. Whether or not this charm offensive will work is debatable, however, given that China's "commodities supercycle" ended several years ago and that China has rolled back loans to Latin America for the fourth consecutive year. Joining China are Russia, Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who are also all using their state-controlled media to propagate China's "talking points" about COVID-19 in Spanish, Portuguese, and other native languages, such as Aymara and Quechua, in Latin America, where they consistently claim that the virus originated in the United States.
China and Cuba go on the offensive
Since the start of COVID-19 in November or December of 2019, there has been a lack of transparency from Beijing about the origin and characteristics of the virus. China and its Latin American allies have been aggressively attempting to convince the world that the U.S. is secretly the source of the virus and that China is the only country that can save it. This state propaganda is reinforced through a digital army of approximately two million state-backed internet trolls named the "Wu Mao" or "50 cent" army after how much China reportedly pays for each pro-Communist China post.
A recent tweet by Brazil's Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, strongly suggesting that China was behind the global pandemic, set off a chain of "Wu Mao" trolls on social media that attacked the Bolsonaro government. This bombardment was followed by a formal response from Beijing, asking the minister to retract his comments and openly criticizing the Bolsonaro family. During that diplomatic spat, not coincidentally, rumors began to surface that President Bolsonaro had been sidelined by his military and replaced by his chief of staff. This sort of fake news, typical right now, has been amplified by foreign media outlets, such as Cuba's Prensa Latina and Venezuela's Telesur.
China and Cuba have been complementing their propaganda with "medical diplomacy", which appears to serve as a gateway to enhance their strategic positioning in Latin America. Efforts include aggressive propaganda, such as the fake news that Cuba has the cure for the coronavirus. The message is then spread in Spanish through social media and messaging platforms. Meanwhile, Cuba has been sending medical missions, manned by physicians who are evidently victims of human trafficking, to Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.
Joint "Medical" Diplomacy
A cornerstone of Cuba's foreign policy and export economy, the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade has been one of the Communist regime's most effective soft-power tools. Founded by the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and currently deployed to more than 60 different countries, it has been raking in more than 30% of Cuba's total export earnings. These medical missions also establish an international network that strengthens Cuba's intelligence presence.
As COVID-19-related deaths were increasing by the thousands, Cuba dispatched a 52-strong medical brigade on March 22 to Italy's Lombardy district, to join a Chinese medical team. By that time, China had already sent two delegations of doctors to Rome and Milan.
Three weeks later, on April 14, an additional 38 Cuban medical specialists from the Henry Reeve Brigade arrived in Italy after a request had been made through the Cuban Embassy in Rome. But, as quoted later by an Italian-Venezuelan journalist, Marinellys Tremamunno, "not all that glitters is gold." In an Italian daily newspaper , La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, she remarked that the Cuban doctors were both expensive and ineffective and suggested that the public relations campaign surrounding the Cuban medical professionals was part of an ideological plan to enhance social control in the country.
The Cuban and Chinese medical team also stretched to Spain, where, on March 30, shortly after Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa announced the purchase of $467 million in medical supplies from China, 39 Cuban doctors were dispatched to neighboring Andorra. The shipment from a Chinese manufacturer included "quick result" COVID-19 tests that were faulty and had to be sent back.
In Venezuela, during the last half of March, a contingent of more than 130 Cuban doctors landed in Caracas to help the Maduro regime contain the coronavirus. As usual, the Cuban doctors were joined by a Chinese medical team, who arrived in Venezuela on March 30, accompanied by medical supplies and COVID-19 test kits that arrived courtesy of a flight from Africa. Instead of using China's medical support for the Venezuelan people, the Maduro regime sent some of these coronavirus test kits to the Caribbean.
Venezuela also received 10,000 doses of Cuba's interferon Alfa-2B, a supposed antiviral "wonder drug" that Cuba and China have been promoting as part of their global coronavirus propaganda.
Sino-Cuban "Big Pharma"
Cuba has been touting its Alfa 2B drug as a potential cure to COVID-19 in state media platforms, which are parroted by China. This claim spurred South Africa's health authorities recently to reject a call by its country's workers union to procure more Alfa 2B after a local mayor announced he wanted to use emergency funds to procure a coronavirus "vaccine" from Cuba. The proposal prompted a South African spokesman to warn that "there is still no cure for the killer virus."
Cuba first began working on interferons back in 1981 to treat dengue fever and later established Havana's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), which created the Interferon Alfa 2B compound. It was not until 2003, however, when the Sino-Cuban joint venture, Changchun Heber Biological Technology S.A. -- completed in 2007 -- that this Cuban "wonder drug" began being mass-produced in China. At the time, it was being used to treat conditions such as Hepatitis B and C.
In November 2019, Cuba prioritized expanding its biotech trade with China. Cuba made ten technology transfers and set up three additional joint ventures. Leading the way was the Cuban pharmaceutical conglomerate BioCubaFarma S.A., the company that produces the Alfa 2B drug. In late February, in the midst of COVID-19, Cuba, and China inaugurated one of their new joint ventures with the first biotechnological innovation center, with Cuban specialists from the CIGB, in the central Chinese province of Hunan, just 300 miles from Wuhan. China is still holding clinical trials of the antiviral Alfa 2B as a treatment for COVID-19.
Cuban state media loves to boast that the export of Alfa 2B is in demand in more than 15 countries and has been used to cure 1,500 cases of the coronavirus in China. What it is actually exporting is the propaganda around the drug. Several fabricated "news" clippings have surfaced in recent weeks on Spanish social media saying that Cuba has a cure for COVID-19. This propaganda is being spread by Cuba's allies in the "Bolivarian network" led by Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro.
The Bolivarian Echo Chamber in Effect
Seeing an opportunity to pivot global public support to its allies, Venezuela's Maduro and his Bolivarian brothers, Rafael Correa from Ecuador and Evo Morales from Bolivia, established an echo chamber in Latin America to propagandize around COVID-19.
Ecuador, perhaps the South American country hardest hit by the virus, has suffered one the highest death rates in the region. The situation presented an opportunity for former president and now convicted criminal, Rafael Correa, to spread videos of cremated coronavirus bodies being burned for alleged lack of care by Ecuador's current government. This fake news was rapidly debunked by Ecuador's Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo, who said police visited the sites and found only burned tires and sofas.
Bolivia's Morales, while in Argentina, stated:
"I feel this is a biological and economic war between great powers. Now we are seeing that the U.S. is not a world power, as it has to ask for help from Russia and China ... I believe that China won the third world war without firing a shot."
Outside Asia, the first countries hit hard by the coronavirus, Italy, Iran, and Spain, are political allies of China and supporters of Maduro in Venezuela. In March, China and Cuba quickly sent medical teams to those countries to try to control the narrative, profit from the pandemic, and amplify their so-called "success" at combatting the virus.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Western Hemisphere began to wake up to perhaps the worst pandemic in a century. Just as the U.S. and Latin America began to see exponential growth of COVID-19 and adopt strong mitigation measures to slow the spread of the virus, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and allies, began waging another type of war laced with lies, half-truths, and aggressive propaganda to delegitimize the United States in Latin America.
Joseph M. Humire is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. This article has taken excerpts from the VRIC Monitor, a monthly SFS publication on the trans-regional threat network of Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China.