"We are basically being plundered. There are no words. There are no words to describe this tragedy. They [China] have control of the natural resources," said Ecuadorean investigative journalist and presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in the award-winning 2022 documentary, This Stolen Country of Mine. "China took control of the natural resources. They control the hydroelectric plants, they control the oil, a large part of mining, and they control political power. We've been colonized. Again."
From 2007 to 2017, Villavicencio, who was a leading critic of the country's sellout to China and government corruption, investigated the corruption and China dealings of left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who effectively sold the country and its rich resources to China. In 2020, Correa was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for corruption, but had already fled to Belgium. Today, China is Ecuador's largest creditor.
Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno, the left-wing politician who succeeded Correa in the post in 2019, only deepened and broadened China's activities there, now including the industrial-scale destruction of the land of indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. Moreno signed contracts with China for the exploration -- and exploitation -- of Ecuador's Amazon for oil, "mostly," according to Villavicencio, "in protected areas." Regarding mining, Moreno signed even more contracts with the Chinese for what Villavicencio called "brutal projects."
"The indigenous people were next," Villavicencio noted. "They are the victims. Their houses were violently destroyed, their children attacked, people being detained, trials, the criminalization of their parents..."
Villavicencio, a leading figure in the fight against government corruption, the Ecuadorian government's sellout to China and drug cartels, was assassinated on August 9, just days before the presidential elections, which took place on August 20. It is still not clear who killed him.
Villagers and indigenous people are trying to fight back against the Chinese mining, which contaminates the water of the locals and destroys their surroundings.
"This is our land. We are claiming our rights, and they [the Ecuadorean police and army] call us thieves... they call us criminals and terrorists. We are being persecuted... the reality is that we're defending our rights," explained one protestor, who was fighting against Chinese silver- and gold-mining in the Rio Blanco area, where hundreds of tons of the metals have been extracted.
"It has been several years since the Ecuadorian state has unjustly begun to hand over land to other countries. China is currently the largest beneficiary, " said another protestor, Abel Arpi. "It has caused problems in all parts of the country. There have been imprisonments, deaths, persecutions."
"In this area, in Molleturo and Chaucha" said still another protestor, "there is not only gold but also minerals such as uranium. We want to ensure these minerals stay in the earth, too. But if we let them turn Molleturo into mining camps, all the future will bring us is death and disease."
Ecuador is just one of the Latin American countries that China is colonizing and exploiting. The Chinese Communist Party has been working simultaneously across the continent; so far, 21 out of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Most recently, in March 2023, Honduras cut ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with China, in order to handle its enormous debt and need for investments.
Even more disturbing is the fact that China's activities in Latin America amount to a significant security threat against US interests.
"What concerns me as a Combatant Commander is the myriad of ways in which the PRC is spreading its malign influence, wielding its economic might, and conducting gray zone activities to expand its military and political access and influence," General Laura Jane Richardson, Commander of the US Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March regarding her concerns over China's activities in Latin America. These include China's recent financing of a $3 billion container port in Peru, and the establishment of a space monitoring station near the Strait of Magellan.
"The PRC is investing in critical infrastructure, including deep-water ports, cyber, and space facilities which can have a potential dual use for malign commercial and military activities. In any potential global conflict, the PRC could leverage strategic regional ports to restrict U.S. naval and commercial ship access. This is a strategic risk that we can't accept or ignore... This is a decisive decade and our actions or inactions regarding the PRC will have ramifications for decades to come."
As China proceeds to turn Latin America into its own backyard, as one headline put it last year, where is the Biden administration? Apparently nowhere to be seen.
Biden, as part of his presidential campaign, promised to counter Chinese influence in Latin America, however, after closing the China Initiative, banning mining, allowing the spy balloon to traverse America's most sensitive military installations for a week before shooting it down, failing to stop either China's illegal police stations or rebranded Confucius Institutes, that does not seem to be what is happening.
In fact, China has been making even more headway under Biden. When it comes to Ecuador, specifically, in October 2021 the Biden Administration offered a $150 million loan earmarked to support women-owned businesses in Ecuador.
"We're focused on projects that exemplify our values," said US deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh. "So female-owned businesses in the developing world need help, and we're going to provide that help."
Focusing on feminist values is not exactly what will successfully counter China's ongoing colonization of Ecuador and the rest of Latin America: the suggestion is embarrassing.
Sadly, many officials from the Biden administration even visited Ecuador last year, without, unsurprisingly, bringing home anything substantial.
"Although US-Ecuador ties have advanced on multiple fronts this year, a concrete positive outcome from the partnership remains to be seen," wrote Isabel Chiriboga from the Atlantic Council in December 2022.
"The United States' lack of impact opens the door for China. Last week, [Ecuadorian President] Lasso announced that Ecuador's free trade agreement with China is 'practically signed.' Earlier this year, China surpassed the United States as Ecuador's main commercial partner on non-petroleum goods. The absence of more comprehensive negotiations between Quito and Washington prevents the United States from counterbalancing China's growing influence over trade and investment frameworks across the region, as Ecuador is set to become the fourth country in Latin America to have a free trade agreement with China."
In short, in the face of the continuing incompetence of the Biden administration, China keeps helping itself to still more of Latin America.
Robert Williams is a researcher based in the United States.