U.S. companies are hitting speed bumps in the race to win contracts to extract lithium in the Americas, particularly as the Chinese and Russian governments throw their weight around to land such agreements, U.S. digital media The Hill reported on July 19.
“The ‘lithium triangle’ is in this region. There are many things that this region has to offer,” declared U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), during the Security in the Western Hemisphere 2022 Concordia Americas Summit, held at the University of Miami (UM), July 13-14. The triangle of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile contains more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, according to data from the United States Geological Survey. The non-ferrous metal is vital for modern rechargeable batteries.
“Of the 31 countries covered by the U.S. Southern Command, 21 have already signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and this is very worrying”, said the SOUTHCOM commander during the two-day summit. According to Gen. Richardson, China has already invested close to $100 billion in the region between 2017 and 2021. “China is playing chess, while Russia is playing checkers. I think they’re there to undermine America, they’re there to undermine democracies,” she said.
Five new developments
Also a speaker at the UM event, acting Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Carlos Vecchio pointed out five new developments in the region that weren’t seen 20 years ago. Those new developments, he said, are as follows:
- The growing influence of China and Russia, with the Kremlin’s engagement with Venezuela today being similar to Russia’s engagement with Cuba during the Cold War. “Russia is exporting chaos throughout the region.”
- Venezuelan refugees, with more than six million living abroad. “The only way to handle this issue is a democratic transition in Venezuela. You cannot trust the Maduro regime.”
- Authoritarianism versus Democracy. “Our democracies are facing unprecedented challenges, all happening simultaneously.”
- Transnational Crime, with 20 percent of the Venezuelan economy coming from illicit activities.
- Venezuela as a key oil supplier, with the country having the ability to provide petroleum, especially in the midst of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Democracy at risk
“We can’t just think of these threats from top to bottom [external state actors like China and Russia], but also from bottom to top [transnational crime organizations and the illicit economy]. There are not only state actors coming in, but also local realities that are coming up, and it’s putting democracy in the Western Hemisphere at risk. Criminal economies are becoming more and more powerful and are being connected to politicians, media, and even international trade,” said Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombian ambassador to the United States and a key-speaker at the Concordia Summit. “Money laundering is going on. We’re not using enough resources and capabilities to confront this.”
Laurie Silvers, chair of the UM’s Board of Trustees, closed the event offering an overview of the sessions exploring the most pressing issues facing Latin America. “One theme has resounded throughout,” Silvers said. “The only way that we can hope to secure a bright future for our region is by working together.”