On the “International Cooperation” page of NASA’s International Space Station website, there’s a map of the Earth at nighttime, annotated with information on the Station’s global partnerships. The captions, written in vivid colors, reflect the shining metropolises on the map underneath, bright sparks of light highlighting the industrial North’s most developed areas. In contrast, Latin America, devoid of both captions and light, appears almost invisible against the dark oceans.
Many Latin American states recognize the appeal of national space programs, even if they lack the capital and material capacity to develop them. For many, space represents yet another tool for development. For example, at its inception, Venezuelan space policy aspired to improve economic conditions by using telecommunication satellites to provide education, health care, and entertainment to impoverished regions. Other countries (such as Brazil) want to improve their technical space capabilities in order to gain regional influence and power. Despite these constructive goals, the North sometimes hesitates to support Latin American space programs due to its concerns regarding the practicality of these initiatives in the face of continuing economic, human rights, and political challenges.
Nevertheless, some Latin American countries have discovered a new partner to launch them into the space age: China.
Through increasingly trendy south-south cooperation, China and Latin America hope to gain more autonomy from northern technological influence. While the China-Latin America partnership carries considerable commercial and strategic benefits for both regions, the parties also share a common desire to further their economic development and accumulate international influence.
During the first decades of the space age, some developing countries worried that purchasing northern LANDSAT data would reinforce their dependency on northern technology, data, and technology transfer agreements. While fears of northern technological domination have subsided thanks to the advancement of satellite programs in the Global South and the rise of southern-based data exporters, these concerns continue to influence Latin America’s quest for technical self-sufficiency in space.
In 2005, Venezuela entered into an agreement with the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, a Chinese state-owned space company; three years later, Venezuela’s first telecommunications satellite, Venesat-1 (also known as the Simón Bolívar), entered orbit, providing Venezuela with the ability to improve rural communications and observe state poverty using its own data. Following the launch of Venezuela’s third satellite in 2017, the Venezuelan government stated that the space program expressed the “sovereignty, independence, and dignity of the Venezuelan people.” Although it is difficult to assess the authenticity of this statement due to the heightened political and economic climate in which it was delivered, Venezuela undoubtedly perceives space as a means of liberating itself from northern influence in its technological and domestic affairs.
Over the course of its development, China made large-scale investments in its space program in order to stimulate technological innovations that would boost economic growth. Brazil is no stranger to the benefits bilateral technological cooperation can bring. In 1975, Brazil entered a technology transfer agreement with West Germany to build its nuclear capacity; Brazil obtained ample technological knowledge and several power plants from the deal. Today, Brazil enjoys two nuclear reactors producing 3% of the state’s electricity as well as the prestige inherent to nuclear energy capabilities.
In 1988, China and Brazil established the China-Brazil Resource Satellites (CBERS) program, a bilateral arrangement for the development of earth-imaging satellites. These devices allow Brazil to use nationally produced data to monitor regional environmental conditions ranging from deforestation to water usage. At the program’s inception, Brazil’s contributions comprised only 30% of the CBERS program; 30 years and five satellites later, Brazil and China split their responsibilities for the CBERS-4 satellite evenly, thanks to China’s technological guidance. Thus, the Brazil-China partnership not only allowed Brazil to gain data independence, but also to cultivate its national scientific capabilities.
It is important to note that China’s support for the Latin American space sector is not philanthropic in nature; rather, it is a means of forming relationships and cultivating influence. It is no coincidence that some of China’s largest Latin American space initiatives occur in two of the most energy- and resource-rich states in the region. In 2016, China imported 22% of all Venezuelan crude oil, an exchange valued at $4.25 billion. According to The Dialogue’s China-Latin America Finance Database, from 2008 to 2017, China made ten large-scale investments in Brazilian energy and soybean production; Venezuela enjoyed 14 energy-related investments over this time. Thus, while space cooperation spurs Latin America’s economic, technical, political growth, China benefits by forming close relationships with trading partners whose resources it needs to continue fueling its own development.
While the world looks to NASA to lead the international space regime, it’s safe to say that NASA’s atlas tells only part of the story of space cooperation, for, as China and Latin America demonstrate, there are many connections hidden within the night.
Rachel Mural is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland.