Latin America, Battlefield Between Huawei and the United States

Huawei’s presence in Cuba is obvious to travelers as soon as they arrive at the José Martí International Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 1 June 2019 — What happens on social networks does not stay on social networks and any event that affects mobile phones also ends up radiating unsuspected consequences throughout our lives. That is why the current conflict between the Chinese company Huawei and the US administration keeps millions of mobile users around the world in suspense, many of whom live here in Latin America.

China has gained ground in the last two decades in the economies between the Rio Grande and Patagonia, but it has been in the telecommunications arena where it may have taken its most rapid steps. Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, the Asian firm is on the heels of Samsung and is already ahead of Apple on the list of the most important mobile phone manufacturers in the world.

In Latin American countries, the most affordable prices and extensive features of Huawei’s devices have won the favor of customers looking for mid-range or even high-end phones that are not too expensive, in contrast to those customarily offered by the giant from Cupertino. After reaching this side of the world at the beginning of this century, Huawei has led an almost viral expansion, supported by telecommunications projects in which it has been involved with several governments in the region.

In Cuba, working with the state telecommunications monopoly, the Asian company has been the main distributor of the antennas used for the Wi-Fi zones, which, starting in 2015, the government began to open in squares and parks. In a captive market, like that of the Island, Huawei’s traditional competitors – embodied in South Korean and American firms – cannot carve out major pieces of the succulent pie of the computerization of society. Here, the Chinese company has the playing field almost entirely to itself, supported by the Plaza of the Revolution.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro recently announced that he planned to make a joint investment with Huawei, the Chinese company ZTE and Russian companies to deploy a 4G network throughout the territory of that South American nation. In Mexico, according to data from the consultancy Statcounter, Huawei ranks fourth in the telephone market. In 14 countries of the region, the market shares accumulated by the Chinese company exceed two digits and in at least four of them it has grown to over 20%.

Not even the accusations made months ago by the United States that Huawei devices could be used by Beijing to spy on their users could dissuade Latin American customers from buying one of these devices, and in the last year the number of Huawei brand phones on the continent continued to grow. Users appeared to be more influenced by their pocketbooks than by fears of violations of their privacy.

So it was, until this May, when the conflict escalated a little more and several technology companies in the United States announced that they will stop supplying technology to Huawei. Google marked the turning point by decreeing that its Android ecosystem would no longer be included on phones sold by Huawei, a measure that also affects updates of that operating system on mobile phones that are already active. Chinese managers have insisted that they can get their own software but, despite their words calling for calm, the alarm is widespread.

While Washington and Beijing test their forces in this technological dispute, Latin America is about to divide again between affinity towards or rejection of one of the parties. Everything indicates that mobile phones will be the cause of the new schism.

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NdR: This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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