LAS LAJAS, Neuquen Province, Argentina — In the middle of the Patagonian desert, more than 40 miles from the nearest town, sits a $50 million space base the Chinese say will be used to send a rocket to the dark side of the moon.
On the base, an enormous white satellite slowly rotates next to the Chinese scientists' living quarters, all surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire. The casual observer can’t get closer than the gates, about a hundred yards away from the structure, without an invitation.
It's a space base, but it also serves China’s more earth-bound ambitions, as well, expanding its reach into a region that other world powers — including the United States — have long taken for granted.
“This is basically an international geopolitical strategy focused on reaching trade regions, with better opportunities, as well as logistics infrastructure for positioning and importing goods they need as commodities, such as steel and copper. Everything China needs to have a sustained growth level as well as consumption goods, such as food and soy,” said Pablo Ava, a public policy researcher with the Argentinian Council for International Relations.
The base represents just a portion of the tens of billions China invested in Argentina over the past decade, part of a broader push to gain a foothold in Latin America. During the recession, at a time when other nations avoided the corruption-plagued country and Argentina was hitting the deadline to pay back billions in government debt, China swooped in with a loan that helped stabilize the peso. China has since invested in Argentinian infrastructure and energy projects, and increased its trade with the country.
But China also took advantage of Argentina’s economic struggles to negotiate favorable terms on many of those deals. The base, for example, came at a steal: China gets access to 494 acres of land, rent and tax-free, for 50 years. The Argentine government gets access to the base just 10 percent of the time.
And while there was a temporary economic boost to the nearby town of Las Lajas as the base was being built, Mayor Maria Espinosa says the benefits ran out as soon as the construction was finished.
"When they left, there was unemployment and houses were empty once again," Espinosa said. "We had a kind of recession. But we managed to overcome it and it's something that today is almost unnoticeable."
A group of high school seniors in Las Lajas who were invited on a field trip to the base are some of the only locals who have ever seen inside. They weren’t impressed by what they saw.
"Some of my relatives work at countryside schools and sometimes they don't even have access to electricity. Yet, on the Chinese base nearby, they have internet, gas, water and electricity, despite the local nearby population not having access to those services," said Iniaki Larrea, a 17-year-old student at the school. "They got everything right away. So, yeah, it pisses us off."
This segment originally aired November 29, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.