Taiwan’s Guatemala ties remain complicated

Original version of my piece from today’s Taipei Times:

La Colonia China, Guatemala City.

The reliefs on the facade of Guatemala’s National Library were contributed by one of the country’s most beloved sons. Yet even the talents of urbanist Efrain Recinos cannot put a gloss on the building’s threadbare interior.

A bronze bust of an equally storied Guatemalan, Miguel Angel Asturias, frowns in the first-floor hallway. As a young man, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist attempted a social pathology of Guatemala’s natives for his law thesis. Principal among the symptoms was illiteracy. More than 90 years on, the situation remains lamentable, with just 75 percent of people over the age of 15 able to read and write.

Indirectly, Taiwan has played a hand in this shocking statistic. In May 2014, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was jailed for pocketing US2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan – money which had been earmarked for public libraries. Yet Guatemala’s most important public library lacks even a computer cataloging system. Instead, readers must sift through dusty boxes of reference cards.

A few blocks southeast of the Plaza de la Constitucion where the library lies, is the Overseas Chinese Association (華僑), known locally as La Colonia China. There’s another Asturias link here. It was from this location that the writer broadcast Guatemala’s first radio news program Diario del Aire in 1938. 

Francisco and his mother Rubenia at La Colonia.

Guatemala’s Chinese community dates back to the 1880s when goldmine and railroad workers arrived from California and moved into textile manufacturing. These laoqiao (老僑)Chinese have historically identified with the Republic of China, if not Taiwan, though in recent years the lines have become blurred. Overseas Taiwanese, and more recent immigrants from China, used to keep apart, but that changed under former President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. Visiting in 2014, I was shown around by Francisco Lima Leon and his mother Rubenia, head of the association, who told me relations between Chinese of all stripes were good.

We just have to hide that when we are hosting a function for China,” she said, drawing a curtain in front of an ROC flag on the stage. And the portrait of Chiang Kai-shek that hangs high on the wall above the entrance? She smiles. “Oh, they’re OK with him. He stays.”

Two years later, relations remain cordial, though Taipei’s relationship to the laoqiao appears a little more ambiguous. “Normally the embassy gave the association help with things like the weekly newspaper,” says Francisco. “But things have become a little more complicated since the change of president. Chinese and Taiwanese still have a good relationship, though.” says Francisco.

Yet, as he prepared to attend at a banquet in President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) honor at the Westin Hotel today, there was unease in some quarters. “Nobody really wants to talk about it,” he says. “They’re saying they want to hear what she has to say first, but some of the elders think she’s crazy.”

Lima is referring to perceptions that Tsai might be angling for independence and, in particular, that she is courting controversy by making overtures to US President-elect Donald Trump. But not everyone agree with this assessment. “Traditional overseas Chinese and Taiwanese are united,” says one long-term Taiwanese resident. “All Chinese are preparing to welcome Tsai.”

Everyone? “Well, maybe not the newcomers from the PRC,” he concedes.

Elsewhere, Taiwanese ex-pats are ambivalent on what the future for Taiwan-Guatemala relations portends. “People from China are flooding into Central America, and of course these governments want the money,” says Clara Chen (柏蓉) manager of the Fortuna (福記), a restaurant whose tables have played host to many a Taiwanese big-wig over the past 30 years. “As Taiwan is helping them build a road here, I doubt they will break relations just yet. Everything will become clearer in the next few months.”

One former member of Taiwan’s armed forces who was posted to Guatemala for two years believes Tsai’s visit is not really about shoring up ties so much as sending a message to China. “Taiwan does care about those allies, but to most Taiwanese, economic development is more important than some country thousands of miles away,” he says. “This is just to test China’s bottom line. The DPP want China to give some pressure to the USA.”

Neal Kuo, a veteran Taiwanese journalist who has covered Taiwan and China’s manoeuvers in Central America for over 30 years, agrees with this view. “The DPP realizes and enjoys the consequences very much,” he says. “That will help create a sense of emergency and push Taiwanese closer to the US for support.”


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