At the beginning of last month, Federico Anliker, a member of Salvadorean president-elect Nayib Bukele’s team and the secretary-general of his political party, said that the new administration of the Central American nation would investigate the reasons behind the switch of ties to China in August last year, once it officially takes power on June 1.
Bukele is the former mayor of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, and won the presidential election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
His victory has put an end to a two-party dominance that had lasted for more than 25 years, and he has voiced his discomfort about Salvadorean President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s decision to switch ties to Beijing.
Bukele and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met in Taipei on Feb. 23, 2017, during his first visit to Taiwan to attend the Smart City Summit and Expo.
She told him that she hoped that Taipei and San Salvador could step up exchanges and bilateral cooperation so both nation’s citizens could enjoy the benefits of mutual assistance.
Bukele and his team members’ comments are without a doubt a ray of hope to the Tsai presidency, which has lost five diplomatic allies since she took office in 2016, reducing the number of countries that maintain official ties with the nation to 17.
El Salvador severed ties with Taiwan in August last year, following reports that officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei had confirmed that there were financial disagreements that caused the relationship between the two governments to end.
One of the reasons for the rupture was the construction of the Port of La Union, which was a central project for the Salvadorean government at the time.
It appears that after it requested assistance of the Taiwanese government to build the port, it was analyzed and categorized as “financially unviable” by Taiwanese experts, which did not sit well with the local authorities.
The other reason appears to be what was described at the time by Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) as El Salvador requesting an “astronomical sum of money” that Taiwan was unable to provide (he did not disclose the requested amount).
It was presumed that the requested funds would be used to finance political campaigns in this year’s elections, which the ruling party stood slim chances of winning. Those factors made any attempt to persuade the Salvadorean government to maintain ties futile, and the series of events culminated with a rupture in bilateral relations that had lasted 85 years.
The switch of ties caused an unexpected reaction from the US government, which through the US Department of State expressed its disappointment at the decision.
The backlash was so strong that the State Department even made the unusual move to recall its envoys from El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic over those countries’ decisions to break relations with Taiwan — although they were eventually sent back.
The US Senate also took steps aimed at showing support for Taiwan and discouraging its remaining diplomatic allies to switch ties to Beijing. There were reports at the time that US President Donald Trump’s administration intended to severely penalize El Salvador for switching ties to China.
Although the punishments never materialized, due to concerns in the US administration that cutting its aid to the country and imposing visa restrictions on its citizens would have complicated its strategy to stop illegal migration to the US, the mere fact that Washington went so far as to consider sanctions on another country to defend Taiwan is unprecedented.
A couple of months after the rupture, the Taiwanese government ended its visa-free treatment for Salvadoreans, after El Salvador stopped giving Taiwanese visa exemptions in December.
The reciprocal visa-free entry program with El Salvador started in July 2017 and granted a stay of up to 90 days in the other nation. The program aimed to strengthen ties and increase travel exchanges between both nations.
The end of the visa-free program appeared like a signal that a return to a friendly relationship between both nations might not be possible — and that surely would have been the case if the people who decided to break ties had not been on their way out of power.
With the Bukele administration set to take office in June, even if it is not guaranteed that Taiwan could reclaim one of its former diplomatic allies, there are signals that it is a real possibility.
During his campaign, Bukele was critical of the benefits El Salvador might receive after switching relations to China, but he was not the only important figure to voice their discomfort with the decision.
Salvadorean Legislative Assembly President Norman Quijano Gonzalez has vocally opposed the decision: He even issued a formal apology to Taiwan calling the rupture “the betrayal of an ally.”
The incoming Bukele administration has also said that it needs to carefully study the China-Taiwan issue to come up with a fact-based conclusion as to what it is best for the country and not only for a political party.
The Taiwanese authorities are well aware of the situation.
Last month, foreign ministry spokesman Andrew Lee (李憲章) reportedly said that the ministry knows about the comments and was monitoring the post-election political situation in El Salvador, although he did not offer any more details.
The odds of Taiwan reclaiming its past ally are also increased by the intervention of US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who on Feb. 13th wrote on Twitter that he had just finished a congratulatory call with Bukele, during which he had singled out both Venezuela and China.
They reportedly discussed plans to bolster US-El Salvador relations and to counter the “Chinese predatory practices in the hemisphere.”
Bukele later on Twitter thanked Bolton for his disposition to improve the relationship between the countries.
Bukele had previously criticized the policies of Sanchez Ceren’s government, saying that they have always been based on alliances that do not have the well-being of Salvadoreans as their priority.
His comments about Sanchez Ceren’s practices, his vocal discomfort regarding the Taiwan-China decision and his close relations with the Trump administration — Taiwan’s strongest political ally, which has taken a series of steps to shield Taiwan from China and surely favors Taipei over Beijing to an extent that previous US administrations have been unwilling to go to — makes a return to Taiwan-El Salvador diplomatic relations not just a dream, but a real possibility — one that for now, we can only hope for.
Juan Fernando Herrera Ramos is a Honduran lawyer residing in Taiwan.
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