Thu, Jan 12, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Taiwan’s Guatemala ties remain complicated

Mixed views on the state of relations during Tsai’s visit

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

The Overseas Chinese Association of Guatemala, known locally as La Colonia China, is the heart of Guatemala’s overseas Chinese community.

Photo: James Baron

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.

In May 2014, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was jailed for pocketing US$2.5 million in alleged bribes from Taiwan — money that 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.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) started a three-day visit to the country yesterday.

GUATEMALA’S OVERSEAS CHINESE

Guatemala’s overseas Chinese community dates back to the 1880s when goldmine and railroad workers arrived from California and moved into textile manufacturing. These overseas Chinese have historically identified with the Republic of China (ROC), 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, who is half Chinese and head of the Overseas Chinese Association — known locally as the La Colonia China — 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 (蔣介石) that hangs high on the wall above the entrance? She smiles.

“Oh, they’re OK with him. He stays,” she says.

Three years later, relations remain cordial, though Taipei’s relationship to the overseas Chinese community in Guatemala appears a little more ambiguous.

“Normally the embassy gave the association help with things like the weekly newspaper,” Francisco says. “But things have become a little more complicated since [Tsai Ing-wen, became] president. Chinese and Taiwanese still have a good relationship, though,” she adds.

Yet, as he prepared to attend a banquet in Tsai’s 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 agrees 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.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

“People from China are flooding into Central America, and of course these governments want the money,” says Clara Chen (陳柏蓉) 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.”

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