The global coronavirus pandemic originating in China is leading conservative Latin American leaders to question key tenets of the region’s foreign policy.
Perhaps the most expansive tenet of Latin America’s foreign policy in the last decade has been to move, with few exceptions, into the arms of the People’s Republic of China and away from Taiwan. Whereas the region benefited from the still evident legacy of Taiwanese technology and largesse, in the last few years alone Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic have completely embraced Communist China while dramatically breaking with Taiwan. As of now, only Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay in Latin America retain relations with Taiwan.
As was commented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit last year to different Latin American countries, from the Antilles to South America, China has bought support for corrupt totalitarian regimes and forces. China, Pompeo said on April 12, 2019, in Chile, “often injects corrosive capital into the economic bloodstream, giving life to corruption, and eroding good governance.”
Now, as the coronavirus crisis has highlighted manipulation and lack of transparency by China that worsened, instead of ameliorated, the crisis – and highlighted Taiwan’s leadership role in confronting the virus – many in the region are starting to ask questions.
As a March 16, 2020, article by Hilton Yip noted in Foreign Policy magazine:
Taiwan’s anti-coronavirus strategy utilizes a combination of early vigilance, proactive measures, and information sharing with the public, as well as applying technology in the form of analyzing big data and online platforms. All this is done with an impressive level of public transparency and engagement, in stark contrast to China’s use of draconian and coercive measures and censorship to handle the coronavirus outbreak.
These realities have led to questions from many in Latin America. Costa Rican Congressman Dragos Dolanescu, who heads the National Republican Social Christian Party, expressed it so in recent statements from his country’s capital:
It is strange that Costa Rica has such a close relationship with China and no relationship with Taiwan. Taiwan has shown leadership not just in successfully confronting the coronavirus, but also economically, in development and in infrastructure. Costa Rica should turn its sight again to Taiwan and seek a normal relationship with that country.
In a letter to the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry and with a frank display of imperial arrogance, the PRC ambassador to Costa Rica Tang Heng angrily responded to Dolanescu’s statements.
“The statements by Congressman Dragos Dolanescu touch the red line of the One China policy and go against the satisfactory state of relations between China and Costa Rica. The issue of Taiwan concerns the fundamental interests of China and the national sentiments of its people,” Tang wrote.
In a public statement, Dolanescu retorted to Ambassador Heng:
To deny the existence of Taiwan, a country which shares Costa Rica’s democratic tradition and has a strong cultural presence in our country, is to blind oneself to the reality of the world because Taiwan is recognized by other countries in our hemisphere. To use diplomatic channels to attempt to prevent a Congressman from exercising his right to political oversight (Article 121 of our constitution) is to touch the “red line,” to borrow the phrase used by (PRC Ambassador) Teng, of foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Costa Rica.
In a personal interview with this author, Dolanescu added:
Costa Rica is a sovereign country and has the right to have diplomatic relations with whomever we believe. If during the entire Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union didn’t tell us whom we could have relations with, I don’t understand why the People’s Republic of China wants to impose on us that we can’t have relations with Taiwan, which is a democratic country like Costa Rica, which has free elections every four years like Costa Rica and which, like Costa Rica, loves liberty.
In the Dominican Republic, Pelegrin Castillo, an opinion maker and leader of the ProNacion think tank, recently wrote, “Experience shows that open societies are more adept than closed societies at dealing with these crises than those which appeal to autocratic and totalitarian strategies. Taiwan and Israel are two such nations which have shown the way.”
During his regular press briefing on March 19, in an apparent rebuke to Castillo and those who share his thinking in the Dominican Republic, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries had benefited from relations with China, and sternly warned that the Taiwanese authorities “had no way out,” in pursuing “a two China,” or “one China, one Taiwan” policy.
China calls its insistence that Taiwan is its province the “One China” policy. Any nation that chooses to establish formal relations with Beijing must pretend that Taiwan does not exist.
Many countries in Latin America have chosen the “One China” policy, moving towards the Chinese economic orbit in spite of the moral cost of having to break with Taiwanese democracy, which is a model of what Latin Americans aspire to.
In Uruguay, the recently inaugurated conservative government of Luis Lacalle Pou ended a 20-year hold on power by the Broad Front, a coalition of leftist and Communist organizations. During the period in which the Front ruled Uruguay, China became the country’s principal economic partner.
Not all Uruguayans agree with where this could lead.
A recent study by the CESCOS think tank, affiliated with the ORT University in Montevideo, Uruguay, stated that:
The current comparative experiences of China and Taiwan are useful to highlight this key point: it is not true that the cost of high economic growth is the limit on freedoms and the violation of human rights. It is not true that Westerners must accept that ‘there are other cultures’ where ‘rights are valued differently’ and where there is a collective sense that overruns the individual one, and therefore, it is legitimate to drive economic growth at any cost. Concurrently, in this global sanitary context, it is not true that it is tolerable to look for solutions to the problem and confine the spread of the virus at all costs, especially because it entails the brutal use of police force and the violation of basic human rights. Taiwan shares the same culture, tradition, history and customs as those who have brought about the alleged “economic miracle” in mainland China and yet, on the island, they have not had to violate human rights to carry out another economic miracle. In this case, it is a real miracle because prosperity is real when a person can choose how to live his or her life and not when, as with the false prosperity of mainland China, growth comes at a person’s cost, even at the cost of that person’s survival.
In Chile – until recently a model of political liberty, inclusiveness and economic growth – a citizen’s movement addressing social demands has been hijacked by a violent Antifa-type insurgency.
Pro-democracy forces have taken to the streets to defend the country from going in the direction where the purported leaders of the Chilean radical left want it to go: the Cuban and Venezuelan models.
Many in this movement feel that the foreign policies of the center-left establishment, in force even under conservative administrations, have undermined Chile’s republican order.
René Barba – director of the prestigious Bertait College in Santiago de Chile, a councilman in the middle-class commune of Lo Barnechea, and a leader in the grassroots civic patriotic movement organized to prevent a Communist takeover in the country –summed up, in conversation with this author, a growing feeling among many in the region:
Chile should strengthen its relations with Taiwan, with whom we share an economic and political model, and pursue an open commerce and a free exchange of ideas. What has Cuba done for us? For the past 60 years it has exported Communism throughout our civil society and even armed and trained guerrillas which have carried out murders like that of Senator Jaime Guzman. We should cut ties with Cuba and progress in our relation with Taiwan.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, it was evident that the world was moving away from the no-holds-barred globalization of the 90s and towards a new alignment. It would seem that, in a community of regional democracies, a rapprochement between Latin American democracies and an economically powerful Taiwan with which it shares fundamental values could not be easily dismissed. Likewise, Chinese authorities would have to evaluate if the nation’s attempt at monopolizing the foreign policies of sovereign states would be acceptable to the region in a post-coronavirus crisis world.
Dr. Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat is a writer, educator, and co-founder and spokesman for the Cuban Democratic Directorate (Directorio).