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Special report from the "other" China: What Cuba can learn from tiny Taiwan
CubaNews / September 2007

By Larry Luxner

Both are island nations sitting off the coast of a major enemy superpower that it fears will attack at any moment. And both were once ruled by dictators very friendly to the United States, though today neither one of them has an embassy in Washington.

And that’s where the similarities between Taiwan and Cuba end.

Taiwan — also known as the Republic of China — has 23 million people crammed into its 13,887 square miles, making it the world’s most densely populated nation after Bangladesh.

Other superlatives abound: Taiwan boasts the world’s tallest building, the 1,667-foot Taipei 101 skyscraper; Taiwan ranks as the world’s 16th-largest trading nation, it has the world’s 6th-bus-iest port (Kaohsiung) and it sits on a whopping $266 billion in foreign reserves — No. 3 in the world after Japan and China.

Cuba, by comparison, has no skyscrapers to speak of. The Caribbean island is losing population, its ports and highways are crumbling, and its central bank is continually strapped for cash.

Remarkably, in 1960, Taiwan and Cuba had roughly the same per-capita income. But today, thanks to vastly different political and economic systems, Taiwan’s per-capita GDP is $14,000 a year, five times that of Cuba.

Taiwan — the size of Maryland and Delaware combined — is one of the most anti-communist nations on Earth, while Cuba is one of only five remaining communist states, the others being China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

Freedom House, in its latest ranking, gives Taiwan a score of 2 in political rights and 1 in civil liberties (on a 1-to-7 scale, with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least). Cuba, by comparison, gets a 7 in both categories.

Neither diplomatic nor commercial relations have ever existed between the two islands. Yet Cuba may have a few things to learn from the Republic of China, as this reporter discovered during a nine-day trip there last month.

Annette Lu, 63, is the vice-president of Taiwan, and president of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which seeks independence and an end to China’s claims of sovereignty over the island.

During the 1970s, when Taiwan was still a military dictatorship ruled by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, the Harvard-educated feminist spoke a democracy rally and was sentenced to 12 years for sedition. After serving five years of that sentence, Lu went on to a successful career in politics; she was elected vice-president in 2000 and re-elected in 2004.

On Aug. 13, CubaNews interviewed Lu in a 12th-floor conference room at Taipei’s Grand Hotel. Asked what she thought about Fidel Castro and the future of Cuba, she recalled her im-promptu meeting with Fidel four years ago in Paraguay, where both were among dozens of dignitaries attending the inauguration of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos.

“At first, he didn’t pay attention to me. He thought I was one of the first ladies,” Lu recalled. “But then he became interested after finding out I was the vice-president of Taiwan. He said that meant Taiwan was a very progressive country. We talked a lot about demo-cracy and he asked whether I agreed that war cannot solve the world’s problems. The next day, our picture was printed in the front pages of all the newspapers.”

Lu invited Fidel to visit Taiwan, though the Maximum Leader never set foot on the island. He didn’t dare — the Cuban economy has become way too dependent on China to risk offending the authorities in Beijing.

Indeed, the world’s most populous country is now Cuba’s largest trading partner after Venezuela, with bilateral commerce worth nearly $2 billion. Despite the fact that China has backed down on its earlier proposed $1.5 billion investment in Cuba’s nickel industry, the Beijing government has sent five major Chinese delegations to Havana this year.

This may explain why the Castro regime is so hostile towards Taiwan.

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an angry statement published Aug. 10 in the Communist daily Granma, said Taiwan’s recent actions to separate it “from the rest of the territory of the People’s Republic of China [are] against the interests of its own people” and the international community.

“Taiwanese authorities are now trying to organize a so-called referendum on the island’s entry into the UN under the name of Taiwan, and to submit a resolution on the matter to that organization,” said the statement.

“This is a flagrant violation of previous decisions of the UN General Assembly, which in 1971 recognized the People’s Republic of China as the only representative of the Chinese people, and expelled from the UN the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek, who up until then had usurped the position that legitimately belonged to the People’s Republic.”

The statement added that “Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in line with the Cuban Revolution’s unwaveringly principled position on this matter, reiterates its firmest opposition to any type of action aimed at dividing China’s territory; it vigorously rejects the illegitimate referendum on Taiwan’s entry into the UN, as well as any other attempt by those authorities to enter that organization.”

The day after our interview with Lu, the Taipei government hosted a conference on worldwide democracy at the Grand Hotel.

The keynote speaker was none other than John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN — hated in Havana for suggesting more than once that the Castro regime was building weapons of mass destruction in preparation for an attack against the United States.

Despite their diametrically opposing points of view, both Taiwan and Cuba would love to restore diplomatic ties with the United States — though for very different reasons.

In Taiwan’s case, recognition by Washington would lend the island credibility in its struggle to distance itself from China, which claims Taiwan as a renegade province that broke away from the mainland in 1949.

Yet Taiwan doesn’t need diplomatic ties to do business with the United States. Last year, two-way trade came to $62 billion, making Taiwan America’s 9th-largest trading partner. Cuba, by comparison, sells virtually nothing to the United States and last year bought only $340 million of U.S. goods — all of it agricultural commodities under an exemption to the U.S. trade embargo.

In 1977, President Carter established a U.S. Interests Section in Havana, in the first relaxation of that embargo since the Kennedy era. For that, he earned praise in Havana and the wrath of Miami’s Cuban exile community.

Two years later, Carter announced he was closing the U.S. Embassy in Taipei and recognizing the People’s Republic of China — thereby ensuring that his name would be a dirty word in Taiwan for many years to come.

But lately, another famous leader has taken Jimmy Carter’s place as the traitor of Taiwan: Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez.

In June, the Nobel Prize-winning president outraged Taiwan by doing exactly what Carter had done 28 years earlier: break relations with Taipei and recognize Beijing instead. In this case, cold hard cash and the promise of enormous, new trading opportunities with China seems to have won out over Costa Rica’s long-cherished embrace of freedom and democracy (the Central American nation still has no diplomatic ties with Cuba).

According to sources within the Taiwanese government, China offered Costa Rica $430 million if Arias agreed to switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing — an amount that works out to $108 for every man, woman and child in Costa Rica.

Said Vice-President Lu: “Friendship cannot be traded off with money. It’s a pity and a shame, given how strong our relationship was after 63 years. All we did for Costa Rica was out of genuine friendship. That’s why I openly condemn President Oscar Arias.”

Lu continued: “If he chose China simply because Costa Rica needed to trade with the PRC, at least that’s understandable. But he said Taiwan should have given Costa Rica more money. For this reason, I feel he really does not deserve the Nobel Prize.”

Costa Rica’s decision leaves only 24 governments around the world that recognize Taiwan as the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese nation. Together, these 24 have a combined population of 88 million.

“This is a fact of life for Taiwanese diplomats,” said Joseph Wu, chief of Taiwan’s economic, trade and cultural office in Washington. “China is getting bigger, wealthier and more influential, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing is more willing than ever to spend a large amount of money to influence other countries’ foreign policies.”

According to Wu, China promised the Caribbean island of Grenada a $250 million aid package if it would recognize Beijing instead of Taipei. The African nation of Senegal was won over with a $600 million bribe, he said.

“We don’t see any indicators that other countries will follow suit, but this is a serious concern to policymakers in Taipei,” said Wu, interviewed recently in Washington. “From what we know, the Chinese government is very active in Latin America, working several of our allies hard.”

That’s putting it mildly, says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

“China is waging an enormous campaign, sending high-ranking military delegations to many countries in Latin America. Among other things, they’re anxious to buy precious metals,” he said. “China doesn’t care how many people you killed yesterday, as long as you’re selling nickel at a good price.”

“The irony,” says Birns, “is that Taiwan has made far more democratic improvements than Cuba, and yet it is far more shunned on the world diplomatic scene. Cuba today has relations with almost 180 countries. Taiwan, by comparison, has ties with only 24 nations, mainly microstates.”

In fact, the largest of those two dozen countries is Guatemala, with 14 million inhabitants, while six of them — Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau, St. Kitts & Nevis, Marshall Islands and the Vatican — are among the 10 least-populated nation in the world.

Landlocked Paraguay is Taiwan’s only dip-lomatic friend in South America, while Haiti, a longtime ally of Taiwan, is said to be wavering in the face of pressure from Chinese officials.

Meanwhile, Cuba has made Asia its No. 1 priority. In the last five months, high-level delegations from China, India, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia have visited Cuba, seeking to expand bilateral ties, cooperation, trade and investment (see CubaNews, July 2007, page 1).

Cuba is especially targeting countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 10-member bloc comprises 550 million people and boasts a combined GDP exceeding $1 trillion.

Yet Cuba isn’t making any efforts to cozy up to Taiwan; the feeling appears to be mutual.

Having survived their own dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek, most Taiwanese are put off by the idea of strongmen or lifelong rulers. In fact, the Chiang Kai-shek mausoleum in Taipei recently changed its name to “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall” in an effort to reduce Chiang’s once-godlike profile throughout the island.

One of the exhibits at this museum (which among other things displays Chiang Kai-shek’s bulletproof 1955 Cadillac) is a prison-like structure surrounded by barbed wire and posters bearing photographs of the modern world’s most famous dictators: Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Moammar Qaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and — you guessed it — Fidel Castro.

We asked Vice-President Lu if the Taiwanese government has taken a greater interest in Cuba since Fidel turned power over to his brother Raúl a little over a year ago.

“I was sorry to hear that Castro’s health is not good,” she replied. “However, I’m also concerned about human rights and democracy in Cuba. I have had occasion to meet with Cuban dissidents who came here to share their experiences.”

Given current political realities, there seems little chance Taiwan will follow South Korea’s lead and establish a trade office in Havana (that happened despite Seoul’s lack of diplomatic ties with Havana, which maintains close ties with North Korea).

“Cuba is economically too close to mainland China,” said Chun-Fang Hsu, deputy director-general of the Bureau of Foreign Trade within Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs. “We’re not that interested in Cuba right now.”

Added Wu: “It’s not that we don’t want to have ties with Cuba. But China makes it very difficult. Cuba gets a lot of help from Beijing, so when Chinese leaders tell Cuba not to have relations with us, they better listen.”

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