End of the Road: Will Taiwan Pick Up Britain's Tab in Guatemala?

End of the Road: Will Taiwan Pick Up Britain's Tab in Guatemala?
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

As Guatemala goes to the polls over a border dispute with Belize, Taiwan's economic diplomacy with one of its few remaining diplomatic allies comes into question.

“Officially, the British are unpopular in Guatemala,” wrote Nicholas Wollaston, while traveling in the Central American country in 1961. “For Britain occupies the whole of Belice Province by force, and calls it British Honduras. There are three empty seats in the Guatemala assembly with blue and white ribbons and marked 'Belice' [sic], and every map in Guatemala proves Britain's guilt.”

Those empty seats are no longer there – the military junta of Efrain Rios Montt having abandoned the charade upon seizing power in 1982. Presumably the evangelical dictator, who died earlier this month aged 91 with the latest of his war crimes trials pending, was too occupied with his “beans and bullets” policy of ethnic cleansing against indigenous groups to bother about territorial bickering with his diminutive neighbor.

Also gone is any particular hostility toward the British, official or otherwise. Travelers to the country would be hard pressed to meet a Guatemalteco who has even heard of the Wyke-Aycinena Treaty of 1859 from which the controversy over Belize's status sprung.

Yet, in other ways, the Guatemalan government's stance has become more virulent than ever. “In the past, Britain has offered to take the dispute to the international court,” wrote Wollaston. “But Guatemala has always refused.”

With a referendum on the issue having taken place on April 15, 2018, Guatemala has completely reversed that position. The question on the ballot is whether the territorial claims “should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement” and, while voter turnout is expected to be woefully low, Guatemala's president Jimmy Morales embattled president (Is there any other kind in Central America?) has been grandstanding on the issue.

Reuters / 達志影像
Poll workers count ballots after polls closed at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize in Guatemala City, Guatemala April 15, 2018.

Trees were the root of the problem. As part of the Treaty of Paris that brought the American War of Independence to an end, and to which Spain was a signatory, the British were to remove all settlements from the Mosquito Coast, running from Nicaragua to Honduras. When the settlers themselves resisted attempts to dislodge them, further negotiations resulted in the Treaty of London three years later, which finally saw 2,000-odd settlers relocated to the Yucatán Peninsula in exchange for an expansion of the logging rights in that region.

Just shy of a century later, the Wyke-Aycinena Treaty, was was supposed to confirm British rights to Belize (then known as British Honduras).

Article 7 of this agreement dealt specifically with the construction of a road to the Atlantic, which Guatemala insisted the British were to pay for in compensation for Guatemala's recognition of British sovereignty over Belize. In fact, there was never any stipulation of how the road would be funded nor a timetable as to when work would begin or end.

Morales has a somewhat different take on the history, claiming British Parliament approved a motion to provide US$50,000 and later reneged on the commitment, doing a runner like a drunk with myroundaphobia.

Enter Taiwan.

Last year, Morales announced that Guatemala would finally get its road. Taiwan, he said, had agreed to pay for it .

This appeared to be confirmed on both sides of the border, with media sources in both Guatemala and Belize stating that the final phase of the Jacobo Arbenz Highway (CA-9 Norte), which will connect the capital Guatemala City with Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic, would be completed with a hugely concessionary 20-year loan of US$350 million and a further “donation” of US$250 million. Taiwan has been providing technical and financial assistance since the inception of the project in 2008.

Morales has hailed the highway as the most important public works project in the country's history, and it's not hard to see why. There's a lot more at play here than an – admittedly much-needed – upgrade to the country's threadbare infrastructure. As Morales has pointed out, the road is inextricably linked to the the perennially thorny issue of Belizean sovereignty.

Reuters / 達志影像
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales shows his inked finger as he votes at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize in Mixco, Guatemala.

“Today we are going to symbolically shake hands with the Taiwanese ambassador,” he told reporters on July 13 at a construction site for the final section of the road. “Because on the 19th of this month, God willing, our Foreign Minister is going to sign an agreement for the construction of the four-lane highway to Puerto Barrios,” added Morales, who made his name as a TV comedian.

The Taiwanese weren't laughing.

“Totally impossible,” was the response of Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Eleanor (王珮玲) Wang to the figures being bandied about for the grant portion of the financing. Meanwhile, Taiwan's ambassador to Belize Charles K.Y. Liu labeled the claim a “pie in the sky” request. “You can watch it,” Liu told Belize's Amandala news outlet, “but not eat it.”

A statement by a MOFA spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity skirted around the key issue, reaffirming what is already common knowledge. Assistance had been provided for the completed stages of the project, the official said. The final section of the road was still being evaluated. Such a mealy-mouthed response suggested it was merely a matter of time.

So, who to believe?

Coming from a president who is currently reeling from corruption scandals and embarrassing attempts to eject the head of the UN anti-graft body tasked with investigating them, Morales' claim read like textbook Guatemalese.

“Guatemalans,” the essayist Luis Cardoza Y Aragon wrote of his countrymen, “neither sing nor speak.” Centuries of repression have inculcated caution. Like blind potters groping at formless clods of earth, Guatemalans work tentatively with the unsaid, dancing a cagey shadow waltz around the Houynhnhnmic that which is not.

“Dialogue is accomplished by subtraction, through inference, questions, feints, ellipses, parentheses: amphibiological communication – slippery, semi encoded, reticent,” Aragon expounded. “Smiles, gestures, formulas of courtesy and elusion, diminutives, and diminutives of diminutives complete this veiled language of circumlocution that either shouts or hides behind the discreet conditional tense.

“It is,” Aragon concluded, “a language that resists reduction to a simple yes or no.”

The furled tongue will be familiar to those who have struggled with the ambiguities of high-context cultures. But Latin American society is rarely portrayed thus – hot blood and short tempers remain the default stereotypes. All the more curious, then, that East Asians – stereotyped for their inscrutability – should be left struggling to get a read.

This language without affirmation or negation was silently deafening at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2017, where Taiwan launched its latest proxy drive for “meaningful participation” in UN-affiliated organizations. Among Taipei's 20 remaining diplomatic allies, three countries neither spoke in its favor at the general debate nor communicated their support in writing. It was a bit like the “dreaded vote of confidence” from the board in football, only Taiwan received neither vote nor confidence.

In the case of Vatican City, this was fairly standard practice, as the Holy See rarely involves itself in such issues. That left the Dominican Republic and Guatemala standing petulantly on the sidelines.

“Each diplomatic ally is using a different approach to voice their support for Taiwan based on an evaluation of their own national interests,” explained Wang.

AP / 達志影像
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, arrives to the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

The problem is, the approach of these two Latin American nations does not even extend to fulfilling the bare minimum that Taipei might expect for perennial munificence. Foreign Minister David Lee (李大維) hinted as much in July when he was dispatched to Santo Domingo to assess the state of ties. The visit came in the wake of Panama's break with Taipei a month earlier, and Lee was uncharacteristically forthright in casting China's courtship of Taiwan's allies as “promises without solid fundamentals, like a check without funds.”

If Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) administration has indeed agreed to fund the highway, then Guatemala's continued reticence to back Taiwan is even more striking. Granted, this was the sixth consecutive year Guatemala stood on the sidelines, hands in pockets, innocently whistling. But this time, the tune acquired a grating dissonance, coming just weeks after the announcement of the alleged loan.

On the eve of the referendum, Taiwan remains coy whether it will fund the road. While admitting they were keeping an eye on proceedings in Guatemala, MOFA officials would not address the issue of the road. Phone calls were transferred between departments, and when a spokesman in the press office requested that the seemingly straightforward question of funding be submitted in written form to “avoid any misunderstanding,” e-mails remained unanswered.

There is a perversity about the name of the road: During a century of death squads and dictatorship, the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz represented a fleeting glimpse of light – the possibility of democracy and end to the poverty and disenfranchisement of the indigenous rural masses.

In the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, Morales has denied atrocities against ethnic Mayan groups.

He fronts a party that has assiduously worked to erase the memory of everything Arbenz stood for, yet latches onto a project bearing the name of his doomed predecessor, trumpeting it as “the greatest work” in his nation's history.

If Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) administration has indeed agreed to fund the highway, then Guatemala's continued reticence to back Taiwan is even more striking.

Should he succeed in roping Taiwan in for yet another handout, the aftertaste would be particularly bitter. Morales' National Convergence Front (FCN) party was founded by members of the Military Veterans Association of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), many of whom are associated with the worst excesses of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. Some of these men honed their craft at the notorious Political Warfare Cadres Academy at Fuxinggang (復興崗) in Taipei's Beitou District.

With low turnout recorded at the polls last night and civic organizations in some regions refusing to take part in what they see as “a waste of resources,” the referendum might be considered fairly insignificant to the lives of most Guatemalans. But with tensions over the matter running high between the governments on both sides and Belize poised to hold its own vote on the issue next year, Taiwan's involvement in this most sensitive of issues would be both politically inexpedient and ethically questionable.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston