Port-au-Prince needs a makeover. Can China be the answer?
As the Dominican Republic continues to warm up to its newfound friends in China after breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan last year, the president of Taiwan is looking to shore up her country’s few remaining Caribbean allies, beginning with a visit to Haiti on Saturday.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who left Taipei on Thursday for her 12-day, four-country state visit with transit stops through the United States, plans to spend about four hours in Port-au-Prince. While there, she will meet with members of the business community and join President Jovenel Moïse in officially opening the Taiwan product exhibition, featuring Taiwanese companies interested in the Haitian market for production.
Following her Haiti visit, Tsai will jet off to the eastern Caribbean. She’s scheduled to spend four days in St. Kitts and Nevis, followed by visits to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia. Like Haiti, all three former British colonies continue to recognize Taiwan over China.
Tsai’s visit comes as the U.S. and China continue to engage in a trade war, and as the Trump administration and some members of Congress voice concerns about China’s commercial expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean. Last year, the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s next door neighbor, ditched Taiwan after 77 years of diplomatic ties. The move followed similar decisions by El Salvador months earlier, and Panama in 2017.
Jeronimo Lectora, an international export market developer and researcher who has been following China’s inroads into the region, said that while Tsai’s visit won’t have much impact on the overall geopolitics in the Caribbean, it can certainly be a boost for the small island economies she’s visiting and trying to keep from defecting to China.
“There is a tit-for-tat between the U.S. and China in the Caribbean,” said Lectora, noting that three days after President Trump met with Dominican President Danilo Medina and four other Caribbean leaders at his Mar-a-Largo resort in March, Medina welcomed Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and a delegation to Santo Domingo.
“We have an economic cold war in the Caribbean, and it’s a silent cold war, which typically starts slow and under the radar while moving steadily,” Lectora said.
Indeed, ahead of the Trump Mar-a-Largo meeting with Medina and the leaders of Haiti, Jamaica, Bahamas and St. Lucia, the White House said one of its aims was to “counter China’s predatory economic practices.” And though Caribbean leaders said China did not come up in their conversations with Trump, Beijing was raised in a press briefing beforehand and by Florida lawmaker Marco Rubio in a visit to Haiti with Moise ahead of the meeting.
Moise, who has been the target of ongoing protests demanding his ouster, last year faced intense pressure from some Haitians, including members of his inner circle, to cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. So far, he’s resisted, putting on hold a potential Chinese-financed project to revitalize Port-au-Prince.
In a tweet, Rubio, who has continued to warn Haiti about China, said: “I don’t believe #Haiti will make the same mistake the Dominican Republic made & cut ties with #Taiwan because #China has cheated them out of money in the past & because it would inflict real & immediate damage on the U.S. relationship with Haitian govt.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald on Tsai’s visit, Rubio said while he’s certain that the Chinese government doesn’t like Tsai’s state visit to the region and transit through the U.S., he doesn’t have a problem with it. In fact, he wants the U.S. to have a closer relationship with Taiwan, and allowing Tsai to stay in the U.S. for longer periods of time is a positive step.
“I hope that we become friendlier to Taiwan. It’s very simple. They don’t want to live under a communist dictatorship and they’ve seen what happens with Hong Kong, for example.,” he said.
Rubio, who leads the Senate Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he’s talked with the White House about Taiwan recently.
“We’ve asked them a number of times to send higher-level delegations to Taiwan from the administration and I think they’ve begun to do some of that. And I hope that her stay and the visits while she’s here that she’ll get the chance to meet with some people as well that will continue to highlight our commitment to the people of Taiwan and to their freedom.”
St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said his nation considers the ongoing dispute between China and Taiwan to be “a family fight that’s taking place.”
“We do recognize that Taiwan remains in control of its economic space. It has its own currency, it has its own elections, its own national airlines and controls its own air space,” said Chastanet, who also currently serves as chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community, Caricom. “Until the dispute until China and Taiwan is resolved, Taiwan should be part of the international agencies that we have....But that does not mean we’re going to have an adversarial relationship with China.”
While St. Lucia does have some Chinese investments and doesn’t require visas for Chinese visiting the island, Chastanet said his administration is focused on strengthening its relationship with Taiwan by getting its businesses to invest in St. Lucia and using the relationship to take advantage of St. Lucia’s proximity to western markets. Accompanying Tsai, Chastanet said, will be several different Taiwanese business people in the areas of manufacturing, tourism and agro-processing.
Mark Brantley, who serves as St. Kitts and Nevis’ minister of foreign affairs and aviation, said his island federation welcomes Tsai’s first visit to the country, and the first of any Taiwanese president to Nevis. Brantley also serves as premier of Nevis.
“Taiwan continues to be the greatest friend to St. Kitts and Nevis internationally,” he said. “We see this visit as a further concrete demonstration of both nations’ commitment to this relationship which has been enjoyed now for 35 years.”
Brantley said Tsai isn’t expected to make any significant announcements during her four-day stay, but she will break ground on a national park in Nevis, which will symbolize the lasting “friendships between our two people.”
In Haiti, where three Taiwanese companies have invested in the garment sector and the country has long provided assistance to rice farmers in the Artibonite, Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond billed Tsai’s visit as a follow-up to the visit by Moïse in May of last year. Though many had high hopes for the state visit at the time, not much came out of it. Weeks prior to Moïse’s arrival, and on the heels of the Dominican Republic move, Tsai’s government had announced that it would give Haiti a $150 million low-interest loan for its rural power grids.
A year later, however, Haiti still doesn’t have the money and Tsai isn’t expected to come with a check because the Haitian parliament still has not voted on the agreement, Edmond said.
“I think the president intends to relay [this] in his speech and certainly invite our fellow Haitians at the Parliament to take a good look at the importance of such a project for the renovation of the metropolitan electrical grid,” he added. “The visit, even though its short... is of paramount importance for our bilateral relations.”