ALMOST one year ago, a press conference was convened to report on an eight-member delegation that Prime Minister Dr. Anthony had spearheaded on a four-day goodwill trip to Taiwan. A crucial aspect of that press conference has prompted me to write this piece.
Notwithstanding the encouraging talks that officials from both countries were able to engage in at the time, I wanted to know what the Prime Minister’s take was on the possibilities that might exist between Saint Lucia and Taiwan as it relates to tourism. My question posed to the Prime Minister then hinged on the fact that the United States had made it easier for Taiwanese to visit that country – visa-free — which ostensibly had inherent advantages for Saint Lucia’s tourism sector. Dr. Anthony explained that the tourism aspect between Saint Lucia and Taiwan did come up. He said the matter was probed and discussed with Taiwanese officials. He even indicated that just a few weeks earlier a cruise vessel visiting Port Castries had many Taiwanese passengers onboard, adding that he thought that it was “a good hint of what is possible: that since Taiwanese tourists would be keen on holidaying on cruise ships that we need to encourage them to come to the Caribbean and possibly Saint Lucia.” Nevertheless, Dr. Anthony pointed out that there was a crucial element lacking in that equation that needed to be resolved. He said it best in the following explanation:
“Saint Lucia is yet to have a presence in Taiwan in the minds of the people of Taiwan. They have diplomatic relations with this island along with some other islands in the Caribbean. But to say that there’s a presence, that people know about Saint Lucia (and) they’re familiar with Saint Lucia, the answer is no. So it’s not a clear sense of what we can offer. What we need to do is to begin to build on that relationship and establish some kind of presence beyond the diplomatic boundaries that exist in the minds of ordinary citizens of the Republic of China (Taiwan).”
The Prime Minister is correct. Presently, Saint Lucia has no embassy in Taiwan despite having re-established diplomatic ties with that Asian nation seven and a half years ago. At that press conference, Dr. Anthony explained the hardships Saint Lucian students he met on his visit to Taiwan encountered whenever they needed basic services such as renewing their passports. At this time last year, there were about 70 Saint Lucians on Taiwanese scholarships. They, too, felt the need to have an embassy set up in Taiwan to ease their frustrations.
Currently, the only OECS country that has its own embassy in Taiwan is Saint Kitts and Nevis. While Taiwan is recognized by just 22 countries, only 20 of them have embassies in Taiwan. Nevertheless, an additional 50 countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan have set up trade offices and other unofficial offices there. Dr. Anthony explained that he did indicate to the students that while Saint Lucia was experiencing a very difficult period, “we will consider and see what is possible with the support of the Republic of China (Taiwan). But at the moment I cannot make any such commitment.”
As it stands now, Taiwan seems to be Saint Lucia’s most formidable ally. Hardly a day goes by without consideration being given to Saint Lucia by that country towards strengthening the existing ties between the two nations. Just this week Saint Lucia received over $5 million in funding from Taiwan to be spent on developing the infrastructural landscape of the island’s 17 constituencies. The total commitment to the Constituency Development Programme by the Taiwanese for this year alone stands at $18 million and by this year-end, a total of 375 such projects would have been completed since 2012. Added to the scholarships and other funding for various aspects of our island’s development, these generous donations really do have a meaningful impact.
I have always maintained that a true friend is not someone who forces you to do something but rather one who encourages you to. While I’m sure that the Taiwanese officials – as does Dr. Anthony – see the need for concretizing an already solid relationship by having a Saint Lucian presence in Taiwan, I seriously doubt that very much attention is being paid to the suggestion. During my one-week visit to Taiwan last March, I – along with other journalists from Taiwan-friendly nations – saw a myriad of opportunities that exist there from which our countries can benefit. We saw opportunities in the manufacturing, tourism, health, agriculture, cultural and sports sectors, to name a few. But I was personally embarrassed when my media colleague from Saint Kitts-Nevis, Clement Ogarra, kept asking me for reasons why Saint Lucia did not have an embassy in Taiwan while his country does.
Okay, here’s the thing. Since Saint Kitts and Nevis already has an embassy in Taiwan, it would serve us a great deal of good if we negotiated with that sister OECS country to consolidate our resources and have a joint embassy there. While we’re at it, the OECS collective can decide to have a collective office there and just hire a few more staffers. Just last week, a returning Saint Lucian student who studied in Taiwan told me that Saint Lucian students have to resort to seeking assistance from the Saint Kitts and Nevis embassy in Taiwan whenever they encounter difficulties. Even though the official there “digs horrors” at times, he told me, the students are assisted. That speaks to the kind of OECS unity that goes beyond our regional borders and God bless Saint Kitts and Nevis for showing some initiative and care.
With a Saint Lucian – or even OECS embassy in Taiwan, the possibilities are endless. Such a direct link with the various sectors in Taiwan would give our sister OECS territories a crucial advantage in the Asian marketplace. Not only that – it will also give us some form of legitimacy to stand up and be counted by not just depending on people to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves however generous their love gifts to us are. Besides, for the level of support these islands get from Taiwan, it would stand to reason that we plough some of it back as testimony to our seriousness both in terms of strengthening our ties and refining our developmental focus.
At the risk again of telling the government what it should do that the last couldn’t care to do, how about the construction of a Saint Lucia-Taiwan Friendship Park somewhere on the island? A place where people can go and relax and appreciate the aesthetics of both Taiwanese and Saint Lucian culture? As small as this country is, there must be some open space or already-existing dilapidated park somewhere that’s due for a facelift. I’m sure that many Saint Lucians would welcome such a gesture.
As we speak, New York Democrat, Eliot Engel, the ranking minority member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is making a great push to have a greater U.S. presence in the Caribbean. Engel recently lamented the U.S.’s “sparse diplomatic presence” in the region, adding that such a situation “significantly impedes our ability to engage more deeply with our partners.”
In his quest, Engel went as far as introducing the United States-Caribbean Partnership Act of 2014 in the House of Representatives aimed at establishing U.S. embassies in five Caribbean countries with which the U.S. has diplomatic relations but no permanent diplomatic presence. These countries are Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and – get this – Saint Lucia. Immediately, one can well imagine how relieved citizens from those five islands would be to know that they would no longer have to find their way to Barbados for U.S. visas.
There comes a point in our lives when we need to analyze just who our friends are. Such analysis should also guide our approach as to how we treat them. Especially in this era of globalization, keeping our allies close means that we need to quit meeting them halfway but rather going the distance with them. Taiwan might well be thousands of miles away from Saint Lucia but – like them – we need to demonstrate our willingness to close that gap – both on a diplomatic and cordial level.
Sometimes we need to take a hint.