With Taiwan gearing-up to this weekend observe the Centenary of its annual ‘Ten-Ten’ celebrations just as the new Saint Lucia government approaches its first 100 Days in office, it’s appropriate to revisit a brief history of direct ties between Saint Lucia and Taiwan, with emphasis on how historical factors have shaped current ties and how Castries and Taipei can each do more to make the decades-old relationship more beneficial and meaningful to both sides in 2021 — as well as in 2022 and beyond. The first part looks at the history of ties, the second will look at where ties are now and the third will look forward to what can be, if both sides agree.
Saint Lucia negotiated its independence from Britain and gained that constitutional status on February 22, 1979, a date with no root in the island’s history.
No wars were fought and no one died as there was no fight or battle, no War of Independence, even though there had been many slave rebellions, including in 1796 (following the French revolution and before the 1804 Haitian Revolution) through the battle at Morne Fortune that resulted in the defeat of Britain’s legendary ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ by freedom fighters who’d established a republic. The freedom fighters were eventually defeated by a combined force of as many as 17,000 British and French troops, who recapture the island to restore colonial rule.
Ties between Saint Lucia and Taiwan were first established in 1983 –38 years ago — but directly shared for 29 years (1983-1997 and from 2007 to now) and have been mainly on the quiet side. The first 14 years saw ties develop mainly along diplomatic lines, Saint Lucia – under successive United Workers Party (UWP) administrations — annually supporting Taiwan’s bids for membership of the United Nations (UN) in return for negotiated benefits.
When ties were first almost four decades ago, Saint Lucia was still encompassed in the tumultuous and divisive domestic partisan political uproars before and after Independence had been politicized in a partisan way ahead of General Elections.
The first general Elections after Independence came less than five months later, resulting in the UWP scoring the unenviable record of the shortest time in office by any government in all the ten national polls since 1979.
By 1997, the island had been through six General Elections in 18 years and Taiwan became a national topic that year after the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP), led by Dr Kenny D. Anthony, returned to office with a landslide 16-1 victory.
But that was also the year then foreign Affairs Minister George Odlum announced, through a news item on Radio Saint Lucia (RSL) from New York, that Saint Lucia had broken ties with Taiwan. Odlum was attending the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting that September and the news took the nation – including the government – by storm.
Ties would be restored 10 years later in 2007, again in controversial circumstances, this time a Palace Coup against then Prime Minister Sir John Compton that saw eight of the UWP’s eleven elected parliamentarians vote – unknown to Compton — in favour of re-establishing ties with Taiwan.
The four years between 2007 to 2011 would record more controversies involving Taiwan than ever imagined, most (if not all) having to do with the mishandling of funds provided by Taipei under the then UWP administration (particularly following Compton’s death in 2007).
During that time, millions of dollars were funnelled from Taiwan to Cabinet Ministers and MPs belonging to the so-called ‘Super 8’, through channels considered inappropriate and irregular, if not illegal, bypassing the Consolidated Fund and deposited in accounts beyond the purview of the Finance Ministry.
Apart from alleged direct payments to MPs who voted for Taiwan, mechanisms were developed at constituency and community levels for similar disbursements through different channels that led more to pockets and private accounts than to any activity to directly benefit constituents.
The SLP returned to office in 2011 and instead of breaking with Taiwan as widely anticipated and predicted, PM Anthony opted to continue to engage Taipei, leading to a cooperative relationship that fixed the broken and crooked aspects of funding assistance that facilitated UWP politicians unconcerned about Transparency or Accountability.
For example, between 2011 and 2016, every cheque received from Taiwan for the Constituency Development Program (CDP) was delivered in a public activity attended by the Prime Minister and the press, with the Accountant General also present, to collect the cheque and deposit it into the Consolidated Fund.
During that period too, the Labour administration mounted an official inquiry (including a Forensic Audit) that revealed an endless string of financing mechanisms, accompanied by copies of cheques and transactions involving then UWP Cabinet Ministers and MPs setting-up dummy accounts for transfer and receipt of the funds being pipelined from Taipei.
The millions paid and received in those annual donations were considered paybacks to those who made the re-establishment of ties with Taipei possible, but PM Anthony treated it as improper use of donated funds from an ally that could have better helped Saint Lucians generally if channelled through the Consolidated fund.
The intent at the time was to use the findings (of the inquiry and the audit) not only to expose what had gone down during the preceding administration, but also to prosecute those found guilty.
But with the wheels of justice spinning no faster than usual, the 2016 General Elections came before any of the prepared cases were heard by the judiciary– and the new government, led by some of the leading accused, simply withdrew the cases.
As if to mock the efforts to introduce transparency and accountability in the handling of Taiwanese financial assistance to Saint Lucia, the new UWP administration (after June 2016) didn’t waste time creating new mechanisms to return to the old ways of keeping Taiwanese money flowing invisibly.
It started with abrupt cancellation by the new government of advanced plans for the commissioning of the reconstructed St. Jude Hospital and planned expansion of the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA), thereby creating new avenues for more financing.
Untold millions were sought – and got – for construction of another ‘new’ hospital (next to the over-90% completed one), as well as an addition of $75 million to the original ($100 million) cost of the ‘new’ HIA project, to replace that already-okayed through an already-financed project under the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The inherited policy of ensuring Taiwanese funds were channelled through the Consolidated Fund and publicizing amounts received was frozen, if not totally abandoned; and the CDP project returned to one of financing projects through arrangements that largely benefitted party operatives in the construction and supplies businesses more than the communities, constituencies and constituents. Indeed, ahead of the 2016 election, Taiwan was milked of every available cent that would make sense for the UWP’s chances, while the SLP looked-on with amazing bewilderment.
But alas, nothing is ever enough to change voters’ minds when the majority have decided for Regime Change, which came on July 26, 2021. The new administration sworn-in on August 17 inherited Taiwan ties, once again, shaped by controversy over handling of finance, especially assistance, whether by way of grants or loans, contributions or donations.
Handling of projects involving Taiwanese taxpayers’ dollars under the previous administration (like rebuilding another ‘new’ St. Jude and the extended HIA project from US $100 million to US $175 Million) had attracted fierce public criticism between 2016 and 2021 and indeed played a role in how many voters voted on July 26.
The defeat of the ex-Minister for Economic Development was also treated as a vote on his handling of projects involving Taiwanese funds – particularly St. Jude and the HIA, but also other construction-related projects under his purview.
But perhaps the one cancellation by the previous government of a project involving Taiwanese funding was the decision to decommission the completed Beausejour (Vieux Fort) Meat Processing Facility (MPF) constructed with Taiwanese finance costing over $20 million, to make way for a controversial Malaysian-owned Asian horse-racing project agreed to after the MPF had already been completed. Livestock farmers protested unsuccessfully, as the then government insisted the facility could not coexist with the horseracing track if the latter was to be successful.
COVID cancelled all the horseracing events and the racetrack has remained unutilized for over a year – and the equipped MPF remained unused, while the government worked on relocating it. With the Anthony administration’s example (of how to handle Taiwanese assistance) and that of the Allen Chastanet approach both available for comparison last July, voters were able to compare.
The fourth consecutive vote for Regime Change in 20 years that came in July was not surprising, even to the Americans, US State department officials publicly speculating a Pierre victory would have resulted in another break in Ties with Taipei.
But in exactly three months, at the very beginning of the usually slow transition (from one administration to another), the new Prime Minister made it clear he and the SLP had again opted to engage instead of disengaging with Taipei.
Courted by Taipei from Day One after the SLP’s 13-4 victory (that in effect turned out to be a 15-2 parliamentary majority), the new administration opted to put politicization of foreign policy on the back burner while prioritizing the ongoing battle against the inherited effects of the entry of the Delta variant of the COVID pandemic.
On the same day that parliamentarians were sworn-in (and before the new Cabinet’s first meeting), Prime Minister Pierre indicated the island’s foreign policy under his watch would be based on ‘non-interference’ in other nations’ affairs — and more non-aligned than associated with any global power.
His first foreign policy announcement was full reengagement with Venezuela — and withdrawal from the so-called Lima Group of pro-US Latin American and Caribbean administrations belonging to the Organization of American States (OAS) that slavishly applied Washington’s policy of interference in Caracas’ internal affairs.
Venezuela had enjoyed best of friendly ties with Saint Lucia from 1979 when Caracas was the first to establish diplomatic ties after independence from Britain and ties deepened under successive Anthony administrations from 2000 under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro.
Pierre had also served repeatedly as Acting and Deputy SLP Leader and was the only Deputy Prime Minister to hold the post since it was formally created by Anthony after 2011. The new PM was therefore very present and fully aware of the ins-and-outs, ups-and-downs and highs-and-lows of pre- and-post 21st Century Saint Lucia ties with Taiwan.
Pierre silently constructed his Taiwan policy while others speculated, keeping all under his belt until his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 25, two months to-the-day after his party won the elections.
Eyes and ears of the world fixed on him, the new Saint Lucia Prime Minister and SLP Leader, like his predecessor (Dr Anthony) in 2012, again disappointed those who’d predicted he would have severed ties with Taipei.
Unlike Belize, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the mathematician and accountant in the new Saint Lucia Prime Minister was traditionally economical in words, but he said no less than his counterparts in support of Taiwan continuing to play a role in the world.
If only by his related silence, it’s crystal clear that PM Pierre does not wish to engage or interfere in the longstanding and ongoing related political battles between the mainland and the island, which he apparently prefers to see as a fundamental and unfathomable, but deeply disagreeable internal affair between two sides of one family, divided by a narrow stretch of water.
Pierre made it abundantly clear during the 2021 elections campaign that he would be a ‘Servant Leader’, a ‘Prime Minister for All’ who would not allow constituency boundaries (marked by roads, rivers and land borders) to affect his intent to ensure all citizens are served by his administration, whether they voted SLP or not.
Same with his approach to ties with Taiwan, which, like under Dr Anthony, don’t seem to be guided as much by the SLP’s own bilateral political ties as by the need to again fix broken modules and introduce a sense of transparency and accountability in how Taiwan’s taxpayers’ dollars and cents are spent in Saint Lucia.