by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
A RECENT VISIT to Taiwan last week by Paraguayan president Mario Abdo Benitez saw Abdo emphasize that breaking ties between Taiwan and Paraguay would be a “historic mistake”. Namely, Paraguay is one of Taiwan’s 14 remaining diplomatic allies, and it’s only South American ally. However, the Abdo visit takes place ahead of Paraguayan presidential elections in April, leading to questions about whether Abdo’s successor will switch recognition to China.
Abdo will not be running for reelection on behalf of the Colorado Party he represents, seeing as he has reached the end of his five-year term. Yet the candidate for the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party, Pedro Efraín Alegre Sasiain, has stated that he intends to switch recognition to China if he wins. By contrast, the Colorado Party candidate, Santiago Pena, has stated that he will maintain ties with Taiwan.
Publicity image of Tsai Ing-wen (right) and Mario Abdo Benitez (left). Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
In his comments in Taiwan, Abdo cited the longstanding nature of the relationship between the ROC and Paraguay, with more than 65 years of ties. Abdo touted how Paraguay is a growing trading partner of Taiwan when it comes to beef, with beef imports from Paraguay to Taiwan increasing from 35 million USD in 2018 to 240 million USD in 2022. Beef is one of Paraguay’s major industries, along with corn and maize, and Abdo stated that he hoped to see Taiwan open up its market to poultry imports from Paraguay as well. To this extent, Abdo asserted that Paraguay serves as a key entry point for Taiwanese businesses into South America.
As with Taiwan’s other diplomatic allies, Taiwan dwarfs Paraguay in terms of the size of its population and GDP. Paraguay has a population of 6.704 million compared to Taiwan’s 23 million and its nominal GDP is around 15% of Taiwan’s. Aid funding to Paraguay from Taiwan is around 1% of Paraguay’s GDP.
Yet Paraguay is one of the diplomatic allies that Taiwan maintains with a questionable human rights record. Paraguayan police are well-known for corruption and have been accused of violence against Indigenous, LGBTQ groups, and others. The Colorado Party has held power for most of the past 77 years, only losing power for five years between 2008 and 2013. This makes the party reminiscent of the KMT when it ruled over Taiwan during the White Terror, as Taiwan’s sole permitted party.
To this extent, as with other countries with questionable human rights records that Taiwan maintains ties with, Taiwan has been accused of “dollar diplomacy.” The term refers to paying off local politicians in return for diplomatic recognition. In September 2022, the Financial Times reported that Abdo had requested 1 billion USD in investment for the country to continue to maintain ties with Taiwan. Abdo later denied this report.
But Abdo’s last-minute visit to Taiwan recalls the November 2021 trip to Taiwan by then-Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez. The Hernandez visit also took place shortly before the Honduran presidential elections, with opposition candidate Xiomara Castro of the Liberty and Refoundation Party promising to switch recognition to China if elected. Castro, as with Alegre, likely is eyeing China’s larger market compared to Taiwan’s.
Hernandez may have been hoping to use a show of strong ties with Taiwan for campaigning. This may also be the case with Abdo, then.
Hernandez’ National Party, too, has presided over numerous human rights abuses including the political persecution of journalists, corruption, and repression of human rights defenders. Taiwan recognized Hernandez as president of Honduras in spite of the fact that the 2017 Honduran election that resulted in his election was viewed internationally as stolen–ironic, particularly given the history of stolen elections in Taiwan at the hands of the KMT. This proves another case in which Taiwan has aligned itself with a political regime with a questionable human rights record.
Nevertheless, one notes that after Castro’s victory, she reversed course on her campaign promise to break ties with Taiwan. Whether Honduras breaks ties with Taiwan continues to be an open question, with her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, still publicly floating the idea. Yet it is probable that Castro backed down from the idea because of fears that this could lead to interference from the US. Paraguay may also be cautious of the US seeking to pressure it if it switched ties to China, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being the first acting Secretary of State to visit Paraguay in over fifty years in 2019.
As such, it is not impossible that Alegre also eventually swerves from his current campaign promise. Either way, whether or not this takes place, as with Honduras, this proves another case in which Taiwan has aligned itself with a right-wing regime with a questionable human rights record for the sake of maintaining its few remaining diplomatic allies.