Trinidad and Tobago: Your Hub in Latin America and the Caribbean

Trinidad and Tobago: Your Hub in Latin America and the Caribbean

The first group of Chinese immigrants to ever set foot on the island of Trinidad arrived on 12 October 1806 on a ship called Fortitude. They came from Macao, Penang and Canton, and the British colonials who received them imagined that they would establish themselves as farmers and laborers. But these inaugural immigrants displayed far more fortitude than their host country had expected, and before long, those who decided to remain on the island had forged their legacy and established themselves as butchers, shopkeepers, carpenters and market gardeners.

Ever ambitious and eager to succeed, a second wave of Chinese immigrants made their way to Trinidad from Guangdong Province – an area comprising Macao, Hong Kong and Canton at the time – during the period between 1853 and 1866, after the abolition of slavery. This movement was part of a larger, global migration from China to countries beyond Asia’s perimeters, including Australia, Canada, the United States, and various nations within the Caribbean. Some paid for their passage to the New World by offering their services as indentured laborers; others came independently, to seek their fortune.

And so it was for the third wave of immigrants from China between the 1920s and 1940s, who made the journey across the Pacific – often at the encouragement of family and friends who had already made a life for themselves – to the recently unified island nation, Trinidad and Tobago. This group, too, became successful merchants, peddlers, traders and shopkeepers.

All this time, Chinese immigrants had been bringing with them to the Caribbean island their unique customs, traditions, religion, games, and artifacts, but with the fourth and fifth “wave” of immigrants, this phenomenon became evident in a different arena: commerce.

By the 1970s, when China started opening up to the outside world, Chinese migration to Trinidad and Tobago picked up pace once again, and with China’s recent exposure to international trade and commerce came the arrival of a class of shopkeepers and businesspeople that, in some ways, can be seen as a precursor to the burgeoning growth in the import-export sphere that began a few decades later. 

Maria Lee, the founder of Trinidad and Tobago’s Chinese Arts and Culture Society and a respected businessperson in her own right, was among those who arrived in the fourth wave. Lee said that when she first arrived, her family set up a shop in San Fernando and began selling goods from China to the locals with surprising ease. Lee’s passion for the promotion of Chinese culture eventually led her to open the Chinese Arts and Culture Societyin 2011.  “The preservation of Chinese culture” was an endeavor which the then-Ambassador said was “important in the development of continuing harmonious relations between Trinidad and Tobago and China.”

And so the story of the Chinese in Trinidad and Tobago began, and with it, the start of a fruitful relationship. Though it has long been considered a mutually beneficial one, in recent years, China’s relations with Trinidad and Tobago have entered a new era, unsurpassed in the strength of the two nations’ diplomatic ties and, indeed, in their mutual economic interests too.       

China’s optimism in the region as a whole has been a major contributing factor to the strengthening of these ties. Its series of generous pledges of financial assistance to Latin American and Caribbean countries began in earnest in 2011, when Vice Premier Wang Qishan committed to a loan of US$ 1 billion for countries with membership to the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) during his visit to the Caribbean. The loan was intended to support local economic development, and was supplemented by a US$ 1 million donation to the CARICOM Fund.

Two years later, in 2013, President Xi Jinping announced a US$ 3 billion scheme for  concessional financing for Caribbean countries, half of which was allocated to preferential buyers’ credit, and the remainder to infrastructural development. An additional US$ 35 billion was pledged for infrastructural development projects for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)’s member nations.

According to Trinidad and Tobago embassy officials in China, the billions of dollars pledged in financial assistance to Latin American and Caribbean Countries will lead to “an intensification in trade, investment and tourism activities between China and LAC Countries, including Trinidad and Tobago.”

Such intensification has become increasingly evident in recent years, both in the public and private sectors. The largest scale example of private Chinese investment in the region is easily the construction of a shipping canal through Nicaragua, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. The HKND Group, the privately-held international infrastructure development firm headquartered in Hong Kongwhich is getting ready to implement the gargantuan project, estimates that the canal will cost US$ 50 billion and take five years to build. The firm’s Chairman and CEO, Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, told the BBC in a rare interview, “This canal is connecting East and West.”

This project is one example of how bullish state investment often causes private investors to follow suit, and if there’s one sector where investment from both China’s government and several state-owned enterprises has shown immense enthusiasm in the region, it is infrastructure.

But Chinese investment in Trinidad and Tobago goes far beyond infrastructure, too. “China has been deeply involved in development activities through trade, investment and other financial programs as well as technical cooperation in health care, sport, education, agriculture, science and technology and national security,” so said embassy officials  at an Investment Trade Fair in Lanzhou, Gansu Province in July 2015.

 “To help in making all of this happen, the following are some of the Chinese companies who have been operating in Trinidad and Tobago or are seriously thinking of going there to invest: Shanghai Construction, China Harbor, China Railway, Sinohydro, , TBEA, Shandong Weimer [and] Beijing Construction.”

The Caribbean nation, which is among the few countries in the region to have a primarily industrial economy, attributes its wealth to its large reserves and exploration of oil and natural gas. The country’s experience in the energy sector makes it an ideal location from which to harness the vast potential of the renewable energy market, too. With Chinese firms leading several innovations in this field, we can expect to see increased investment in this particular sector of Trinidad and Tobago’s economy. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago is already leading the trend to reduce greenhouse gases in this part of the world.

As far as energy is concerned an audience of would-be investors earlier this year in Lanzhou were informed that, “Trinidad and Tobago has been in this business for over one hundred years and our economy is still heavily dependent on this sector. We have played our part in contributing a healthier environment by producing large quantities of clean fuels by being second largest exporter of Methanol and a significant exporter of [Liquefied Natural Gas] LNG.”

According to the Oxford Business Group, which publishes investment and economic reports on over 30 countries, “The energy sector remains the backbone of T&T’s economy… accounting for 42% of GDP in 2014, 80% of exports from April 2013 to May 2014, and 34.8% of fiscal revenues for the period from October 2013 to September 2014.”

Trinidad and Tobago  is intent on reducing its (negligible) carbon footprint. “even though it accounts for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emission, the government remains committed to playing its part in achieving the stabilization of Carbon Dioxide levels consistent with the U.N. framework convention on climate change (UNFCO).”

The country was, in fact, referred to by the U.N. Secretary General as the “regional leader” in implementing the U.N. Post 2015 Development Agenda, and was congratulated for having surpassed several Millennium Development Goals after a recent CARICOM meeting in Barbados.

In addition to being an appealing choice of location for investment in the production of alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power, Trinidad and Tobago offers alluring incentives for investing in downstream energy-based industries, information and communications technology (ICT) services, agriculture, tourism (including health and eco-tourism), entertainment (including sports, leisure, entertainment and the film industry), financial services, manufacturing, and the creative industries.

With such commitment on Trinidad and Tobago's part to attracting Chinese investment. it is little wonder that the two countries celebrated 40 years of Diplomatic Relations. The countries  enjoy excellent relations, have celebrated deep historical and cultural ties and have  entered a new era of trade, investment and tourism promotion as well as technical cooperation.  It is clear that Trinidad and Tobago has become a pivotal partner for China in the Caribbean and, despite being a physically small island nation; it is run on very sturdy ground.

Trinidad and Tobago is the third richest country by GDP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita in the Americas after the United States and Canada. In addition, the country’s GDP per capita has grown continuously since 1990. It is recognized as a high income economy by the World Bank, and was ranked 37 out of 148 countries for the soundness of its banks in the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) of 2013. It boasts a 95.6% literacy rate, and the country’s availability of scientists and engineers puts it at 48th in the world as measured by the GCI. It is a stable democracy populated by talented people who continuously strive to improve. Indeed, the country places 61st in the World Bank ranking of all countries for the ease of doing business, which – when it comes down to it – is what investors are usually most interested in.

Foreign investors in Trinidad and Tobago can open a business in just three days with the assistance of the government’s investment arms, National Energy and InvesTT, which endeavors to “ensure that you possess all the knowledge, tools, linkages and facilitation your organization needs to efficiently navigate the way to new business opportunities in our nation. Foreign investors are allowed to own 100% of their business, and to purchase up to one acre of land for residential purposes, and up to 5 acres for trade or business purposes, without requiring a license to do so. 100% of business profits can be repatriated, and up to 30% of the share capital of a local public company owned, without a license.

As far as the country’s currency is concerned, the last 20 years have seen the Trinidad and Tobago dollar remain very stable as a free floating currency. The fact that it is based on a floating peg system to the US dollar means that foreign exchange risks are significantly reduced. The Oxford Business Group stated in their extensive publication, The Report: Trinidad and Tobago 2015, “The country’s low debt ratio, substantial foreign reserves and the momentum provided by major infrastructure projects should ensure stability in 2015 and beyond.”

Latin America, the Caribbean, and Trinidad and Tobago in particular, have a lot to offer both China and the various other countries in the swathe of land that currently comprises the Belt and Road’s expanse. Trinidad and Tobago, once a small but promising outpost to which Chinese immigrants travelled to improve their fortunes has established itself as a well-connected and integral player in the global economy, and embassy officials  are well aware of the value – and the effects – of global connectivity. Officials are quoted as saying “In this truly globalized world, everything that takes place along the One Belt and One Road…will impact the rest of us regardless how far removed we are, physically, from this region.”

The embassy has further stated that  “Trinidad and Tobago is open for business and is ready to welcome Chinese business people  with the red carpet treatment.” And, whether or not there is a single Belt and Road along which to spread the proverbial red carpet, Trinidad and Tobago will do whatever it takes to make sure it is extended to China.

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