Over the weekend, the world press went into a frenzy over a mere telephone call – a simple congratulatory exchange between the U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump, and the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen. Judging by the Western media reaction, you might think the global order were about to collapse.
Vox called their discussion "a blunder of potentially historic proportions." The BBC led with "Trump-Taiwan call breaks U.S. policy stance", followed with statements including "this move will turn concern into alarm and anger." The Guardian carried the headline: "Trump's phone call with Taiwan president risks China's wrath." The Conversation asked if the call "could lead to war." The Huffington Post ended its report with a tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.: "These are major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan. That's how wars start."
The overall general consensus was that some kind of "diplomatic crisis" in Sino-U.S. relations was imminent, whether an exchange of wrath and bluster or a major catastrophe. What really happened, though, was that most media outlets simply parroted each other, reiterating over and over that the call had seriously upset China – much of them before China had issued any formal response.
So, what was all the fuss about? To recap with a level head, the U.S. president-elect accepted a call from an elected counterpart who wanted to pass on her congratulations, a routine practice among most heads of states. Taiwanese-U.S. relations have been an exception in this regard, and this call was the first time that a U.S. president (either incumbent or in-waiting) has done such a thing since Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic relations with the island in 1979.
But while none of Carter's five presidential successors took a call of congratulations from a Taiwanese premier nor spoke to one in an official capacity, all five permitted arms sales to Taiwan (as Trump himself tweeted). And more than that: Ronald Reagan ushered in the Six Assurances, a set of principles agreed with Taipei for conducting relations, and reportedly pondered resuming official relations. Bill Clinton sent the Seventh Fleet to the region during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in March 1996, sending a clear message to China that the United States would honor its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, the Carter-era law intended to set out what the United States and Taiwan can and can't do together.
While certainly not overjoyed, Beijing's response to the news was less than livid. According to Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, the official line out of China was that the call was a "petty trick" on the part of Taiwan, and that Sino-American relations would not be "interfered with or damaged" (see here for a Chinese version).
So would it be fair to call the international media's "overreaction" unhelpful? John Pomfret, writing for the Washington Post, thinks so:
After the phone conversation Friday, the eruption of criticism was deafening. The fear of a Chinese response was palpable. To defend himself, Trump tweeted that Tsai "CALLED ME" ... But the hyperventilation and Trump's placing responsibility for the call on Tsai's shoulders play into China's hand.
Yet, in spite of this, plenty of reports on the incident relayed the same straight-out-of-Beijing message that "Taiwan is considered to be a renegade province", or some variation on that theme. The Western press has begun to normalize the Chinese Communist Party's narrative that Taiwan "broke away from mainland China in 1949", and that Beijing "sees Taiwan as a province", or this incident will "almost certainly infuriate Beijing".
On that last point at least, they aren't necessarily wrong – but the Chinese leadership didn't really need to say anything, as the international media eagerly spoke for it.
As Michael Turton, a commentator in Taiwan, argued, the international media "serves Beijing" by claiming Trump and Taiwan's actions were "provocative" and "sure to anger Beijing." It would be better, he said, if the world's press would simply report what happened. Turton contends that when nothing happens aside from the usual rhetoric, "the media never reports: nothing happened." This in turn creates an environment where uninformed readers assume that "things have gone to hell," when the reality is in fact quite the opposite.
There is of course another factor here, one entirely distinct from Taiwan's situation: the clown-like behavior of Trump himself. The press is right to highlight his cavalier attitude and inexperience, but in their hurry to show him for what he is, they have wrongly implicated Taiwan in the post-election pantomime.
Whereas Trump stormed to the presidency in an atmosphere of "post-truth" backed by the racist radicals of the "alt-right", Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen was elected by a majority on a liberal and progressive mandate. She is currently using that mandate to push for legal same-sex marriage; hers would be the first government in Asia to legalize it. Trump and his vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, could learn a lot from a longer phone call with Taipei, or even – dare I say – from a state visit.
But instead of reflecting on the constructive potential of engaging with Taiwan, many chose to fixate on the potential conflict of interest involving Trump's possible hotel investment at the Taoyuan Aerotropolis development. This habit of looking at Taiwan through the prism of U.S. politics was on full display in a New Yorker piece recounting how news of the call was "applauded by a subset of conservative Asia specialists who have long pushed for the U.S. to draw closer to Taiwan."
Many on the American left have long viewed the idea of closer relations with Taiwan as a conservative issue. To wit, Counterpunch ran an article claiming that since the 1940s, advocating for Taiwan has been "a code for mounting America's most extreme reactionary policies, domestic and foreign." The Cold War is over – and yet the American left remains suspicious of the motives behind any professed pro-Taiwanese sentiment.
As for the the reaction in Taiwan, it pays to focus on an article in the Taiwanese Liberty Times, which explained how multiple news agencies had translated Trump's arms sales tweet in different ways and with varying consequences. The Taiwanese government pointed this out itself; rather than getting dragged into the debate on Sino-American friction, the spokesperson for the Taiwanese Presidential Office, Alex Huang, chose instead to focus on the need "to strengthen the foundation of English education in Taiwan" to counter the multitude of translations.
It was a dignified side-step – but it could only achieve so much. Between Beijing's firm and collected response, Trump's feckless tweets, and the international media's frenzied catastrophizing, Taiwan could not escape being caught in the crossfire. And yet, besides the phone call itself, nothing in fact happened.
When Zenaida Pantaleón left Cuba, she and her husband, a Mexican citizen, lost her home and business.
Now 94, the great-grandmother, who uses a wheelchair, has no expectations of reclaiming those assets.
"That was a lifetime ago," she says, hopeful that Cuba has a better future. "I have never returned, but my daughter went back 30 years ago. She says a doctor and his family are living in the home and have taken good care of it."
Having spent half a century in Mexico, she has raised her daughter and seen her grandchildren become adults with their own families.
Her serene attitude toward her losses as the Cuban Revolution became communist is not shared by all who have legal claims, or may have legal claims, to properties seized by the Cuban state.
"We believe that the absence of Fidel Castro will facilitate the adoption, by part of his brother, of economic and social policies of greater opening, assuming forward steps in negotiations with the U.S.," an "Extraordinary Communique" from the 1898 CRP issued this month, stated.
The 1898 CRP, or 1898 Compañía de Recuperaciones Patrimonales, based in Spain, specializes in stating claims for individuals whose assets were seized by the Cuban state. They currently represent 280 families whose claims exceed $1.8 billion.
Do individuals have a claim?
Before that can be answered, it's important to distinguish between companies and individuals. American companies that had their assets seized—from Citibank to Hilton Hotels—have long registered their losses with the appropriate authorities. Some, such as Bacardi Rum, have successfully sued—and won—for trademark violations.
But what of individuals, the people who lost their homes, their companies, their interests?
Zenaida Pantaleón's husband, Rafael Romero, also owned a secretarial school, where, in the 1950s, young women learned typing, stenography, dictation, filing and operating telex machines. That business was shut down and the building was seized. Currently it is being used as a Communist Party office.
For these individuals, it's complicated. The Cuban government's official position is that everyone who left did so voluntarily and abandoned their property. The position is that the Cuban state has a responsibility to occupy abandoned property and make use of it for the benefit of the community.
In reality, however, the Cuban government formally accepted a responsibility to reimburse individuals and companies whose properties and assets were seized.
Cuba, being pragmatic, wants to work with other countries for better relations. In fact, Cuba entered into an agreement with Spain in 1986 in which it established a fund to reimburse Cubans exiled in Spain for their assets seized in Cuba after the Revolution. The 1986 agreement stipulated that Cuba would pay, over a period of 15 years, almost $40 million in compensation for seized assets to Cubans who are also Spanish citizens. It is an imperfect agreement—and some Cuban families were excluded by name from this agreement—but it marked the first time Cuba accepted an obligation to Cuban exiles.
As for claims against Cuba by U.S. citizens and corporations, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an independent agency at the Department of Justice, has almost 9,000 applications against Cuba on file. While most of these are by American corporations, including Coca-Cola, Citibank and Colgate-Palmolive, there are thousands of individuals who lost businesses, homes and other properties after the revolution. Almost 6,000 of these claims had been certified as valid by 1971. The value, at the time, was $1.9 billion, which, with interest, is estimated to be $8 billion today.
With Fidel Castro's death, there is renewed interest in asserting claims and wondering if the "next step" in improved U.S.-Cuba relations is the establishment of a mechanism for settling claims.
In Miami's Little Havana—and swank Coral Gables—Cuban-Americans are rethinking what claims there might be.
"The original owners are either dead, or very old," María Linero, whose family fled in 1960, says. "It's unrealistic for someone who left Cuba in 1961 to go back and reclaim anything."
What happened in Cuba—a revolution that seized assets of the vanquished and the bourgeois—is familiar enough. It also happened in East Germany, Nicaragua, China and Vietnam. In each of these cases there was a mechanism for processing claims and settling outstanding issues. In the case of East Germany, the German government took it upon itself to track down owners—or their heirs—and reach a settlement, an incredible task given the decades that had elapsed.
When the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the time was short enough to be able to process claims quickly. For Vietnamese overseas, there were stringent requirements for those who sought physical possession of their properties, and so far only a handful successfully reclaimed their lost properties. The Vietnam War ended in 1975 and over 1 million refugees fled overseas.
It's unclear what process might work for the Cuban situation.
Zenaida Pantaleón's grandchildren, who are adults and have their own families, have no illusion of reclaiming either their grandparents' home or commercial building. "If you look at real estate prices back in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn't that much money," Niurka Romero, Zenaida's only child, now a grandmother, says. "And the government could say, 'Your building is worth X, but you haven't paid property taxes on it for 50 years, which are Y. And Y is greater than X."
Zenaida Pantaleón agrees. "All I remember is that our telephone number ended in 8652," she says.
And that brings us to the reference being used by Cuban-Americans—and their U.S.-born adult children—to jog memories, the telephone book.
The Cuban Revolution triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959. That means that the previous year's Havana telephone directory documents Havana before the revolution. It is now being used to confirm addresses of the tens of thousands of Cubans who were forced to flee.
And the searchable phone book is online.
What was Zenaida Pantaleón's telephone number, anyway?
She was right, for there it is, on page 264 of the 1958 Havana Telephone Directory, Zenaida Pantaleón's old telephone number, under her husband's name, Rafael Romero, confirmed: 8-8652.
"That was a lifetime ago," she says, with a smile.
She doesn't have time to think about any of this. Her mind is on the birthday party for her great- granddaughter, the daughter of her Mexican grandson, an architect, and a French sociologist. The girl is turning 5.
Of the doctor and his family who now live in her former home in Cuba, she says: "God bless them and God bless Cuba."
To file a claim
If you have a claim against the Cuban government, you can contact the FCSC at the Department of Justice or the 1898 Company, a firm that specializes in petitioning claims against the Cuban Government.
Foreign Claims Settlement Commission U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC 20530-0001
Jordi Cabarrocas 1898 CRP Company Santander International Tower 1401 Brickell Avenue, Suite 420 Miami, FL 33131
NAM contributor Louis Nevaer is a New York-based author and economist. This article originally appeared at New America Media.