Focus Taiwan App
Download

INTERVIEW/Departing DPP liaison in Washington reflects on decades-long service

02/21/2024 04:52 PM
To activate the text-to-speech service, please first agree to the privacy policy below.
Michael J. Fonte (left), the current DPP Washington Mission director, is honored by DPP Chairman Lai Ching-te for his life-long contribution at the party headquarters in Taipei on Jan. 14, 2024. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024
Michael J. Fonte (left), the current DPP Washington Mission director, is honored by DPP Chairman Lai Ching-te for his life-long contribution at the party headquarters in Taipei on Jan. 14, 2024. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024

By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter

After working with over ten Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairpersons, Michael J. Fonte, a Brooklyn native and the current DPP Washington Mission director, is set to retire from the position he has held since May 2013, coinciding with the end of President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) tenure.

Over the last decade, the well-connected Fonte has been working to assist the DPP in understanding U.S. policy and facilitating mutual understanding between the two sides, as well as shedding light on Taiwan's political landscape for the U.S.

The return of the mission

In a recent interview with CNA, Fonte, now 83, explained the mission was reinstated in 2013 following a 2011 decision made amid a DPP public relations crisis.

In September of that year, a Financial Times story quoted a senior U.S. official expressing significant doubts about then-DPP presidential candidate Tsai's ability or willingness to uphold peace and stability across the strait.

The news story, later regarded as one of the factors contributing to Tsai's defeat in the 2012 presidential election, broke while Tsai was visiting Washington in 2011.

During her visit, she met with two members of the National Security Council (NSC) -- Daniel Russel and Evan Medeiros -- Fonte, who was then serving as the DPP's Washington liaison at that time, recalled.

President Tsai Ing-wen is pictured with Michael J. Fonte in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024
President Tsai Ing-wen is pictured with Michael J. Fonte in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024

Both men "weren't satisfied with her answers" to their questions, Fonte said, adding that the U.S. government felt Taiwan's then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) would be able to better maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, according to the director, there was a concern that Tsai might be a Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) 2.0. During his 2000-2008 tenure as Taiwan's president, there was heightened tension across the strait amid his pro-independence leaning agenda.

To dispel misconception, the DPP reestablished its mission in Washington in June 2013, intending to provide further insight to the U.S. side about what the DPP truly stands for, he said.

Fonte became its inaugural director, handling communications between the DPP and the U.S.

The mission, first established in 1995, was originally closed in 2000 when the DPP came into power, to avoid overlapping with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Taiwan's de-facto embassy in Washington.

A decade of progress

Reflecting on his decade of work, Fonte, seated in a wooden chair in his D.C. apartment, told CNA that he believes the mission has made significant strides forward.

His tasks entailed regularly holding meetings with high-level U.S. officials, including Laura Rosenberger, Chairperson of the American Institute in Taiwan, and attending events organized by think tanks across the political spectrum.

"It's been a great job. I've certainly enjoyed myself immensely," he said, adding that earning the trust of people in Taiwan and the U.S., as well as being an honest interlocutor has been crucial for effectively carrying out his role.

"When you report back [to the DPP], you have got to try to make sure you use their words, not your words, and then you can explain: here's what so and so said, here's what I think about it, and here's what I think the Biden administration people think about it," the veteran liaison said.

Michael J. Fonte (center), director of the DPP Washington Mission, hosts the party's 30th anniversary celebration in the U.S. on Jan. 29, 2016. CNA file photo
Michael J. Fonte (center), director of the DPP Washington Mission, hosts the party's 30th anniversary celebration in the U.S. on Jan. 29, 2016. CNA file photo

The DPP encounters challenges

Fonte also reminisced about the time during Chen Shui-bian's presidency when he had to brief DPP heavyweights, including Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), on "what the U.S. was saying, feeling, and thinking."

"You can't whitewash it."

Fonte explained that Chen was caught up in brutal geopolitics following the September 11 attacks.

The U.S. was determined to push forward with its anti-terrorism measures and resolutions and they couldn't afford to face opposition from China in the United Nations, he continued.

"Being as forceful as he [Chen] was, he was not willing to sit there quietly, so it created a lot of tension. At one point, I said to a reporter, and I didn't know they were going to report it, that 'the United States wants Chen Shui-bian to sit down and shut up,'" Fonte recalled, with a chuckle.

It was a very painful time for people who wanted Taiwan to succeed and continue to be free and democratic, he said.

Fonte in Taiwan

Originally from New York, Fonte first came to Taiwan in 1967 in his 20s, when he served as a Catholic missionary working in central Taiwan.

According to Fonte, his Hokkien teachers taught him the language and gave him a sense of how difficult life was for native Taiwanese under KMT martial law.

"I went to Taiwan expecting to work on social justice programs, such as community building, to help people improve their lives...but the problem was, even if I wanted to do that, if anybody worked with me, the government didn't like that," he said.

Fonte left Taiwan in 1970 feeling frustrated and began pursuing a degree in Asian studies at the University of Michigan, where he encountered late political dissidents such as Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).

Fonte then started to acquaint himself with overseas Taiwanese individuals actively involved in pursuing human rights and democracy.

A year after the formation of the DPP in 1986, the National Democratic Institute based in Washington invited the party founders to visit the capital. Meanwhile, Fonte was invited by Peng to serve as the founders' "gofer" around the city, given his ability to speak Taiwanese Hokkien.

Michael J. Fonte (fourth left), director of the DPP Washington Mission, is pictured with friends during his visit to Miaoli County on Aug. 8, 2017. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte
Michael J. Fonte (fourth left), director of the DPP Washington Mission, is pictured with friends during his visit to Miaoli County on Aug. 8, 2017. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte

He was also part of the group that accompanied former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) in his attempt to travel from Washington to Taiwan via Japan to continue his democratic campaigning after martial law was lifted in 1987.

Many activists faced challenges returning to Taiwan at that time due to KMT blacklist restrictions.

However, Hsu was denied boarding in Tokyo. Fonte, who was allowed to enter Taiwan, said they were greeted by a significant number of military personnel.

"They [the military police] stopped us at customs, but they never stopped us entering the country," he remembered.

Time draws to a close

Meanwhile, Fonte said he is choosing to step down at this time due to his age and at a time when he believes Taiwan and the U.S. have never been closer.

"When you get to my age, you start getting forgetful, start feeling like you don't always get nuance as you used to. I think it's time for somebody newer, younger to take over."

Fonte mentioned that he also owes it to his wife, who has a bucket list of retirement plans she wants to fulfill.

He then fell back on his frequently quoted line: "The problem with Taiwan, and the Taiwanese, is that they steal your heart and never let you go."

The 83-year-old is confident that the mission will be in good hands, although he declined to name his successor because the decision is not official yet.

It is somebody very knowledgeable about the U.S. and Taiwan, and they will be a very good successor, he said.

"I'll have to leave it at that."

Enditem/kb

Michael J. Fonte (second left), the current DPP Washington Mission director, chats with former President Lee Teng-hui (center) during a dinner event in Washington in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024
Michael J. Fonte (second left), the current DPP Washington Mission director, chats with former President Lee Teng-hui (center) during a dinner event in Washington in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Fonte Feb. 21, 2024
View All
We value your privacy.
Focus Taiwan (CNA) uses tracking technologies to provide better reading experiences, but it also respects readers' privacy. Click here to find out more about Focus Taiwan's privacy policy. When you close this window, it means you agree with this policy.
172.30.142.29