On the occasion of the Fiesta Nacional de España, Spain’s top man in Hong Kong shares his voyage that has brought him from the Americas to Africa and now to the ‘Tai-Pan land’.
Santiago Martinez-Caro may be the only consul general in Hong Kong that was a billionaire. In cash.
And then he became a trillionaire. And then he lost it all.
On the plus side, it’s a welcome change to be somewhere with a stable currency. Mr Martinez-Caro may be the harbinger of inflation wherever he goes, having survived three postings in nations with collapsing currencies. Fans of Hong Kong’s stable peg to the USD had better hope his track record doesn’t continue.
Mr Martinez-Caro had never set foot in Asia before assuming post as the Spanish Consul General in Hong Kong 14 months ago (August 2015). The Spaniard felt a powerful attraction to the mythical land in the East, and specifically Hong Kong, through James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan from his Asian Saga series of novels in the published 1960s. He even videotaped the Handover in 1997 when he was Head of Trade at the Spanish Embassy in Rabat, about 11,180 kilometres away in Morocco.
“For me it’s a very interesting posting not only because of the fantasies of the novel but because of the reality today. Even though I have been here now for 14 months, every single day there’s something new that comes up,” Mr Martinez-Caro puts. “This place certainly has lived up to my expectations.”
It was this deep-rooted interest in the place that brought him into conversations with Chris Patten during his missions in Europe, both before and after Patten was named Governor of Hong Kong. As Mr Martinez-Caro recalls, ‘Fatty Pang’s’ love of egg tarts wasn’t just for show in Hong Kong – he raved about them in Europe as well.
Mr Martinez-Caro started his career in 1984 with his first two overseas postings being in Yaoundé, Cameroon and Lima, Peru. Thereafter he has expanded his diplomatic profile in both continents, alongside the Spanish commission to the European Union and the United Nations. In particular, he was the Consul General to Caracas where he led a staff of some 165 people in total – a size much bigger than that of the embassy – to handle consular and labour issues of the half million Spaniards living in the country. There were around 1,500 to 1,700 people coming into the consulate every day, with him having to write more than a thousand signatures a day.
The challenging part of the job in Peru in the late 1980s, Venezuela at the turn of the century, and Zimbabwe in 2000s was not so much about the high affairs of state but how much you have to pay for a loaf of bread.
“It was around 4100 Zimbabwean dollar to USD1 when I first arrived in Zimbabwe. When I left it was 17 trillion Zimbabwean dollar, and the government had taken out 15 zeros in the meantime,” explains Mr Martinez-Caro. “And back in Peru, a lunch to treat 27 or 28 visiting Spanish officers cost me USD3 because the club sent me the bill four months later, during which the local currency had depreciated some 180% per month.”
Mr Martinez-Caro decided as the Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi to pay his staff in USD. And it needed more than just a mind of steel to keep the consulate running, as in many cases there was simply nothing to buy in local supermarkets even with all the piles of banknotes: “We drove to Mozambique to buy flour to make bread; Zambia and Botswana to buy meat and South Africa, which is 600 kilometres away, to buy Coke and groceries.” The same happened in Caracas; he had to bring in toilet paper from the US.
The Hong Kong issues
After leading Casa África, a Spanish institution funding development projects in Africa for two years, Mr Martinez-Caro moved to Hong Kong where there is certainly no lack of toilet paper.
What Hong Kong also has, in spades, is an abiding admiration for Spanish culture, in particular as expressed through its food and wine. Hong Kong is now the fifth largest market in Asia for Spain and some 2,200 Spaniards are currently living in Hong Kong. Apart from gastronomy, Spain also has a strong presence in financial services and infrastructure.
“As a matter of fact, Leighton Asia, which based in Hong Kong, is a member of the Australian CIMIC group. The CIMIC group is an 85% subsidiary of Hochtief in Germany, which in turn is fully owned by Grupo ACS, an international leader in the construction industry. From this sense Leighton is actually a Spanish company,” Mr Martinez-Caro notes.
Spain was also a crucial player pulling Hong Kong out of the EU tax blacklist saga in 2015 with a Comprehensive Double Taxation Agreement coming into force three years beforehand. That being said, Mr Martinez-Caro does express concern as a member of the diplomatic community over the increasing difficulty to open bank accounts in Hong Kong. “We find that in many cases that is clearly having an effect on trade, services and financial services,” he addresses. “If it takes you two months to get a Hong Kong ID card and another six months to set up a bank account, not many SMEs can afford staying that long while having to pay their local staff.”
Much to football fans’ delight, two of the most successful football clubs, namely Real Madrid and Barcelona both have operations in Hong Kong. In partnership with local NGO Dreams Foundation, Real Madrid has initiated a programme to train more than 3,000 young footballers and coaches. This August, 22 students aged 9 to 12 have had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Madrid for training, meeting with star players and watching a live match at the Bernabeu.
With love from Iberia
The Spanish National Day reception was held on 12 October, the day Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas 524 years ago. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥) was the guest of honour alongside other distinguished guests including Secretary for Eddie Ng Hak-kim (吳克儉) and members from the Spanish community and Consular corps.
“In the coming months, both Spain and Hong Kong will have to face important challenges for our respective futures, let me express a sincere hope that we will be able to face these challenges with peace with the tools of dialogue and reciprocal tolerance under the rule of law, and following the principles of democracy, justice, freedom and respect for the fundamental rights of all human beings.” Mr Martinez-Caro concluded when delivering the welcoming speech at the reception. “The principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ has allowed Hong Kong to grow and thrive. When we next meet here next year, Hong Kong and China will have celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. Let us hope the next 20 years of Hong Kong as an integral part of China will continue to stand up to the numerous challenges ahead and to preserve and further increase Hong Kong’s economic, political, social and civil liberties with full respect on the rule of law.”