Several misconceptions exist in India about Latin America and the Caribbean Islands. India’s knowledge of these countries is restricted to news coverage.
“We in India should have better understanding and greater sensitivity towards the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean,” remarked Prof. V. Shivkumar, on 3 February 2018, at an interaction held at the Chennai centre of Observer Research Foundation. As compared to the European Union (EU) and China, India’s interaction with that part of the world was very little, he said. What was worse was that even understanding of the region was severely limited.
Former Director of the UGC Centre for Latin America & the Caribbean Studies at Goa University, Prof. Shivkumar noted that several misconceptions still existed in India about Latin America and the Caribbean Islands. India’s knowledge of these countries was very superficial, restricted to news coverage about the odd volcanic eruption in Mexico or the Rio de Janeiro carnival held every year before Lent.
For instance, the Rio carnival, though considered to be the biggest in the world, bringing to the streets an estimated two million people a day, did not sum up Latin American or the Caribbean culture, which was as diverse and vibrant as one could imagine, being spread across 33 heterogeneous countries. Other misconceptions about this region included that it was ‘too far to travel to’, ‘too expensive to go there’, ‘ruled by dictators’ and ‘rife with corruption’.
Prof. Shivkumar admitted that to consider these countries together as one monolithic region was in itself unfair and unjustified but then conceded that “we have to start somewhere.” India’s academics, as a first step, but eventually its business community, bureaucrats, and its politicians, all needed to make a bigger effort to understand this region as the prospects for improving relations with India were tremendous.
Reflecting on the difference in attitude between India and China, Prof. Shivkumar marvelled at the Chinese who were learning Portuguese through English, in effect learning two languages. In contrast, in India most people ignored this vast part of the world, simply because it required them to learn either Portuguese or Spanish. India’s trade with Latin America was $42 billion in 2013, in comparison to China which amounted to $300 billion. However, the potential for India, according to some estimates, was $80-100 billion.
Ad hoc engagements
There were several ties between India and Latin American countries, but these were ad hoc and inconsistent, Prof. Shivkumar said. For instance, the Telegana state government has a tie-up with Brazil to improve its milk production by having its own proto-type of Zebu. India was also looking to step up energy collaboration with Brazil in the area of eco-friendly ethanol.
Goa and Brazil were connected through Portuguese and football. Latin American music and other cultural festivals were being organised in cities across India. However, these efforts were only a handful and selective, given the size and significance of the two regions — India and Latin America. Engagement needed to be much bigger, more large scale and consistent.
Latin America had much to offer India. While India was struggling with SAARC and SAFTA, and NAFTA was being called into question by the Trump administration in the US, regional integration efforts were thriving in Latin America. The Organisation of American States (OAS), Mercusor & Caricom were all functioning extremely well. Prof. Shivkumar felt in this regard several lessons on trade and integration could be learnt and incorporated vis à vis India’s challenges with South Asia. As he pointed out, even the UN Charter has special provisions, acknowledging the pre-eminence of OAS in the affairs of the region.
IBSA and BRICS
While many claimed IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa alliance) had proved to be a futile grouping, and that it was now dead and entirely replaced by BRICS, Prof. Shivkumar argued this notion was incorrect. Instead, he said, BRICS was built on the foundations of IBSA and carried its spirit. “Without IBSA there would be no BRICS. It paved the way for BRICS,” he said.
He was hopeful about the BRICS grouping, which he explained was a necessary replacement to the West-led, West-dominated organisations like the IMF, and the World Bank. BRICS, he pointed out, was more consultative and also democratic with the ‘one country, one vote’ principle. Cooperation was on a more practical basis as evidenced by the existing working groups on agribusiness, skills development and Infrastructure, among areas.
Looking beyond Brazil
Looking to the future, Prof. Shivkumar said it was important not to focus disproportionately on only Brazil. India must look at improving trade with other Latin America countries also such as Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Columbia and the Caribbean countries. For India’s energy needs, Venezuela and Columbia could become very important energy partners in the future.
Since India was looking to achieve energy security through diversifying its energy sources, particularly with growing instability in West Asia, these countries should be engaged as serious energy partners. Helping with food security goals was another potential area for co-operation, as Latin American countries produced several crops that are part of the modern Indian diet — such as corn, sweet potato, manioc, beans and chilli peppers.
Trade, food and energy security were seen to be the key areas for improving ties with Latin America. With new developments in American politics unravelling daily, in the midst of the ‘Trump talk’ of building a wall along the Mexican border, Prof. Shivkumar felt this was perhaps the right time for India to step in and build stronger ties with this region. He said that India needed to listen to the clarion call and do more in these areas, including foreign direct investment (FDI), which was currently at extremely low levels.
In this context, Prof. Shivkumar listed out a series of recommendations for India and Indians to take up, for fostering and improving ties with Lain America. First, India must improve trade relations by taking large trade delegations to these countries. Face-to-face interactions were important in these countries and large trade delegations demonstrated a genuine desire to improve trade. Two, India needed to coordinate the efforts of organisations, departments and ministries which were doing important work but remained isolated in their efforts to reach out to Latin America, such as CII, FICCI and the MEA.
Thirdly, he pointed out while the colonisers had plundered all the gold in Latin America, large reserves of copper, iron, silver and tin remained. China with its large demand for these was already focused on this, India should not lag behind. Finally, to conclude he said India needed to have a deep understanding of these countries and their cultures. This was culturally one of the richest regions in the world.
While in India, there was only limited knowledge of its carnivals, perhaps of salsa and samba, Latin America and Caribbean culture was much more than this clichés. It was rich in religious rituals, oral tradition, pottery and folklore. Rio was definitely the biggest carnival, but there were several others, including Barranquillain Colombia. Better and deeper understanding was the key to improving relations with what could become for India an important part of the world for achieving food and energy security, particularly an important source of hydrocarbons.
This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi and S. Sivanesan, Associates at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.