India should encourage its business community to build on economic relations with the countries of the region

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid began an official visit to Chile and Argentina on Tuesday night. This is the first ever visit of an Indian Foreign Minister to Santiago. The fact that Mr. Khurshid will be there less than four months since taking charge is hopefully a sign of evolving priorities towards the region.

On January 27-28, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, pro tempore President of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States — CELAC — hosted leaders from the region in Chile. This was preceded by the First CELAC Summit — planned biennially — with the 27 nations of the European Union. Mr. Piñera welcomed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, struggling with 25 per cent unemployment, and a mountain of debt, “to a better world.” The irony, accentuated by the self-confidence of the Latin American and Caribbean leaders, was not lost on the former colonial power. The CELAC Summit, aiming to “unite our continent as never before,” revealed the distance the region has come from its troubled past.

Towards regional consensus

Communist Cuba was simultaneously hosting peace talks between the conservative government of Colombia and the ultra-left guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Its President, Raúl Castro took over the Presidency of CELAC for 2013 in Santiago. Cuba remains outside the Organisation of American States, which includes all CELAC members, plus the United States and Canada, since its expulsion in 1962. Bolivia, which does not have diplomatic relations with host Chile on account of an ongoing territorial claim by the former, was represented by its President. The commitment to democracy was emphasised. Paraguay did not attend the summit, under pressure from the five-nation MERCOSUR, and the 12-nation UNASUR (The Union for South American Nations) — the sub-regional South American organisations from which it was suspended after a “legislative coup” deposing former Paraguayan President Lugo in June 2012.

The deliberations and ancillary events revealed fundamental differences in political and economic orientation, principally between the left-leaning regimes and the hosts and their supporters. The CELAC-EU Declaration maintains a balance between the EU’s insistence on protection of investment and the assertion of overriding sovereign policy by the left in Latin America. Mr. Piñera admitted that “within CELAC we have learnt to live with our differences.” The Santiago Declaration, adopted by the CELAC Summit, orchestrates regional consensus on incandescent issues such as security, narco-trafficking, multilateral negotiations on disarmament, sustainable development, etc. and reveals the region’s collective determination to make up for lost time.

The stakes for India are high in this region five times its territory, with a population of 600 million producing over $10,000 on average annually per capita. Political relations are cordial, while bilateral trade crossed $32 billion in 2011-12 (30 per cent compound growth over the past decade). The Commerce Ministry has negotiated an amplification of a preferential tariff agreement with Chile and is preparing to negotiate similar agreements with other LAC countries. Indian enterprise is increasingly aware of, and present across, the region.

Focus on India

August 2012 saw the most significant development in India’s relations with LAC countries. The Chilean presidency, clearly with the tacit approval of the entire region, identified India as its first port of call, followed by China. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reciprocated the initiative with alacrity. The Joint Declaration issued after the meeting of the External Affairs Minister with his counterparts from Chile, Venezuela and Cuba (the Troika of CELAC) signalled the start — or at least the definition — of a new era.

Mr. Khurshid’s visit should largely fulfil the commitment to annual meetings, even though Chile has handed over the presidency. The identification of specific areas for collaboration — business, science and technology, agriculture, energy, culture and education — on separate platforms, provides a road map. Steps to implement these have been initiated by the MEA and should find resonance among stakeholders on both sides. A worthwhile return on diplomatic investment is guaranteed.

In the 1990s, the MEA convinced the Government of India of the need to “Look East,” after having virtually ignored Asean and our relations with that vital part of the world. A similar exercise was carried out the following decade with Africa. Both were focused programmes, funded and executed with determination by the ministry in concert with other stakeholders. The results and benefits are evident.

The time has now come to carry out a similar exercise with the 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. The complexity of the diplomatic challenge cannot be underestimated. To the geographic distance and magnitude, we must add the difficulties of communication, a lack of cultural appreciation, historic proclivities to Europe and the U.S., and the deep inroads already made by others, notably China. A CELAC-China Cooperation Forum finds mention in the Santiago Declaration.

Mr. Khurshid’s visit comes at a crucial juncture. It must be utilised to emphasise our determination to engage Latin America in all aspects of the relationship. An important catalyst will be the business community, which will require official patronage to elevate the economic relationship to the next level. India needs to accelerate and upgrade its political and diplomatic exchanges with the region. More frequent visits at all levels, including by the Prime Minister, and a conscious effort to invite more leaders from Latin America, will help convince our friends across the South Atlantic of our sincerity.

(Deepak Bhojwani is a former Ambassador of India and consultant on Latin America. E-mail:

More In: Comment | Opinion