Many diplomats have the irrepressible urge to write books about the countries they were posted in, especially if they had handled or witnessed episodic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, if they had stayed long enough, they develop an affinity and ruminate over them long after retirement.
Deepak Bhojwani’s book falls under a different class. It is not a personalised account of the years spent in Latin America. He was our ambassador between 2000 and 2012 in four countries in the northern part of the region. Despite the vast potential and the growing importance of the region, Bhojwani’s regret is that there is a vast gap, not only geographic, between LAC and India. Indeed, there are nostalgic recalls of India’s association with the region through famous poets and writers like Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda; or of Jawaharlal Nehru’s interaction with Fidel Castro and Rabindranath Tagore’s friendship with Victoria Ocampo. Many recall the lost civilisations of Mayas and Aztecs and the rising revolts of tribes led by Simon Bolivar or Zapata against foreign powers. These bind us emotively, in particular in the context of anti-colonial struggles, but stop short of that. Though there are continuing, if sporadic, cultural contacts, there is a cloud of unknowing about the whole region. Bhojwani refers to this cultural chasm separating us due to historical and ethnographic factors. However, he feels committed to the region and wants to build bridges with it. What he attempts in the book is an informed backgrounder that will educate the average reader and, more importantly, catalyse policy-making in the establishment, i.e. Ministry of External Affairs. It was thoughtful of the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) to have funded this publication.
The first four of the nine chapters provide the historical background and the last five deals with India’s relations, or, rather, failures in relations. The first chapter rushes through several hundred years of history. The next chapter is a brief account of the economic and political developments drawn against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the right and left parties, in particular the rise of the New Left leaders in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Even around the period Bhojwani writes about, the sad development was that there was growing frustration with Latin American left. Some of their reputed leaders are caught in corruption scandals; which is aggravated by economic stagnation with the fall in crude prices and slowing down of China’s growth.
Chapter IV narrates the course of alliances and agreements with LAC by EU, Russia, North America (US), Canada and Asia, especially China. At the centre of the LAC interaction is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). CELAC, a holy cow aimed to “unite our continent as never before”, has remained an elusive dream. Bhojwani quotes James Petra who identifies the interplay of four axes of power which determine politico-economic developments in the region that disrupt a common agenda. External powers like the EU, the U.S. and Asia, especially China, seem to set the course. The U.S. happens to be the ghost looming large.
In many pages and recurringly, Bhojwani refers to the U.S.’ heavy-handed role. He describes the continuing influence of the Monroe doctrine on U.S. policies. Even while describing these developments such as military interventions or support to dictators, he refrains from harsh criticism. Sadly, he missed the tectonic changes taking place in the U.S./LAC relations. Even by 2008, think-tanks in the U.S. like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) began to report that “the era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over.” By November 2013, the U.S. had decided to renounce the Monroe doctrine.
The author provides a succinct account of China’s growing interest in the region and how it has surged ahead. It has signed over $100 billion in commodity contracts in return for oil, copper or corn. By 2010, China’s loan/assistance exceeded the combined assistance from the World Bank, IDB and the U.S. Exim Bank. China is expected to overtake the U.S. and become Latin America’s largest trading partner. He attributes this to the coordinated efforts made by China which is lacking in India. Repeatedly he refers to India’s failure to coordinate its trade, aid, investment, etc. efforts and how they become ineffective.
There is a separate chapter on “India doing business with the LAC.” It shows how, at a multilateral level, India’s attempts at composite dialogue with regional forums such as the Rio Group, the Andean Community, CARICOM and SICA were sporadic and ineffective. Even the Joint Declaration with CELAC issued in August 2012 has remained unreciprocated so far. Apart from the high cost of transportation, trade has remained at low levels due to lack of diversity in our export basket and the weaker manufacturing base vis-i-vis the LAC. He draws heavily on a study made in 2010 by the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) in explaining these. In short, our record, compared with China’s is depressing. The weaknesses run deep and are structural. Bhojwani seems to think that improvements in institutional mechanisms like keeping the Ministry of External Affairs as the main agency to conceive, coordinate and implement the programmes may help.
The chapter on cultural bonds (old or promoting new) is interesting. However, it fails to reach scholastic standards or rise above a journalistic report. There is lamentation over lack of coordination in efforts and how the Ministry of External Affairs is bypassed. There are snippets about cultural events and contacts, including the influence of some Bollywood films in region. The chapter on the Caribbean, an area for which Bhojwani has a soft corner, draws heavily on the Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora and draws attention to the special problems of the Indians settled there. He feels that their interests have been neglected or have not been adequately addressed by the GOI.
Bhojwani’s final lament is that “India’s foreign policy establishment has suffered from insufficient political acknowledgement of the partnership that is on offer with the region.” This, he elaborates, is due to our domestic political preoccupations and obsession with neighbours (China, Pakistan) and historical friends in other regions in the West, Asia, Africa, etc. He also attributes it to our diplomatic establishment being under-manned and under-funded.
On the whole, the author has given a good coverage of the region, its past, its present, its potential and the political and economic currents it is facing. The region is no longer captive to the U.S. and others have a role and opportunity. India has so far failed to seize the opportunity. India should do it soon and Bhojwani is optimistic that India can do it.
Latin America, The Caribbean and India-Promise and Challenge;Deepak Bhojwani, Pentagon Press for Indian Council of World Affairs, 206, Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049, 2015, pp. 220, Rs.795.