Vice President’s Visit to Latin American Nations: RSTV – India’s World

Anchor: Rajat Kain

Guest: Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador;  Jayant Dasgupta, Former Ambassador; KP Nayar, Strategic Analyst

Why in the news?

  • This episode of India’s World focuses on Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to two Latin American nations- namely, Paraguay and Costa Rica.
  • It is the first ever visit by an Indian Vice President to the Republic of Paraguay.
  • Mr. Naidu sought the support of the two countries for India’s bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, apart from pushing for strengthening the cooperation in various areas, including trade, culture and Science & Technology with Paraguay and Costa Rica.
  • In his high-level talk with the leadership of both the nations, the Vice President of India  stressed on the menace of terrorism and how it is posing a grave threat to global peace and stability.
  • Outlining a common desire to take an uncompromising stand against terror, the leadership of two Latin American nations agreed to cooperate to deal with the menace of terror.
  • The Vice President of India was also conferred an honorary doctorate by the University of Peace, founded by the United Nations Organization for his contribution to the rule of law, democracy and sustainable development in India.
  • In his acceptance speech, the Vice President of India underlined that India has been an ardent and consistent champion of peace since time immemorial and that he was privileged to have received this honour when the world is commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi,  the extraordinary apostle of peace.

Analysis by the Experts:

In this 9 day visit by the Vice President, he emphasized a lot on the menace of terrorism. How important are Latin American countries in the larger objective of India combating terror?

Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • India’s global footprint is steadily growing. India’s stock in the world has never been as high.
  • I am heartened to see that there is tremendous interest in what India does- in India’s soft power, in India’s potential, and what India has to offer.  
  • The Vice President of India’s visit has been a significant visit in that he has made it a mission to reach out to Latin American countries. In November 2018, the Vice President had visited Guatemala, Panama and Peru; and this time, he has visited Paraguay and Costa Rica.
  • Further, terrorism is a global menace and there is no country in the world which has remained unaffected by terror- although the degrees may vary and the terror that they face may vary. Latin American countries have been more afflicted by narco-terrorism. However, they understand the pains and the rigour and the devastation that terror causes. Further, the world is at one today. An important development of late, is that there is a global fatigue, or rather, a global revulsion against terror.
  • After the Pulwama attack, the world came together as one and reacted with abhorrence against terrorism which emanates from our neighbourhood.

The Vice President of India also emphasised on cross-border terrorism. How can Latin American countries help us in charting that narrative? (that India is deeply affected by  cross-border terrorism)

Jayant Dasgupta, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.  

I believe that India would need to firstly sensitize other countries. Countries which are in South America which are quite distant from us may not know the full details, barring the major countries like Brazil, Argentina, or Mexico. Thus, this is one very important message which would have been put across by India’s honourable Vice President. The second point is that there are various international fora in which collective action against terror financing, against countries which are harbouring or actively abetting terrorism is dealt with. For instance, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).  There are other agencies also. Further, the votes of different countries count; their opinions count. Also, we should not forget that Paraguay is a very important member of MERCOSUR.

This apart, it is important for India to have as many friends and allies as possible in our fight against the global menace of terrorism.

How far do you see India leveraging its growing footprint in Latin America? Would factors like distance or logistics act as inhibiting factors? Also, are we exploring potential currently to reach the desired heights?

KP Nayar, Strategic Analyst, weighed in with his arguments here.

It appears to me that Vice President Venkaiah Naidu has taken a special interest in the region, judging by his previous visits and also by his interaction when he is in Delhi at Latin American fora, etc. I believe that the Vice President is very good at spotting unusual opportunities, and capitalizing on it. I noticed during this visit that on International Women’s Day, his meetings were primarily with women leaders in Costa Rica. The trade minister of Costa Rica is a lady, also at the business forum meeting that he had in Costa Rica, judging by the speech made by the Costa Rican minister, she was very enthused by the Vice President’s initiatives. This happened on the International Women’s Day, and her speech was remarkable in the sense that she went beyond the normal statistics that one would unveil at a business forum meeting. I believe that this would take us forward a lot. This is because Latin American countries are quite high up on women’s empowerment. Even at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the current President is a woman. As a matter of fact, the current President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) came to Delhi and met another lady, Sushma Swaraj before she took office. Thus visits between world leaders are important, but the important aspect would be in our abilities to slice something such that it can be built on. By doing this on International Women’s Day, the Vice President of India set the stage for a new stage of expansion In our relations with Latin America.

During the high-level talks with the Paraguayan leadership, the latter has assured that they would back India’s bid for a permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Would this be an important takeaway?

Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Well, it is certainly an important takeaway and it is important to understand the importance of such visits with an example. Let us go back to June 2016 when Prime Minister Modi stopped over at Mexico for just 5 hours and he met with the President of Mexico who drove him to an Indian restaurant and dropped his objection to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Mexico is also a member of the ‘Coffee Club”, which is opposed to India’s entry into the NSG.
    It is important to note that all countries have a certain self respect and ego and they feel happy and wanted when Indian leaders visit them. As I said earlier, the stock of India is very high at the moment and India is going to be the third largest economy in the world. We have also been an aspirant for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Further, our soft power  is something that we can be very proud of. Let’s not also forget the Indian diaspora.
  • Even in geographically small countries like Paraguay or Costa Rica,  India has a healthy diaspora. The diaspora is highly educated and is playing an active role which is well respected.
  • Thus, given the totality of circumstances, I am happy that we are also now looking west with a growing interest and focus and I would regard the Vice President’s visit to these countries as a significant message that we are as interested in Latin American countries and today geographical distances can be bridged. We can bridge it through soft power, we can bridge it through regular interactions. This is what is happening currently and I welcome this.
  • The President of Paraguay told the honourable Vice President of India that 25 years ago, when he was a student, he had visited India. Further, he had developed a lot of respect for Mahatma Gandhi. Also, every year till date, even as the President of Paraguay, he reads a book on Mahatma Gandhi. Also, he loves Indian cuisine. Now, one visit to India has this kind of an impact. That is the civilizational strength of India. I have found in my long years as a diplomat, things such as Yoga, cuisine, India’s music, culture, have a lasting impact. For that matter, even Bollywood. This year is also the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Many countries are observing his 150th birth anniversary. Yoga is becoming an international movement. Regardless of one’s ethnicity, religion, background and civilization, one can adopt facets of that and it is not coercive, it is optional. We should be able to utilize India’s soft power and expose ourselves to India’s cultural heritage which we are doing.

Is the domain of soft power is important to India viz. a viz Latin American and Central American countries?

I do think that it is a very important factor in building up a successful commercial and economic relationship. This is because all relationships start from a personal front with person-to-person interactions. We should have as many friends as possible and the soft power that we are trying to project is of course something which is optional; it is open to the other side to either accept or have a neutral attitude towards it or not accept it. There is no forcing of any opinion on anybody else.

Trade flows take place after we build people-to-people interactions and relationships.

During the Vice President of India’s visit to Paraguay, he also emphasized on the sphere of agriculture, hydro-electricity, solar energy and health. How far can we go in these areas considering that these are the new avenues?

Paraguay is basically an agriculture-dependent country. There aren’t too many industries there. It is also landlocked. However, it has certain resources. For instance, the world famous, Iguazú falls. This is on the border of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It has a huge hydroelectric power project. It also has untapped power potential. Thus, it could provide us with some kind of synergistic relationship if we could provide them with technology, with investments, and if investments could follow for something which can exploit low-cost hydroelectric power. There are various industries which India has which are suffering on the account of comparatively high energy costs. So, those are the kinds of industries which can be setup. India has a very good trade relationship with Paraguay- although this has not reached its full potential because of logistical problems and the large distances between the two countries. However, Paraguay is the fifth largest producer of Soya and India is dependent a lot on the imports of Soya oil as part of its edible oil import package. Thus, there are things on which we can cooperate. On solar energy, India has setup  an industry which is trying to take giant strides in attempting to meet the requirements which will come up over the next decade or so when India makes the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. This is something on which we can cooperate. I also must mention that India has extended a number of scholarships under the “ITEC” programme of the Ministry of External Affairs to Paraguayan students, whether they be in Science, Technology, Engineering, areas such as Management. This is the sort of engagement which will strengthen the bilateral bonds between the two countries and will facilitate areas of cooperation.

Has India’s trade with Paraguay and Costa Rica over the recent past gone up or do you believe that there is a lot which India and these two countries can achieve?

KP Nayar, Strategic Analyst, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Trade has indeed gone up in both cases. However, there are constraints and the biggest constraint is connectivity. In the past also we have attempted to revive trade with several of the countries in Latin America. However, in a way, putting trade is like putting the cart before the horse. The opportunities are there, but how does one organize connectivity. One of the Vice President’s hosts said that this is the first time that an Indian aircraft of any kind has landed on their soil. For India, aviation is a vastly expanding sector, yet we have a situation where the hosts have to tell the Vice President of India that this is the first time an Indian aircraft of any kind has landed on their soil. A similar thing applies to sea-traffic as well. Venezuela for example is willing to give us cheap oil; however, Venezuela’s condition being what it is currently have to sell their oil- but how does one transport the oil?
  • Venezuela has some VLCC’s (Very Large Crude Carriers) but they are constrained by the number of these carriers. Thus, even in a situation where India because of its growth and development needs energy with a Latin American country that is willing to give it cheap oil, yet India has a problem in transporting that oil. This is also one of the reasons why our reliance on Gulf oil is so heavy!
  • I am sure that the Vice President of India has been appraised of these problems.  However, a follow up is very important and I hope that once the Vice President comes back to India, we will pay a lot of attention to the problem of connectivity which is extremely important. This is because if connectivity is there, I think trade will follow.

Do you agree that there is a lot to catch up on in areas such as connectivity? This is because the geographical distance is so vats between India and countries such as Costa Rica and Paraguay.

Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Connectivity is a factor, and so is geography. But, it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation as to what comes first. You cannot have connectivity unless there is traffic, and you cannot have traffic unless there is connectivity.
  • Over and above this, there are commercial considerations as well. I guess the way to look at this is: Is the connectivity better than what it was earlier? Yes, it clearly is.
  • Also, with growing trade, growing tourism, growing people-to-people relations, connectivity will follow and is bound to improve.

In Costa Rica, the Vice President emphasised on the shared values between the two countries and the fact that a lot can be explored between the two nations. Your thoughts…

Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Yes, very much so. As a matter of fact, in some regards, Costa Rica has done very well in terms of biodiversity, in terms of technology. It is one of the richest countries in the region. Also, all these countries have their “core strengths”. Also, India has her “core strengths”. Thus, one of the advantages of such interactions is that we gain from each other. Paraguay has a strong focus on renewable energy. As a matter of fact, by some yardsticks, they have the largest per-capita use of renewable energy. Also, all these countries have a strong interest towards India. It is high time that India builds on that interest.

From the point of view of strength, what are the areas you would like to emphasize between India and Costa Rica?

Jayant Dasgupta, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.  

  • One of the things which we setup was a Center of Excellence for Information Technology. Costa Rica had made rapid strides in developing information technology and in fact, two of our companies, Wipro and TCS have setup bases there to cater to South American countries and to the U.S.
  • In comparison to setting up something in the U.S., it has been quoted by one of the companies that the cost is 15-20% lesser.
  • Thus, what India can do amongst the many options available is to explore ways of accessing third country markets for instance, i.e. for both goods as well as for services. This could be a mutually beneficial kind of a relationship. The second aspect is that Costa Rica is one of the largest exporters of bananas and pineapples for instance. Wherever you go in Europe for example, the pineapples are all from Costa Rica.
  • Also, Costa Rica has a host of other agricultural products in which they have harnessed technology for the benefit of farmers. India is trying to move away from cereal exports to horticultural exports and this could be one of the things in which we could cooperate, in which we could learn from Costa Rica. We could even invite them over to help us out. India and Costa Rica have a great deal of similarity in terms of climate, thus there would be lessons to gain from Costa Rica.

As the talks went on, there was not just emphasis on terror, but also the menace which Latin American and Central American countries are facing which is that of drugs and narcotics. What can India and the Latin American countries can achieve together in this field?  

KP Nayar, Strategic Analyst, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Well, the two countries which the Vice President has been visiting, the drug problem is not so serious there unlike in countries such as Columbia, or Mexico, but it is indeed a problem that affects the entire region. However, the root of the problem does not lie in these countries. The root of the problem is in the United States. This is because the United States is the market for these drugs. It is in the United States that drugs are bought at a very high price.
  • India has been very active in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC). Further, India has considerable expertise on what it has been doing there.
  • India could perhaps share its expertise with these countries. However, India should also look at what her strengths are. We have certain strengths in areas such as fighting drugs and crime.
  • However, we should not fritter away our engagement and interaction with these countries when there are other opportunities- such as trade in mangoes. Paraguay and India, both have an abundance of mangoes that are grown. As a matter of fact, mango diplomacy was something that was thriving at one time, but it has been underemphasized of late. We should not forget that India’s relationship with the United States took a decisive turn when the United States allowed Indian mangoes to go there.

Thus, mango diplomacy is something that we can emphasise on.

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