Building bridges

Print edition : July 10, 2015

President Barack Obama (middle row, right) and Cuban President Raul Castro (middle row, left) at the inauguration of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, on April 10. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Presidents Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Evo Morales (Bolivia), and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) at the ALBA summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2009. Photo: AP

The book presents ideas about deepening and strengthening the current state of engagement between Latin America and India to the benefit of both sides.

There are only a few books on South America by Indian authors, mainly owing to the distance—geographical and, more significantly, psychological and cultural—that comes in the way. Ambassador Deepak Bhojwani, with the last 12 years of his career spent in that region, is eminently qualified to take us to that continent and tell us about its rich history, culture, and recent political developments. Keeping the big picture before us, the author tells us about the current state of engagement between India and Latin America and the Caribbean and shares with us his ideas about deepening and strengthening that engagement to the benefit of both sides. The title of the book under review is appropriate and the author makes good on his promise to meet the challenge.

Chapter 1 titled “Five Hundred Years of Solitude” starts with a quotation from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. “Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend…. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own serves only to make us evermore unknown, ever less free, evermore solitary….” The coinage of the term “Latin America” is generally attributed to the Colombian poet Jose Maria Torres Caicedo who wrote in 1856:

“These races are allied at birth:

Their duty is to unite, their law to love each other;

A common origin and mission they do have;

The race of Latin America.”

However, Caicedo was anticipated by Michel Chevalier, a French writer, who in the 1830s wrote that the region was inhabited by a “Latin race” which could be a potential ally of “Latin Europe” against the “Teutonic (mainly Germanic) Europe”, “Anglo-Saxon America” and “Slavic Europe”.

It was Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa but sponsored by Spain, who set out to sail to India and landed up in what is now the Bahamas in 1492. One of his successors to sail to the newly discovered land was Amerigo Vespucci from whom America got its name. Vespucci was sponsored by Portugal. That explains why there was a division of the newly discovered territories between Portugal and Spain.

The genesis of Brazil, as we know it now, is interesting. In 1494, Spain and Portugal concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the newly discovered lands outside Europe between them along the meridian, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. The lands to the east of the line would belong to Portugal and those to the west to Spain. Thus, Portugal got a foothold in the eastern bulge of South America. The 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza extended this line to the Pacific Ocean.

Portugal got the Philippine islands, which it ceded to Spain in exchange for an extension of the demarcation line further west in South America. Later, Portugal expanded its hold to create modern Brazil. (The author’s narration is lucid, but a map would have been useful.) After Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1808, the British Navy escorted the Portuguese Emperor Joao VI to Rio de Janeiro. He returned to Portugal in 1821, leaving his son Pedro I in charge. In 1831, Pedro I abdicated and left for Portugal leaving his five-year old son, Pedro II, as his heir. Regents ruled on his behalf until 1840 when he took over. He was dethroned by a military coup and a republic was established in 1889. In 1967, the name the Federative Republic of Brazil was adopted.

Panama Canal

The story of the Panama Canal is part of the bigger story of the emergence of the United States as the Big Brother. In 1903, Colombia and the U.S. signed a treaty to make a canal, but the Colombian Parliament rejected the treaty whereupon U.S.-supported separatists declared Panama independent. The Big Brother came into being around 1823 when U.S. President James Monroe announced that the U.S. “should consider any attempt on their (European Powers) part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security”. Although the U.S. was militarily weak, the British Navy was there to help impose compliance. The U.S.’ subsequent territorial expansion and invasion of Central American and Caribbean countries consolidated its Big Brother position.

The section titled “Notorious Dictators” in Chapter II is of particular interest. The list includes Hugo Banzer in Bolivia, Marcos Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the Duvaliers in Haiti, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Not all of them are familiar to the general public in India. For Indians, Pinochet is the most notorious. He ruled Chile from 1973 to 1988. A passing mention of the U.S.’ role in installing and maintaining Pinochet in power would have been in order, keeping in mind young readers.

Chapter 3 on regional integration should be of interest to South Asians. Attempts at regional integration go back to Simon Bolivar, who envisaged three federations to form eventually a unified Hispanic-American Federation. In 1888, the U.S. convened an international conference to prevent use of force in Latin America. However, no progress was made until the end of the Second World War. The foundation of the Organisation of American States (OAS) with its headquarters in Washington in 1948 was part of the Cold War.

The author has drawn our attention to the less known ALBA, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, initially started by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela under inspiration from Fidel Castro. ALBA’s pre-incarnation was the 2004 agreement between Venezuela and Cuba to establish the Bolivarian Alternatives for the Peoples of Our America. It will be interesting to watch the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. being promoted by President Barack Obama. The book was completed before that initiative gained momentum.

Chapter V titled “Looking Back Across the Ocean” mentions, en passant, Bhikshu Chamanlal ( Who discovered America) and N.P. Chaudhary ( India’s Latin American Relations), but the author wisely concludes that there is little contemporary evidence of the early contacts claimed by these authors. The earliest contact is the one mentioned by Octavio Paz, former Mexican Ambassador to India. Mirra, a Hindu slave woman, was kidnapped by the Portuguese in the early 17th century and transported via the Philippines to Mexico. She converted to Christianity and joined a convent in Peublo where she was venerated after death.

A more recent human contact is M.N. Roy who landed up in Mexico in 1917. He launched along with others the Socialist Party of Mexico. He represented the Mexican Communist Party at the second congress of the Communist International held in 1919. In 1948, Minoo Masani opened the Indian mission in Brazil. Latin America was slow to join the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), partly in deference to John Foster Dulles who decreed that it was immoral to be non-aligned. It was only in 1979 that NAM held its first summit in Cuba.

Partnership with India

Chapter VI deals with business and aid diplomacy, and the conclusion is reasonable. “While it may sound harsh, it is true that India’s development assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean is yet to develop into a development partnership. Indeed, in this author’s opinion, the system needs an overhaul to ensure that strategies and plans are appropriately conceived and funds properly allocated.

“Missions and Ministries of India need to work more closely to ensure timely and effective evolution and follow up of projects that can make a difference to the host community, and to India’s image and interests in the region.” The reader is inclined to agree with the author though only time will tell whether the Ministry of External Affairs will make use of the insights the author has shared in the book.

Chapter VII titled “Hearts and Minds” starts with an apt quotation from Octavio Paz, “India did not enter through my mind but through my senses”. Latin American nations obtained their independence a century before India. Unlike in India, political power in Latin America was passed on, by and large, to the descendants of the colonisers. The pre-Hispanic civilisation had practically disappeared from Mexico, whereas in India the age-old civilisation is strong. Latin America has responded well to India’s soft power, be it yoga, Ayurveda, Bollywood or spiritual gurus such as Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Chapter VIII gives a succinct account of the migration of labour from India. In 1834, the British Empire abolished slavery. But, there was need for labour in the Caribbean. Therefore, a fresh procedure of “indent” was invented to make it appear that the Indians were going on their accord and not being transported as slaves. However, in essence, the “indent” system was almost a continuation of slavery. As the indenture system ended by the early 20th century, Indians started acquiring civil and political rights. Cheddi Jagan’s case is interesting. He took over as Prime Minister of British Guyana in 1953, but after four months, his government was dismissed on the specious charge that it was going to introduce communism. Jagan came to Delhi seeking diplomatic support and met Jawaharlal Nehru. But, he left a disappointed man as, according to him, official India was reluctant to extend support as India, “in trouble with U.S. over Pakistan and Korea badly needed U.K.’s support… moreover, the Indian government preoccupied with its own communists in Kerala, Hyderabad, and elsewhere, was somewhat influenced by the British government’s anti-communist propaganda against us”. The reader would conclude that India could have done more for her son seeking help.

In the concluding chapter titled “The Challenge of Promise”, the author has made a number of proposals for action. India has institutionalised meetings at summit level with Africa and South-East Asia. Latin America and the Caribbean with a population of 600 million and a significant presence of the diaspora merit more attention from the Ministry of External Affairs. There should be institutionalised meetings with that region. India needs to encourage cultivation of region-specific expertise among its officers. The embassies of Japan and South Korea in Latin America and the Caribbean have such specialists. Visits by Prime Ministers have been “woefully infrequent”. India should take the initiative to form a think tank bringing together scholars from India and the region.

The author is devoted to the task he has assigned to himself, namely, to deepen and strengthen the relations between India and a region that India has neglected. He has shared with the reader a number of sound ideas. This book should be of interest not only to the scholarly community but also to the general public. Let us hope that it will be compulsory reading for those who join the Indian Foreign Service and those currently serving in the region.