Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

The New Latin America : What It means for India

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) R. Viswanahtan
    Venue: The Jadavpur Association of International Relations (JAIR), Kolkata
    Date: April 18, 2015

Summary of the extempore talk by Ambassador (Retd) R. Viswanathan at Jadavpur University, Kolkatta on 18 April 2015

Before going into the topic, I could not resist the temptation of making a comparison between Latin America and Bengal which have some similarities and links. I will mention three of them; football, communism and Tagore.


Bengal shares the passion for football with Latin America. The crowds in Kolkatta went crazy when Maradona visited the city in 2008. The rivalry between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal teams and fans reminds me of the super classic rivalry between Boca and River Plate in Argentina and the one between Palmeiras and Corinthians in Brazil. When I was anointed as the fan of Boca Juniors in La Bombanera stadium in Buenos Aires, they told me that I could change my political party, religion, god and spouse but not the loyalty and fidelity to Boca !


MN Roy was a founder of the Communist Party of Mexico before he came back to found the Communist party of India. He spent over two years in Mexico from 1917 to 1919. He became a communist during his stay in Mexico. He was very active in the Mexican leftist politics besides writing articles and books. The Mexican government had given him a diplomat passport with the false name of Roberto Vila Garcia to avoid the British and American harassment due to his communist activities. Roy called Mexico as 'the land of his rebirth'. Today, the house where he stayed in Mexico city has been converted into a vibrant bar/night club with the name MN Roy

Majority of the countries in Latin America have leftist governments. But the New Left of the region has become more pragmatic and less dogmatic. It gives ample space for the private sector to flourish so that they also generate wealth for the country, jobs for the people and taxes for the government.


Tagore spent two months in Buenos Aires where he was looked after by Victoria Ocampo. She introduced him to her social and literary circles in the city and got his articles published in Argentine newspapers. He got rejuvenated and she got spiritual awakening and inspiration. Tagore dedicated his Purabi poems to Victoria. In one of the poems, he says,

Exotic blossom
I whispered again in your ear
What is your language dear
You smiled and shook your head
And the leaves murmured instead

They had extensive correspondence after the Buenos Aires encounter which was also romantic and platonic besides cultural and literary meeting. Their exchanges have been collected and put in a book ' In your blossoming garden' by Ketaki Kushari Dyson.

In his letters Tagore addressed Victoria as ' Dear Vijaya..my bhalobhasa'. She in turn started her letters with 'Dear Gurudev' and ended with ' Your Vijaya'.

Tagore to Victoria, " you were the only one who came to know me so closely when I was old and young at the same time"

Victoria to Tagore, " The days have become endless since you went away…I miss you"

Tagore confessed to her about his immense burden of loneliness as a celebrity and talked about the woman's love he deserved. She wrote that Gitanjali fell like a celestial dew on her anguished 24 year old heart".

The personal meeting also turned out to be a continental encounter. Tagore wrote,' For me the spirit of Latin America will ever dwell incarnated in your person'. She wrote, 'you are and will always be India to me'

They met in Paris in 1930 when Victoria organized the first-ever painting exhibition of Tagore's works in a Parisian art gallery. It is believed that it was Victoria who encouraged Tagore to start painting.

In his last years, Tagore used to relax in the reclining chair gifted by Victoria and even wrote a poem about it in April 1941, just before his death in the same year.

Yet again, if I can, will l look for that seat
On the top of which rests, a caress from overseas
I knew not her language
Yet her eyes told me all
Keeping alive forever
A message of pathos

When Tagore died, Victoria sent a telegram which said ' Thinking of him'. This is the title of a movie proposed to be made by Pablo Cesar an Argentine director/producer. The script is about the Tagore-Victoria encounter as well as about the contemporary link between India and Argentina. Cesar is looking for an Indian coproducer.

New Latin America

Latin America has undergone a paradigm shift in the last three decades politically, economically and culturally. A New Latin America has emerged in the 21st century with a new market and mindset. The song of this New Latin America is

No me preguntas mas
Dejanos imaginar
que no existe el pasado
Que nacimos al mismos instante en
que nos conocimos

( Don’t ask me any more. Let us imagine that the past does not exist; that we were born when we came to know each other)

No more coups

The region has moved irreversibly from military dictatorship to democracy. No more military coups. The last two coup attempts in Venezuela in 2002 and in Honduras in 2009 were reversed quickly and civilian rule was restored and elections held. Ninteen out of the 20 countries of the region are flourishing as democracies with regular elections and peaceful transfer of power between different parties.

Democracies have become more stable

The democracies of the region have become more stable and stronger. Political power has moved out of the barracks and oligarchic mansions to the streets. Top-down politics has given way to bottoms-up. It is the new empowered masses who matter the most in the elections and who drive the political and economic agenda of the region. Obviously they elect those leaders and parties who have the agenda for their welfare. If the elected presidents fail to fulfill their promises, the masses vote them out in the next elections. In a few cases, the masses have brought down elected presidents through agiatations and protests even before the completion of their terms. This had happened in Brazil in 1992, in Argentina in 2002, in Bolivia in 2003 and 2005 and in Ecuador in 2000 and 2005. The student agitations in Chile in 2011-12 and the Brazilian protests in 2013-14 have given a shock and clear signal to the governments and the political parties that they needed to be responsible and accountable. This assetive middle class is growing in numbers, due to the decline in poverty, thanks to the pro-poor policies in most of the countries. This is good for the long term stability of democracies in the region.

Democracies more inclusive

The democracies have become more inclusive and representative. Previously excluded sections of the society have now come to power. The most emblematic of this is the election of Evo Morales as the President of Bolivia in 2005 and his reelection in 2009 and 2014. This is the first time in the history of Bolivia and in South America, a native Indian has become President. Although 60% of the Bolivians are native Indians, they were kept outside the political and economic positions in the last five hundred years. The election of Morales is a moment of pride and honor for the 40 million native Indians in Latin America. Another important example was the election of Lugo Fernandez, a catholic bishop without political background and a complete political outsider, as president of Paraguay in 2008. It was historic since he was able to defeat the money and muscle power of the traditional oligarchic Colorado party. Chavez and Fujimori were the other political outsiders who burst into politics from outside the established political parties and got elected as Presidents.

Democracies more mature

The democracies have become more mature. In the past, the region had suffered from ideological polarization and deadly fight between left and right in which several hundred thousand people got killed. The leftists have now become more moderate and pragmatic and less dogmatic. Even the ex-guerillas who had suffered under military dictatorship and have now become presidents did not pursue any vindictive policies towards the military or the pro-dictatorship conservatives. The centre right has become more compassionate and committed to social welfare policies. A notable example is the Progresa programme of the centre right PAN government under Vicente Fox. This is one of the pioneering pro-poor conditional cash transfer programmes in the region.

The 'Mexico Pact' signed in 2012 by all the four major political parties of the country agreeing to a consensus on urgent and crucial reforms is a remarkable example of political maturity. Under the Mexico Pact, a dozen reforms have already been carried out through legislation in the last two years. Even the US media praised this and mentioned that this could be a lesson for the partisan politics in Washington DC.

Caminero, no hay camino

The Latin Americans had tried and failed with imported models of communism and neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus. They have come to the conclusion as this song says:

Caminero, no hay camino
Se hace al andar

O traveller, there is no path
You make, as you walk

They have evolved their own indigenous politico-economic model called as ' Brasilia Consensus' ( also known as Lulaism) which is a balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies. The Latin Americans are proud to have their own model of development which is sustainable in the long term.

Economic transformation

The region has come out of the three curses of the past: hyperinflation, excessive external debt and volatile currencies and exchange rates. Average inflation of the region is in single digit for the last dozen years. External debt is just about 21% of GDP which is much better than those of many developed countries. No more reckless external borrowing. The currencies and exchange rates have become more stable and predictable. Venezuela and Argentina are the exceptions to the new trend. But even in their case, they have the potential and resources to come out of their self-created problems and become prosperous again.

The macroeconomic fundamentals of the region have become stronger and more solid. Monetary and fiscal policies are more disciplined and prudent. No more adventurism or experiments. The economies have become more resilient and resistant to external shocks. While banks and financial institutions collapsed in US and Europe during the so-called world financial crisis in 2008, nothing of that sort happened in Latin America. The region withstood the shock with just minor damages. Exceptions are Venezuela and Argentina which have double digit inflations, besides other economic difficulties. But both the countries have the potential and the resources to bounce back, as they had done in the past.

The region is set on a stable and long term growth trajectory. The Latin American market is large with 550 million people, over 6 trillion dollars of GDP and 2 trillion dollars of trade. The per capita income of 12000 dollars puts the region in the middle income group.

Regional integration

Latin American countries have realized the advantages of regional integration and have become members of one or other sub regional groups such as Mercosur, Pacific Alliance, Andean Community, SICA and Unasur. All the countries of the region, along with the Caribbean are part of the recently formed pan-Latin American group called as CELAC. The economic groupings have facilitated movement of trade, investment, capital and people.

When the US proposed abolition of the sub-regional groups during the FTAA negotiations, the countries of the region rejected the US proposal and managed to kill the idea of FTAA itself. This is an important turning point in the history of Latin America-US relations.

The New Latin America: What it means for India

It offers opportunities for Indian business and the government. The trade which was 42 billion dollars in 2013 could reach 100 billion by 2020. The growing middle class offers scope for increase in India's exports. Latin America has emerged as a source of crude oil accounting for over 10% of India's imports. Given the large reserves in the region and the keenness of the governments targeting India as a long term market, India can count on Latin America as a contributor to its energy security. With its large surplus arable land, abundant water reserves and modern and efficient large-scale forming, South America is emerging as an Agricultural Powerhouse of the world. This is in contrast to India which faces growing population, decrease in farmland and water scarcity. South America can complement India with supply of edible oil, pulses and other agriproducts in the long term. Latin America which is rich in mineral resources can supply copper, gold, coal and other minerals to fuel India's high economic growth in the coming years.

There are over 100 Indian companies which have invested around 12 billion dollars in a wide range of fields such as IT, energy, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, vehicles, auto parts, two wheelers, sugar, mining, cosmetics, metals, plastics, electrical products and resort hotels. The most visible Indian investment in the region is the presence of two dozen Indian IT companies which operate with 25,000 Latin American staff in 14 out of the 20 Latin American countries including small countries such as Uruguay, Costa Rica and Guatemala. TCS is the leader with 12,000 staff in eight countries of the region. The Latin Americans value the contribution of the Indian IT companies to human resource development of the region through training and skill development.

Twenty Latin American companies have invested about one billion dollars in India in steel, multiplexes, bus assembly, auto parts, electric motors, IT and even cola drinks.

The Latin American governments have become more assertive and independent in foreign policy and they strongly believe in a multipolar world. Their worldview and interests coincide with India's global agenda in many areas. India has worked with many Latin American countries in G-20 and other multilateral and global forums for common goals. India has established strategic partnership with Brazil and the two have many common aspirations including permanent membership of UNSC.

The New Latin America perceives the New India as a large and growing market for its exports, as an investor, as a formidable IT powerhouse, as an emerging global power and as a pluralistic and vibrant democracy. There is good scope for a win-win partnership in the long term.