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13 November 2013, Gateway House

Book review: Updating archaic images

In ‘India-Latin America: An Alliance for the Future,’ Soraya Caro questions the mutually distorted perceptions between Indians and Latin Americans, and offers a new multi-dimensional lens for looking at bilateral ties

Former Distinguished Fellow, India-Latin America

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Launched on 24 October 2013 in New Delhi, this book is the first by a Latin American author on contemporary Indo-Latin America relations. Author Soraya Caro is a scholar on Modern India; this book is the outcome of her PhD on the same subject, which she earned from Indira Gandhi National Open University during the past six years that she has lived in India as the spouse of the Colombian ambassador to India, Juan Alfredo Pinto. It has provided her with a unique view of the country, for which she has a deep affection.  In the preface, Caro says,” My life and the life of my family have been dramatically divided into two by destiny: before and after the period we lived in India.” Her book is, therefore, an expression of her heart as well as her mind.

The book converges the views of four different worlds: the academic world in their ivory towers; the business world which is discovering ever greater opportunities for trade and investment; the diplomatic world of “cheers” and “note verbales;” and the world of the masses which live in poverty and amidst developmental issues in both India and Latin America.  Caro straddles these four distinct worlds well, using extensive interactions with people in both regions.

For Caro, the perceptions of the Indian academics on Latin America are distorted and outdated. This is because most are of the Cuban revolution vintage who see and interpret the region through the prism of revolution and anti-imperialism, overlayered with a dated romanticism. These cheerleaders of Castro and Chavez go overboard in celebrating leftist rhetoric and achievement without paying adequate attention to the larger picture and the new trends of the region.

An example is a seminar on Chile in New Delhi in September 2010, when the Indian academics talked only about the Pinochet era, embarrassing the Chileans present and ignoring the fact that Chile is today one of the best economies in the region – admitted to the OECD nations group – a vibrant democracy and a role model in Latin America.

The Latin American academic perception of India is a mirror image of this. Many Latin American academics are scholars of Sanskrit and India’s ancient wisdom; very few study contemporary India’s political and economic developments and the commonalities with Latin America.

These archaic academic approaches on both sides complicate public perceptions, which are in any case limited.  Caro clarifies some of the misconceptions of Indian academics about Latin America such as identity and racial mix, explaining the region’s developmental history and providing a balanced account of India to the Latin Americans.

Caro is critical of the current model of trade between India and Latin America which is largely resource-based from the Latino side, and replete in the old, diverse, finished and semi-finished goods on the Indian side. She calls for more value added exports from Latin America and a balanced and diversified trade, and not just a simple transaction of natural resources.

This is commendable. Indeed there is a great deal of complementarity and synergy between resource-rich Latin America and resource-deficient India, in minerals, energy and food production.

Since India is a net resource importer, Latin America will have to take the initiative to move up the value chain and export processed and finished products instead of raw materials. For instance, Chile can export copper wire and products instead of sending mountains of copper concentrate to India.  Even Mexico, which stands out in the region as an exporter of manufactured products (cars, electronics and aerospace equipment), exported $2.8 billion in crude oil from its total exports of $3.3 billion to India in 2012. Ironically, even top crude exporter Mexico imports a large part of its refined products and for now has no plan to expand its refining capacity.

Some Latin countries will move fast on this – if only because of their own domestic compulsions. Bolivia has rich deposits of lithium which are the core ingredient for batteries. But President Evo Morales has refused to allow extraction of the mineral for exports as a raw material, insisting that investment in lithium mines will be permitted only if the companies make finished products within Bolivia itself.

The Brazilian government is pressurising Vale SA, a mining corporation, to manufacture steel in the country rather than export millions of tonnes of iron ore to China – whose companies in turn export steel products to Brazil at a price lower than the Brazilian steel.

Caro provides detailed information on the investment by Indian companies in Latin America and vice versa. She uses the recent studies on India-Latin America economic relations done by Inter American Development Bank as well as the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean – which have certainly raised India’s profile in the region, but which she finds inadequate based as they are largely on statistics, rather than a full understanding of the dynamics which move both societies and their businesses. She analyses the problems and challenges faced by some of the Latin American companies in their investment in India, caused by inadequate political, social and cultural understanding. She has advised her own country’s business groups to pay attention to the markets of India and Asia as Chile and Peru have done so successfully.

Caro cautions the Latin Americans that India cannot be viewed just through statistics and secondary sources. She says that the data has to be seen in the background of India’s long tradition and culture of the intricate and complex Indian society to get a real understanding. While highlighting the new consumerism in India, Soraya says, ” India is big enough to assimilate all kinds of external influences, but in its essence India does not change”. Oliver Stuenkel, the Brazilian expert on India, agrees that the conventional western analytical tools to study the rise of powers cannot be employed for India, which is a unique case.

In the final chapter “Steps to come closer,” Caro makes some practical suggestions to bridge the information and communication gap between India and Latin America. Instead of using European and American books, articles and interpretations of Latin America which contain their own biases and agendas, she recommends a direct exchange of information and knowledge between the two sides. This means that there must be more private and state interaction between the two regions, and that Indians will have to take an interest in learning Spanish and Portuguese which will give them access to Latin media and publications.

It is an encouraging sign, then, that Spanish has now replaced French as the most popular foreign language in India.

Caro is only the third Latin American with direct experience of life in India, to write on the country. Her predecessor one the famous Mexican writer Octavio Paz who wrote Vislumbres de la India (In the light of India) after completing two diplomatic postings in India in 1952 and 1968. Paz was followed by Jorge Heine, the Chilean ambassador in 2012, with La Nueva India. While Octavio Paz’s work is more literary and philosophical, Jorge Heine and Soraya have taken contemporary India to a larger Latin American audience of business leaders and policy and opinion makers.

India- Latin America: An Alliance For The Future’ by Soraya Caro Vargas. New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2013.

Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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