Over the past couple of decades, India has significantly strengthened its ties with Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) nations. Efforts to bolster relations have increased in recent years, as the incumbent Indian government attempts to project India’s status as an emerging economic power across the globe. Recent exchanges between India and several LAC counterparts have included several high-level state visits, increased Indian investment in the region, and crucial agreements related to trade, training and military and economic cooperation. However, while continued improvements in trade have helped India overcome the barrier of geographical distance to the continent, ties with LAC nations persistently suffer due to a cultural disconnect. This has directly impacted India’s ability to further its geopolitical interests in the region, and consolidate its status as a reliable economic and strategic partner to LAC countries.
This article attempts to examine the history of India’s relationship with Latin American countries, it’s trajectory over the past few years and the scope for continued cooperation, in light of recent geopolitical developments in the region. It argues that New Delhi’s Latin America policy must, while continuing to bolster trade relations, prioritise the improvement of cultural connections with the continent, especially as a belligerent China seeks to cement its influence in the region to challenge a friendly United States’ regional hegemony in the post-COVID world order.
A brief history of Indo-Latin American ties
India’s history with the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region goes back to cultural links forged as a legacy of 19th century Britain’s Indian indenture labour system. Three LAC nations, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname, continue to have sizable Indian-origin diasporas which first reached those shores as migrant labour of the Empire. Coincidentally it was in 1917, the year that the British Empire banned indentureship that an Indian connection with the rest of Latin America began to emerge. 1917 was also the year that Manabendra Roy, an Indian revolutionary in exile founded the Mexican Communist Party. While it is possible Roy’s achievements in Mexico may have redirected Indian attention to Latin America, it is difficult to say to what extent the continent featured in the consciousness of Indians.
Nonetheless, the period that followed saw increased exchange between both regions, including a first meeting between leaders from India and South America in 1927 at the ‘International Congress Against Imperialism’. States such as Brazil and Argentina continued to play an important role as trade partners during the British Raj. Indian independence only accelerated this growing relationship. 1948 saw the opening of the first Indian embassy in the region in Brazil. This was followed by the establishment of missions in Argentina (1949), Chile (1957), Mexico (1960), Cuba (1962), Peru (1968), Colombia (1970) and Venezuela (1972). Increased diplomatic contact followed, as multiple head of state visits took place both ways, perhaps the most notable of which was Indira Gandhi’s 1968 multi-nation tour of the continent.
Such early efforts to establish diplomatic relations paid rich dividends for India. Since its inception in 1961, several Latin American nations have joined as either members or observers in the India-led Non Aligned Movement. Engagement in NAM notably helped member nations from Latin America resolve various diplomatic issues such as the US interference in Venezuela. While there were periods of turbulence in the relationship due to political and economic uncertainty in both Latin America and India, participation in bilateral engagements and multilateral institutions such as NAM opened up the region brought the region closer to India’s strategic vision, and helped forge ties of greater trust and cooperation.
Current trade relations between India and LAC
Economic diplomacy between the region and India soared post the liberalization of India’s economy, and remains the biggest driver of India’s relationship with Latin American countries today. Annual trade between the region and India has risen to new heights in the past couple of decades peaking at $44 billion in 2013-14, largely due to Indian oil imports from Venezuela. Although subsequent US sanctions against Venezuela and a recession in the region in 2015-16 drastically reduced this figure, mutual trade has since stabilized and continues to grow each year.
Latin America is one of India’s most crucial commercial export regions. The region accounts for a large volume of Indian vehicular, chemical, pharmaceutical and machinery exports. These also include significant technology and manufacturing services provided by Indian firms such as Tata Consultancy Services, United Phosphorus Ltd, Novellis, and Mothersons Group in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. In 2020, these cumulative exports reached the highest they’ve been in the past five years at $13.2 billion; a figure which pales exports to the likes of Russia, Canada, Nigeria and other major trade partners, and also defies conventional wisdom about geographical distance posing a barrier to India’s engagement with the region. The region is also strategically important to India for its imports. Latin America accounts for around 15% of India’s crude oil imports, which meets 25% of India’s total energy needs. It is also estimated to house nearly 40% of the global rare-earth elements supply, raw materials which are essential to manufacture modern technologies ranging from processors to propulsion control systems.
A three way battle of influence
Trade between India and the region is only expected to grow, with estimates suggesting a potential increase up to $100 billion by 2025. However, it is not without its difficulties. While increased engagement in recent years is cause for optimism, squandered opportunities from the past have resulted in a curtailment of India’s prospects in the region. Trade has allowed India and Latin America to overcome their geographical distance as a barrier to engagement. But cultural indifference continues to persist as a deterrent to increased Indian engagement. Along with American indifference to the region, it is perhaps partially responsible for the region’s tilt towards China which among other cultural exchanges, runs a dedicated state-sponsored Spanish channel to promote its favoured content narratives abroad.
Though sizable, India’s current and future projections of trade in the LAC region pale in comparison to China’s current trade volume of close to $315 billion and its projected increase to $500 billion by 2025. India’s state capacity vis-à-vis China and the United States’ directly affects its ability to invest in the region; it leaves the country with options limited to continue its pursuit of mutually beneficial trade agreements with individual countries and trading blocs. Though India has sold arms to LAC nations before, expanding military presence through bilateral exercises remains an interesting, but largely unexplored option. At the moment, however, it remains an unlikely possibility, given the current power dynamics of the region and the priorities closer home.
However, circumstances still allow India to continue making significant economic and strategic inroads into the region. The legacy of former President Trump’s aggressive Latin America policy, a deficit of regional leadership in the continent, and a belligerent China are expected to challenge US influence in the region even as a more progressive, Biden-led administration takes charge. Equally, a growing negative perception of China within the region since the pandemic struck now threatens to derail its ambitions of economic and strategic dominance. In this context, India has appeared a more stable and trustworthy partner to LAC nations given its democratic credentials, cooperative trade practices and response to the pandemic.
Beyond trade: Indian ‘soft-power’ and the way forward
Given the circumstances, projecting India ‘soft power’ to improve cultural relations with Latin America nations takes on an urgent role. This should involve facilitating multiple forums of exchange for bureaucrats, businesses, and private citizens.
The area of cultural and educational exchange stands out immediately. India’s bureaucratic community has traditionally suffered from a lack of strategic thought on LAC nations. Nor does the region feature as a popular area of study among students and policy practitioners in India. For the most part, this neglect stems from an inadequate knowledge of individual countries’ cultures and the continent’s broader history. It would do well for both India and Latin American nations to revisit the structure of bilateral programs such as ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation) scholarships which have been underutilized in recent years, while also work to set up new and attractive language, art and educational exchanges for professionals, academicians and students alike.
However, such engagements do not have to be limited to bilateral initiatives or events of a certain kind. Cultural exports such as films, television series, music videos and other online content often serve as effective tools of soft-power and invite deeper collaboration among countries. For example, the release of popular Bollywood films such as Dhoom 2 (2006) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2006) sparked a tourism boom in Brazil and Spain; such was the success of both films that authorities in both nations even courted Bollywood production houses in order to attract more tourists. The current state of affairs presents the best possible conditions for increased public and private cultural exchanges between India and the region. Latin America’s mistrust of Chinese state-sponsored Spanish media and American policy has continued to grow over the past few years. This provides Indian state and private enterprises a window of opportunity to create and market content for a largely untapped region and in the process, establish strong cultural ties with the region.
For long, India’s ties with Latin America have remained on the back of both Indian and Latin American priorities due to a number of factors, the most persistent of which has been a lack of cultural engagement between the two populations. It is a travesty that India still has 14 embassies (two more announced in 2020) for the 33 countries in the region, despite the possibility of increasing trade with all partners. Trade agreements will continue to strengthen cooperation. However, leaders from both establishments must realise that for a true Indo-Latin American partnership to emerge, there must be increased and sustained cultural engagement and education across different levels among India and all of Latin America.
Kartikeya Reddy is a first-year undergraduate Computer Science major and International Relations minor at Ashoka University.