Distinguished Lectures

Latin American Politics and International Relations

  • Ambassador (Retd.) R. Viswanathan

    By: Ambassador (Retd.) R. Viswanathan
    Venue: Jadhavpur University
    Date: July 20, 2022

Latin American politics and international relations are more colourful, eventful, exciting, explosive and different from other parts of the world. The history of Latin American politics is filled with dramas, comedies and tragedies. The region is known for crazy caudillos, bloody military coups, brutal dictators, glorious revolutions, fierce guerilla wars and ideological competition between Marxism, Maoism, Leninism and Trotskyism. In fact, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in 1941.

A Bengali revolutionary MN Roy had added to the colour of Latin American politics. He 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 was very active in the Mexican leftist politics besides writing articles and books. When he travelled to Russia for a Communist conference, the Mexican government had given him a diplomatic 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

The politics of Latin America has evolved in four stages:

First- Era of caudillos and oligarchs from the 1920s to 1950. There were constant power struggles and civil wars with occasional democratic periods.

Second - Era of cold war politics 1950-1980. In the name of the war on communism, hundreds of thousands of leftists were hunted, detained, tortured and killed by the military dictatorships supported by the US. The 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected leftist president Arbanz of Guatemala and installation of a military dictatorship, had made the Latin Americans angry. The 1959 Cuban Revolution was an inspiration to leftists in the region who took to arms to overthrow rightwing dictatorships and bring about a utopian state. The iconic leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had impact and influence around the world, going beyond Latin America. The 1973 overthrow of the leftist government of Allende followed by the brutalities the Pinochet dictatorship was a shock to the region. The success of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship was yet another moment of celebration of the Left.

Third- Transition period 1980-1990 when the military dictatorships ended and democracies were restored. But the fragile democracies were subjected to imposition of neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus. This had worsened the poverty and inequality in the region.

Fourth- Era of Pink Tide since 2000. In the elections held in the first decade of the century, the people voted for leftist leaders like Lula, Lugo, Vasquez, Correa and Chavez who had agendas for the poor. The high commodity prices and global demand had certainly helped the leftist governments who had brought down poverty levels. However some leftist governments were voted out in the second decade because of issues of corruption and abuse of power. Rightists were elected in some countries such as Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. But in the last few years, the Left has bounced back. Mexico and Colombia have elected leftist governments for the first time in the last seven decades. In Brazil, Lula is expected to come back to power in the October 2022 elections. This will complete the Latin American circle of the left. This is the first time that the seven largest and most important Latin American countries with the biggest markets – Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Venezuela - will all be ruled by leftist governments. This is unprecedented in the history of the region.

The democracies of the region have now 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 agitations 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 is good for the long term stability of democracies in the region.

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.

The Latin American leftist presidents are a challenge to the traditional hegemony of US. The Latin American leaders had started integration of the region with formation of regional groups such as CELAC and UNASUR to acquire collective strength vis a vis the US which had treated the region as its ‘ backyard’. In the second Pink Tide, even the traitional pro-US countries Mexico and Colombia have elected leftist presidents. The Mexican President Lopez Obrador has discontinued the pro-American policies of his predecessors and boycotted the recent Summit of the Americas hosted by President Biden to show his opposition to the US policy of isolation of the leftist-ruled Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. So the US will become isolated in the Americas for the first time. This should hopefully make the Americans to give up on their failed policies of interventions and devise a new constructive and positive agenda for the region. The Chinese are quietly increasing their clout in the region with billions of dollars of investment, credit and trade while the US continues with its relentless policy of lecturing and bullying the region on democracy, human rights, migration, drug trafficking and corruption.

Costa Rica has made history in the world by having abolished its armed forces in 1948. It is a civilisational advance. The country proclaims proudly that they spend their money on education and healthcare instead of arms. Oscar Arias, the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner said ¨ Our children walk with books under their arms rather than guns on their shoulders. We are an unarmed people, whose children have never seen a fighter or a tank or a warship. We are a people without arms and we are fighting to continue to be a people without hunger. My country is a country of teachers and peace. We discuss our successes and failures in complete freedom. We believe in dialogue, in agreement, in reaching a consensus, in convincing our opponents, not defeating them. We prefer raising the fallen to crushing them, because we believe that no one possesses the absolute truth". Costa Rica has remained as a beacon of solid and vibrant democratic stability and maturity in Latin America in the last seven decades. The country has held regular elections every four years and peaceful transfer of power in the last sixty years. This is remarkable and distinct in the contemporary history of Latin America where many countries had suffered military dictatorships, civil wars and interruption of democracies.

The resurgent pink tide in Latin America is good news for India since the leftist governments, in general, seek closer cooperation and partnership with India to address common developmental challenges in a democratic way. They are keen to import more Indian generic medicines to reduce the cost of health care. They invite Indian IT companies to open more software centres in the region to help with employment and skilling of their human resources. India’s success stories in poverty alleviation, affirmative actions for empowerment of underprivileged and emergence as an IT powerhouse resonate more with the leftist leaders. Latin America has emerged as a source of energy and food (especially edible oil and pulses), fitting in with India’s strategic policy of diversification in energy and food security. The leftist governments would be more willing to collaborate with India in UN, WTO and other multilateral fora in the spirit of South-South solidarity. So it is time for India to intensify its engagement with the region.

India’s exports to Latin America reached a record high of 18.89 billion dollars in 2021-22 (April-March), according to the Commerce Ministry of India. The exports have increased by an impressive 48% from 12.74 billion dollars in 2020-21.

India’s exports of 552 million dollars to the distant Guatemala (population 11 million) are more than twice that of the exports of 198 m to the neighbouring Cambodia with a population of 16 million.

Exports of 318 m to the remote Honduras (population 10 m) are more than the exports of 235 m to nearby Kazakhstan with a population of 19 m.

Exports to Brazil (6.48 bn) are higher than to the traditional trade partners such as Japan (6.18 bn) and Thailand (5.7 bn)

Exports to Mexico ( 4.43 bn) are more than the exports to Canada ( 3.7 bn) and Russia ( 3.2 bn)

Car exports to Latin America were 1793 million dollars. This was 30% of India’s global car exports of 5.92 bn dollars. Mexico was the second largest global market for Indian cars with 941 m. Other major destinations: Chile 337 m and Peru 115 m

Exports of motor cycles were 909 million dollars. This is 30.5 % of India’s global exports of 2.99 bn.India was the second largest supplier of motorcycles to Latin America.Major destinations were Colombia 309 million dollars, Mexico 174 m, Guatemala 103 m and Peru 43 m. Colombia was the second largest global market for Indian motorcycles after Nigeria. Some years back Colombia was the # 1 destination. Indian brands are market leaders in Colombia and Guatemala.

Pharma exports increased to 1486 million dollars from 1196 m last year. India ranked as #6 supplier of pharmaceuticals to the region

Latin America is a substantially large market with 19 countries, population of 620 million and GDP of 6 trilion dollars. The Indian exporters are still in the stage of discovery and exploration of the huge potential of the region. There is good scope to increase India’s exports to 50 billion dollars by 2030.

The Latin Americans seek to reduce their overdependence on China with which there is a huge trust deficit. As part of their diversification strategy, they attach importance to the large growing market of India which was the 7th largest destination of their global exports in 2021. They exported more to India than to their traditional trade partners such as Germany, France or UK. India was the #1 destination of Latin American exports of vegetable oil, #3 for gold, #4 for crude oil and #8 for copper.

China has 400 billions of dollars of trade with Latin America. It has given a credit of 160 billion dollars and invested over 110 billion dollars. China has over 60 Latin America study centres besides hundreds of Spanish and Portuguese language institutes. In India there is a need for more Latin America study centres and language institutes. The Jadavpur University, which has one of India’s oldest Department of International Relations, could consider setting up a Latin America Study Centre and also include Spanish and Portuguese language courses. The students of International Relations of the University could consider joining Indian Foreign Service through the civil service examination.

Disclaimer:- The opinions/views expressed in the Lecture are author’s own and do not represent the views of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Disclaimer :-The opinions/views expressed in the Lectures are author's own and do not represent the views of the Ministy of External Affairs.