Kochi: Finance minister KN Balagopal highlighted the significance of holding researches and studies on Latin America and developing close bilateral ties between Kerala and Latin America, in the 2022-23 state budget. The minister also allocated Rs 2 crores and stressed the role of the Latin American Study Centre at Kerala University to make this a reality.
One would wonder why the minister gave much importance to Latin America in the budget. Is there anything special with the Latin American nations? To answer this, mathrubhumi.com spoke to R Viswanathan from Trichy in Tamil Nadu, who served as the Indian Ambassador to various Latin American countries for many years and also occupied key diplomatic posts.
Viswanathan explained the significance of holding researches on Latin America in detail. “Latin America, in many ways, is close to Malayalee heart as Keralites are the most knowledgeable and interested in Latin America especially in literature, Leftist politics and football. Latin American authors are familiar to Kerala readers as well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a household name and his books have been in the best-seller lists in Kerala and had fifteen editions. When Gabo was diagnosed with cancer, about 200 people in Kozhikode had held a prayer meeting. When Marquez died, the Keralite media paid homage saying, 'Marquez leaves an indelible mark in Malayalee hearts'. Some even claimed that ``Magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Garcia Marquez had published a word'. Khasak in Vijayan's novel is similar to the mythical place Maconde in Marquez's works. Posters of Fidel Castro, Che Guavara and Chavez are the sacred trinities adorning the Marxist party conferences even now in the interior of Kerala," said Viswanathan.
He added that the Maradona-Pele rivalry plays out and flags of Brazil and Argentina go up on rooftops across Kerala during World Cups. “Maradona had visited Kerala in 2012 on the invitation of Bobby Chemmanur Group of Kannur which has made him as their brand ambassador. The Chemmanur Jewellery released a gold coin with Maradona’s picture on one side and his signature on the other. The suite no. 399 of Hotel Blue Nile in Kannur, where Mardaona had stayed, has become so famous that the management has converted it into a museum."
There is a spice connection too between Kerala and Latin America. "The Kerala cardamom growers make long distance calls to know about the Guatemalan production which determines the global prices. Guatemala has become the largest exporter of cardamom in the world, overtaking India in the last three decades. The variety grown in Guatemala was originally taken from the Malabar coast," Viswanathan added.
He expressed his concern that despite the political, literary and sporting inspirations, Malayalees have not ventured out to the region except for about a hundred catholic priests who connect the Latin Americans to Jesus in fluent Portuguese and Spanish across the region. "There are a few professionals married to Latinas and settled there. The most prominent is Mathew Kodath, who has become a leading producer of Honduran films. He has married a Honduran and settled there. I liked his film "Amor y frijoles"( love and beans)," said Viswanthan.
"Latin America has a great influence on the socio-political, cultural and agricultural spheres of Kerala. Latin American crops have been cultivated here since the arrival of Portuguese in Kerala. Due to geographical similarities crops and farming are also suitable for Kerala. Therefore, it is necessary to formulate plans that will utilize the potential of Kerala and Latin America. Such comparative studies and research will be encouraged under the guidance of Centre for Latin American Studies at University of Kerala. The relationship with Latin America needs to be strengthened through projects including student exchange programmes. An amount of ₹2 crore is earmarked in the budget for the study, research and follow up projects of the Latin American Centre," said Viswanathan.
Despite having these connections, India has just three Latin American study centres; Goa, JNU and Kerala University. Whereas, China has 80 Latin America Study centres. “In fact, there is a need for us to reach out to Latin America to enrich ourselves. We need more research, studies and other programmes in this regard. It is welcoming that the Kerala finance minister knows the significance of studies in this regard,”
By utilising the fund allocated in the budget, the director of the centre in Kerala University, Gireesh Kumar, is all set to send students to Latin America to have studies in this regard. “We are in touch with the ambassadors there to make it a reality,” said Gireesh Kumar.
All the 19 countries in Latin America are a major market for Indian exports. In the year 2019-20, Indian exports to Latin America reached 13.2 billion dollars, as per the data of Commerce Ministry of India. There has been a steady rise in India's trade with the Latin American nations as in 2015-16, the export was just 10 billion. Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina are the major markets for India with exports 3.62 billion dollars, 1.04 billion dollars, 793 million dollars, 764 million dollars and 763 million dollars respectively.
India's major exports include vehicles (3231in million dollars), chemicals (2576), machinery (1426), textiles (1058), diesel (1049), pharma (962), cotton (359), plastics (386), iron and steel (394), aluminium products (342) and rubber products (264).
Latin America accounts for 28 percent of India's global car exports at 6.7 billion dollars. India is the second major supplier of motorcycles to Latin America with 458 million dollars, which is 22 percent of India's global exports.India is the fifth largest supplier of pharmaceuticals to Latin America.
What is noteworthy is that, Indian exports to these Latin American nations are much higher than that of the exports to neighbours. For example, India's export of motorcycles to Colombia is worth 228 million dollars which is higher than the exports to Sri Lanka (176), Nepal (198) and Bangladesh (156).
India’s car export to Chile is at 178 million dollars which is more than the exports to Nepal (107), Bangladesh (72), Sri Lanka (40) and Myanmar (15). Not just in exports, in imports too these Latin American nations remain the major sources for many years now. The major imports are crude oil (11009 million dollars), gold (3743), edible oil (2188) copper (1079) etc.
“There is a potential for India to increase its exports to about 20 billion dollars in the next five years if the Indian exporters and government intensify their export promotion seriously and systematically. Although the region’s imports will decrease by over 10% due to the 9.1% GDP contraction forecast for 2020, India can certainly increase its share in the region’s imports. For example, India can double its pharma exports to 2 billion to Latin America whose annual global imports are around 25 billion dollars. Motorcycle demand is going up in the region, consequent to the need for social distancing after the corona pandemic. This provides an opportunity to take India’s exports to a billion soon," said Viswanathan.
At this time of austerity, Latin Americans look for affordable products from less expensive sources. Although China fits this expectation, the Latin Americans seek to reduce their over dependence on China with which there is growing trust deficit especially after the Corona virus.
“The Latin Americans appreciate the fact that India was the seventh largest destination for Latin America's global exports in 2019 and the third largest in 2018. India is the best market for their exports of vegetable oil, crude oil and gold. They perceive India as a large growing and transparent market and as the trusted and respected land of yoga, meditation and gurus at this stressful time of the Wuhan virus,” said Viswanthan.