Moving Beyond Castro, Cigars and Carnivals


Cubans know quite a bit about the Indian culture. Unfortunately, the knowledge of Cuba, known mostly for Castro, Cigars and Carnival, is limited in India. India needs to move beyond multilateral instruments and develop relations with individual countries in Central and South America. Cuba is one such country where India can significantly expand its presence, writes Deepanshu Mohan, who hopes that there will be enhanced mutual understanding as it is only when people know more about each other that diplomatic relations acquire a public constituency.

“Never say no to India”, said the 87-year-old Fidel Castro, when the living legend and the iconic Cuban revolutionary, after not been seen in public for more than five months and one who rarely meets visiting leaders, found time to meet Vice-president Hamid Ansari last October 2013 on a blessed, bright day in Havana. Signifying his special affection and esteem for India, Fidel Castro has always seen India as a fellow-traveller and a close non-aligned country. While Cubans know quite a bit about the Indian culture, unfortunately the knowledge of Cuba, known mostly for Castro, Cigars and Carnival, is limited in India. Not many Indians know that Cuban coaches have helped Indian boxers to win medals in a host of international competitions, including the Olympics. And the success story of Cuba’s health sector, which boasts of some of the finest doctors in the world, is dimly understood.

If we take a look at India’s economic history and the extent of its bilateral relationship with most countries, the central feature for all its’ patterns of trade across and within the subcontinent depend on only one factor, i.e. geography. At a first look, India and countries like Cuba may not seem as a natural fit on this feature, considering being geographically placed on two opposite sides of the globe. However, both countries share an interesting history of friendship and bilateral exchanges.

India has enjoyed warm relations with Cuba for more than half a century. In fact, Delhi and Beijing were among the first few foreign states to recognise Fidel Castro’s Communist state shortly after he overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Cuba’s ties with China soured as a result of the Moscow-Beijing split in the 1960s, while India maintained close links with Havana. However, India-Cuba trade has declined over the past 20 years – from $300 million in the early 1980s to less than $30 million in 2011 (the break-up of total trade given in Table 1).

Meanwhile, China has dramatically increased trade with the Castro regime, making Beijing the island’s second-biggest trading partner, behind Venezuela. There is a serious need for India as a rapidly developing market economy to tap into the latent economic potential of countries within Latin America (LAC). Improvements to the existing weaknesses in India-LAC relationship can only be achieved if India moves beyond multilateral instruments and develops relations with individual countries in Central and South America. Cuba is one such country where India can significantly expand its presence.

Bilateral Ties

As mentioned before, India was amongst the first countries to extend recognition to Cuba after the 1959 Revolution. Both countries have maintained close contacts since then with each other in various international fora, such as the UN, NAM, WTO, etc. Both have also supported each other’s candidature to various UN bodies. India had also supported Cuba against US supported resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and also consistently voted in favour of Cuban sponsored resolutions in the UN General Assembly calling for lifting of US sanctions against Cuba. Now that we are witnessing a positively transformed US-Cuba relationship, for India, which is also a close ally of the US, this is a win-win situation.

In terms of relief assistance and bilateral aid, India granted an aid of $2 million in cash as disaster relief assistance to Cuba in the wake of massive devastations caused by the hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma during August and September 2008. Early in the year 20081, the Government of India wrote off the principal and interest of $62 million, equivalent to Rs. 1.28 billion debt, owed to India. The donation was a measure of solidarity towards the friendly people and the Government of Cuba and this act further strengthened the existing warm and friendly bilateral ties. Cuba accepted with thanks this gesture of solidarity from the Indian people and government. India also granted aid to Cuba during its severe economic crisis in the early 1990s. India has extended a credit line of $5 million for the milk processing plant. Three other credit lines amounting to $42 million are under process in the Ministry.

If we observe the terms of trade between the two countries, the growth percentage in the level of Indo-Cuban trade jumped from almost 11 percent to 52 percent in a single year ($26 million to $40 million) between 2010 and 2011. But since then, there has been negative growth (from 2012 onwards). Political instability and consequences of a policy paralysis in India in 2012 and most of 2013 did stall India’s trade balance and similarly shook the confidence of both domestic and foreign investors. Considering the proactiveness of the current Indian administration led by PM Modi in expanding its foreign relations with countries across all regions, one can only expect this picture to get better over time.

Returns (DTRs) generate country-wise/port-wise tables. Up to 2005-06, consolidated petroleum import figures were being received from the Petroleum Ministry.

Going by the Ministry of External Affairs study, on a business side, the major Indian presence in Cuba has been of ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) since 2009, which is also drilling for oil in one of the blocks off the northern coast of Cuba assigned to it by the Cuban government. OVL feels the prospects are bright although uncertain. It has obtained extensions for its concessions but is concerned that the Cuban system is not adequately prepared to provide local infrastructure for intensive oil activities2. Other fears also concern the Cuban government’s attitude if oil is found. OVL also has a share in the Spanish Repsol led consortium in the same area.

There is also the microscopic business community from India. Earlier attempts at setting up trading houses such as Birla Group-led CIMMCO were wound up on account of difficulties faced in obtaining payments from the government. There are some pharmaceutical companies exploring the market and possibilities for Indian exports of engineering goods such as vehicles and even plants and machinery.

Areas for Economic Expansion

In addition to Indian companies like OVL and CIMMCO, there is substantial scope for widening Indo-Cuban exchange across areas of skill development through science and technology, with India offering its expertise in the Information Technology industry. There was even a delegation from India’s Ministry of Science & Technology that visited Cuba in June 2011 for discussions in areas of biotechnology, energy, software, etc. Collaboration in all these areas, particularly bio-technology and software, the main areas of interaction, holds immense promise. There has been active cooperation between the Indian company BIOCON and Cuba’s CIMAB, which has provided technical knowhow and expertise to the former.

Building Strong Cross-Cultural Bridges

In terms of soft-power, Indian culture and civilisation is well appreciated and celebrated in Cuba in spite of a small Indian community presently there. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore occupy a special place in Cuba. Tagore’s birth anniversary is celebrated every year, and on May 7, 2007, a bust of Tagore donated by ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) was unveiled in Old Havana. Yoga and Vipassana are practiced where Yoga is even part of the health curriculum of the Cuban government. There has also been an increasing trend in the medicinal application of Ayurveda and Indian Naturopathy.

The depth and variety of Indian dance, music and cinema are also well known in Cuba. The House of Asia organises regular cultural events – exhibitions, film shows, talks – on India and has a hall dedicated to India where Indian art and craft objects are permanently displayed. What is nonetheless required is a strong bilateral commitment towards promoting exchange in areas such as higher education and skill development. Easing of visa restrictions (starting with Visa on Arrival for promoting tourism from Cuba), offering of scholarships/studentships to Indian and Cuban students to study in the other country, and promoting the learning of Spanish in universities across India can be part of policy measures that will be a huge boost in building strong cross-cultural bridges which shall also enhance one’s understanding of each other’s institutional environment and operations.

There is a need for both India and Latin American countries like Cuba to identify areas for knowledge transfer with respect to building institutions that are based on a democratic, and independent working model guided by a strong rule of law. In doing this, Latin American countries (like Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Peru etc.) are likely to mark India over China due to the over-arching influence of Beijing’s own vested interests while building cross-country partnerships (case in point: the use of checkbook diplomacy in African countries).

In the days to come, one can only hope that there will be enhanced mutual understanding as it is only when people know more about each other that diplomatic relations acquire a public constituency. The visit by India’s vice-president in 2013 amidst many other visits should be followed by more such two-way visits to modernise India’s relations with Cuba in sync with the realities of the 21st century. More than visits, what is needed is the show of willingness to act on conversational exchanges of promising commitment over building stronger political and economic partnerships.

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Deepanshu Mohan

Deepanshu Mohan is Assistant Professor and Assistant Director, Centre for International Economic Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University.

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    2 Ideally, OVL would like to retain production sharing contract. The current investment amounts to over US$ 70 million and a further US$ 160 million would be required to start exploratory drilling.

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