Sergio Arispe Barrientos, Ambassador of Bolivia to India is, at 37, the youngest head of mission in New Delhi. Only the second envoy from his country to India, Barrientos, who presented his credentials to the Indian President last month, feels he has arrived at a propitious time, when India’s focus is on solar energy and the International Solar Alliance summit. With the world’s largest lithium deposits, Bolivia’s moment in the sun is here.
Excerpts from his interview with India Review and Analysis:
Q: How do you view India-Latin America relations?
A: The two regions are vastly separated by structural issues and it is important to promote links between them. We as regions are countries that look towards the West. We see each other as far off destinations and this, to me is obsolete. It is hard to believe that in a globalised era, we see each other as far off destinations considering what India is due to be.
It is starting to promote itself as the third largest economy of the world in the next decade. And that is both a challenge and an aspiration we must help develop. I don’t see it possible if we don’t promote better links between Latin America and India. There is way too little presence of India in Latin America considering the size and scope of this country and there is not enough of Latin America here as well.
The problems that we have are also similar. We have also suffered a huge transformation of a rural society to urban society. Up until 1952, about 80 per cent of Bolivia’s population was rural and now it has changed in just 50 years. We have to adopt a paradigm of development that is different from what the Europeans have followed.
Q: What are the key means of partnering with India?
A: For us, the key means of helping India is our Lithium deposits. Bolivia is the largest natural reserve of Lithium in the world. Considering that you have already started projecting your need to transform the vehicles from petrol to alternative energy, there is a keen sense of having something come together both politically and enterprise wise.
The next area is technology transfer. We believe that India is a powerhouse in this. India makes technology available for the poor especially in the pharmaceutical sector. We need technology that can be acquired easily. Indian products will obviously be more competitive than the European countries. But unfortunately, they have a stronger lobby.
I understand that India does not have the power that China might have, but there is one thing you have that the China doesn’t – markets.
You have a growing and profoundly interesting market in India. Imagine the diplomatic power that India can harness if it starts signing bilateral treaties with countries such as ours.
Q: Have the two nations been able to leave behind the Jindal steel dispute?
A: What country in the world hasn’t had an issue? We have been naïve to say that this is going to define the relations between two countries. Bolivia has a 100 per cent conciliation record with companies that it had issues with and I am sure this is a small hurdle and perhaps someday Jindal will come back.
But if we let ourselves be oriented by generalities and individual issues, I don’t think we are doing enough in terms of educating the public.
Q: What are the areas that you want to particularly focus on?
A: I want to start with Lithium because of the possibility of the markets and access to technology.
Secondly, pharmaceuticals. There are mid-level companies in India starting to view Latin America as a market.
Thirdly, promoting my state. The financial clout and the expertise that some of your companies have amassed speak for themselves. It is not easy, but I am working on it. I need to knock on at least 2000 doors before maybe twenty can open and I can say it is a job well done.
I am also looking at the private sector.
Q: Is there any possibility of President Morales visiting India in the near future?
A: If the Minister of Foreign Affairs comes in May, it is a point towards President Morales coming. But, by then we need to have priorities put in place.
Q: Has India been laggard in developing its ties with Bolivia?
A: India does not have an embassy in Bolivia to start with. As ambassadors and diplomatic missions, our alternate task is to promote in-depth knowledge of our realities for which an Embassy can be of great help. And a country that is due to have the third largest economy needs to be there. (India’s Ambassador in Lima, Peru, concurrently looks after Bolivia)
Bolivia is due to have several billion dollars worth of tenders for infrastructure. One of the main issues of developing countries is addressing infrastructure gaps, specially logistics. Bolivia has been spending more than half of its yearly revenue in highways and in infrastructure in general.
Only in hydroelectric energy production, for the next 10 years, we have at least USD 35 billion worth tenders. The only means of solidifying diplomatic ties at times is when there are important national companies over there. With China, Bolivia has promoted a USD 7 billion line of credit.
With India, it is just a couple of millions. There have been no high-level missions from India to Latin America.
Q: Illicit narcotics trade in Bolivia is a cause of concern. India has also been fighting the menace. Are there any lessons that both nations can draw from each other?
A: We need to address the structural issue of narcotics. UN Drug and Crime (UNODC) has appraised Bolivia for being able to control coca plantations. We are the only country which has managed to keep the coca acreage low and keep the narcotics situation under control.
We threw out the (US)DEA from Bolivia in 2008. We have dealt with narcotics effectively and adopted a smart way of controlling it by giving limits to the farmers.
The Indian government definitely has technologies to fight the issue. It is not a war that can be easily won. It has to be won with methodology and the right approach. But we have managed well.
Q: What are the steps that can be taken to enhance the cultural engagement?
A: International Yoga day in Bolivia was a commendable step. We are both ancient civilizations. If there were Indian institutes promoting historical links between us, I am sure we could find synergies.
Q: In your immediate horizon, what are the goals that you want to achieve?
A: I think the only way I can capture Indian minds right now is through Lithium and nothing else.
Gold has also started becoming important with some Indian businessmen acquiring gold in Bolivia and now the trade is up to USD 450 million.
Because of this, India has become the fourth largest trading partner of Bolivia. I would like to take this forward and see if a refinery can be made in Bolivia and interact with the Indian government on this. But as of now, the only thing I have to get the Indian government’s attention is Lithium.