Monday, July 13, 2015

'seduce me' says La India to Latin America

Hari Seshasayee cannot stop listening to 'seduceme', a salsa by Latino singer 'La India' ( her real name Linda Viera Cabellero) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KDDMEuiJGI. He has let himself be seduced by salsa and Latin America. He is the the latest victim of the magic of Latin America. He has surrendered himself to the Latino charms and has even bet his career on Latin America. 
Hari from Chennai studied journalism in Mumbai. His life changed when he went to work with AISEC in Peru in 2008. He stayed there for  two years and also travelled to Brazil. He learnt Spanish and made many Peruvian friends 14 of whom attended his wedding in 2014 in Chennai. After his return to India, he taught Spanish and then covered Latin America for the Mumbai think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He has written articles on the region in Indian and foreign newspapers and publications. He has just finished a masters degree in Latin America Studies at Stanford University and is going to travel for two months in Peru and Brazil on a research grant from the University. Hari is keen to work in Latin America itself for some years to deepen his knowledge and experience of the region.


He says, " Living in Peru was amazing, and it affirmed that I will for the rest of my life continue to be engaged with that country and the people from that region. More than anything else, it is the people of Latin America, their vibrant, friendly and happy nature, that keep me interested in the region. From an economic and social perspective, I feel we have a lot of complementarities with the Latinos, and there is much scope to work together and learn from each other".




Nivedita Kashyap from Bengaluru is another young person who has hitched her destiny to Latin America. She studied IT and worked in a company for a few years, before getting a chance to go on an AIESEC exchange programme to Lima to work at an e-business startup there for a year.  She travelled all over Peru and to Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. Back in Bengaluru, she worked as a Spanish teacher and interpreter. Two years ago, she moved to Washington D.C to do a Master's in international affairs from Georgetown University with focus on Latin America and business diplomacy. At Georgetown, one of the experiences that stood out the most for her was working with Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger, at the time the U.S announced its policy change last December. Nivedita is looking forward to a career in Latin America and India-Latin America relations.
There are other young Indians who have done studies in Latin America itself and have got into Indo- Latin American business with their Latino friends. Anish Narang from Delhi has started a consultancy for Latin America in partnership with his Brazilian MBA classmates from the prestigious FGV business school in Sao Paulo. Sonia Aroul did a bilingual MBA from Di Tella University in Buenos Aires is helping Indian companies with Latin America strategies. This is a welcome contrast to many old Indians who consider the region as too far and have an outdated and negative mindset. Most Indian scholars of Latin America are said to be either in their sixties or stuck as admirers of the Latin America of the sixties continuing to be uncritical and ideological fans of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara. 
I tell Indian businessmen that ' the risk of doing business with Latin America is.. falling in love'. Quite a few have taken the risk and ended up with Latin American spouses besides business success. Ashok Parthiban, married to a Guatemalteca has a flourishing pharmaceutical business in Guatemala. Three Indian IT boys, who went for a IT project in Colombia,  promptly married three Colombianas ( http://businesswithlatinamerica.blogspot.in/search?q=risk+of+doing+business+with+colombia) and have set up their own company in Bogota. Rakesh Vaidyanathan, Arvind Krishnan and Nitai Panchmatia, married to Girls from Ipanema, are in Brazil doing business with India.  Vimal Menon and Somnath Naha, married to Bolivians are promoting Indian business in La Paz. Rajesh Vairon, married to a Paraguayan helps in Indo-Paraguayan business from Asuncion. Reshmi Kwatra, a pharmaceutical export executive from Delhi became Reshmi Murillo after falling in love with a Costa Rican. There are over hundred young Indian executives working in Latin America with Indian IT companies as well as MNCs. Many of them have started dancing Salsa with Latino youth while their Latino counterparts have taken to Bollywood dancing, besides yoga and 'the art of living'.
Shoban Saxena, a young Indian journalist, based in Sao Paulo and married to a Brazilian, writes on Latin America in Indian media. His reports and comments on Latin America are objective in contrast to the biased western media. Mathang Seshagiri from Bengaluru, was in Colombia teaching journalism there. He has learnt Spanish and conquered many hearts there. At present he is working with Google in Bengaluru but is itching to get back to Latin America.  
Some young Indian diplomats and their spouses too have taken Latin America to their hearts after their postings in the region. Taruna, wife of Sandeep Chakravorty, the Ambassador to Peru, is doing a PhD in Latin American literature. She had taught Spanish in Delhi University after her return from Colombia. She said, "I cried when I left Colombia. Now I am going to feel at home in Peru'. 
Over fifty young Indian entrepreneurs had gone in the last five years to Santiago to work on their new ventures, taking up the financial and other support given by the the Chilean government under their pioneering  'Start-Up Chile' programme. During their stay, they had taken Chilean interns and mentored them, as required under the contract. Some of them have stayed on beyond the six-month term under the contract and pursue ventures on their own.
The inflow of youthful energy is great news for the Indo-Latin American relations which is undergoing a paradigm shift. The young Indians blend easily and merrily with the vibrant Latino spirit. Their positive, pragmatic and future-oriented approach is laying the foundation for a new win-win cultural and business partnership.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'The sound of things falling'- novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Colombian writer


'The sound of things falling' (El ruido de las cosas al caer- in Spanish) gives insights into the origin of drug production and trafficking in Colombia. The American Peace corps volunteer Elaine Fritts comes to Colombia to work for the poor as part of the idealistic "Alliance for Progress" project started by John F Kennedy. She falls in love with Ricardo Lavarde, a pilot trainee and the son of the owner of the house in which she stays in Bogota. Another peace corps volunteer Mike Barbieri gets into drug business. He encourages the farmers to grow coca which would give them more profit than the conventional agricultural crops. He advises them how to increase the yield through use of chemicals and fertilizers. He recruits Ricardo to become a pilot of a small plane to carry drugs from Colombia to Jamaica and Bahamas. Ricardo comes back from each trip with bags full of dollars. Eventually, he is caught and sent to jail for twenty years. Elaine hides this story from her only daughter Maya and tells that her father had died in a plane crash. Ricardo comes out of the jail and calls his wife to meet her. The plane in which she travels to Colombia from US crashes and she dies. Ricardo is also killed soon by the drug mafia. Maya has come to know about more about her father through his billiards acquaintance Antonio Yammara from Bogota. Antonio was also shot while walking with Ricardo but he survives. Antonio and Maya visit the ranch of the late drug baron Pablo Escobar in Medellin while sharing the story of Maya's father and mother. 
This story confirms the truth that drug trafficking started in Colombia in response to the demand-driven business from US.  According to an official US report, the value of the illegal drug retail market in US in 2010 was 110 billion dollars with a consumer base of 22 million. As long as the consumers in US as well as the Europe continue their addiction and willing to pay top dollars, there will never be an end to drug supply. It is a no-brainer, as the Americans would say. But the US government and the media have twisted the truth and made it as a problem of supplies from Colombia. The DEA gets into Colombia and forces the government to destroy coca plantations with aerial spraying of deadly chemicals which spoil the health of people and agricultural crops. Finally the US has now realized the failure of the 'war on drugs'. They could learn from the example of Uruguay which has passed laws legalizing production, distribution and consumption of marijuana.
This is the first ever book of Juan Gabriel Vasquez I have read. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and loved his ingenious way of story telling. I liked his vivid descriptions of life in the 'muddy Magdalena river', the cool Bogota and the hot and humid valleys surrounding the capital. He has given subtle and profound comments and interpretations of the history and politics of Colombia. He has given a Colombian perspective of the drug wars imposed by external consumers and enforcers. He has analyzed the psychological and social impact of violence which has come to afflict Colombia since the beginning of the second half of the last century. He says that ' fear' has overtaken the emotional space of the Colombians many of whom have lost their relatives and friends due to the violence. Bombings, murders and kidnappings had made every Colombian afraid of going out to shopping malls or public places. Fortunately, the violence has now come down significantly and the citizens are able to reclaim their streets and getting out of the fear complex.
After enjoying this book, I read two more of his books: " The Informers" and " The secret history of Costaguna". The first is a story about the arrival and settlement of German Jews and Nazis after the first world war. Some of them get detained and deported due to the pressure from US which sends a 'blacklist' to the Colombian government. Some Colombians including the father of the protagonist in the novel become informers to the government, motivated by jealousy or coveting German properties.
'The secret history of Costaguna' is more absorbing with poignant narratives of the death and destruction caused in the process of building of the Panama canal. The civil war between the Colombian conservatives and liberals add to the death toll. Taking advantage of this situation, the Americans take over the northern territory of Colombia and create a separate country Panama to build the canal. 


Juan Gabriel Vasquez is inventive like Borges and elaborative like Garcia Marquez. But Vasquez is critical of the magical realism approach and says, ' in my novel there is a disproportionate reality'. While reading ' the secret history of Costaguna' I had an intense feeling as I had felt while reading the ' War of the end of the world' by Mario Vargas Llosa. I could not read at one go. I had to pause and reflect many times. 
Juan Gabriel Vasquez has now become a delightful addition to my list of favorite Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Isabel Allende and Carlos Fuentes. Vasquez, in my opinion, is Nobel Prize material.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Discreet Hero – novel by Mario Vargas Llosa


'The discreet hero' is the latest novel of Mario Vargas Llosa and the second one, after he won Nobel Prize in 2010. It has two parallel stories of two different protagonists: Don Felicito Yanaque living in a Peruvian provincial town Piura and Don Rigoberto in the capital city Lima.

Yanaque, a self-made owner of a transport company receives an extortion threat from a gang. Felicito, who sticks stubbornly to his late father's advice, "never  let anybody walk all over you", gives a defiant newspaper notice saying he would not give in to blackmail. The gang sets his company property on fire and later kidnaps his young mistress Mabel. The police investigation finds that it was one of his own disgruntled sons Miguel who is behind the criminal plot. What is worse, Miguel forces Mabel to be his lover and makes her an accomplice in the kidnap drama. After this devastating news, Felicito confirms his long-held suspicion that Miguel was not really his own son. 

The second story is that of Rigoberto, the chief of an insurance company about to retire and looking forward to pursue his passion for art. Ismael Carrera, the owner of the insurance company, comes to know after a heart attack that his two wayward twin sons are anxiously waiting for his death to inherit the company. Enraged by this, Ismael, who is a widower in his eighties, decides to marry his young live-in maid servant Armida. The couple take off to Europe on secret honeymoon, leaving behind a sensational scandal. Ismael sells his company to an Italian multinational and writes a will bequeathing his entire fortune to his wife. Ismael's sons harass Rigoberto accusing him of being  an accomplice to their father's marriage. Ismael returns to Lima and assures Rigoberto that he would sort out the problems created by his sons. But he dies of a sudden heart attack. His widow, disappears fearing assassination by Ismael's sons and lands up in the house of Felicito in Piura. She surprises Felicito saying that she is actually his wife's real sister. Eventually the sons of Ismael agree to a negotiated settlement with their stepmother. Lady Armida then moves to live in Italy and invites Felicito and her wife to be her guests there and invites Rigoberto's family too.

Rigoberto, Lucrecia and Lituma are familiar characters from Llosa's other novels. The erotic conversations between Rigoberto, the hedonist and his sensual wife Lucrecia are extensions of their fantasies in the other novels 'the notebooks of Don Rigoberto' and ' In praise of the step mother'. Police sergeant Lituma is from the earlier novels ' The Green House' and ' Death in the Andes'. Don Felicito, the discreet hero has emerged as another memorable Llosa character.  

Llosa has given a deep insight into the Peruvian society and culture through the narratives of hard working and principled men who seek pleasure from young mistress and maidservant but face painful problems from spoiled children. Especially interesting is the contrast between the sophisticated urbane art lover Rigoberto in Lima and the provincial ethos of Piurean characters such as Felicito, the police officers and Adelaida the spiritual soothsayer. The reader gets a feel of walking in the hot and humid streets of Piura and tasting the authentic Peruvian dishes in the famous restaurants in the culinary capital Lima. Rigoberto realizes that small spaces of civilization like he has created for himself with his artistic pursuits 'would never prevail against the immeasurable barbarism' around. 'When Piura was a poor city these things did not happen', laments the police sergeant referring to the violence and crime which grow with prosperity, a phenomenon, seen across Latin America. 


I was anxiously waiting to read this latest book published in 2014 and its english version in March 2015. This is not one of the best of Llosa who is among my favorite Latin American writers. I did not feel stunned as I felt after finishing ' The war of the end of the world'. But I felt entertained by this light hearted thriller-like optimistic story with funny characters and engaging twists and turns.

Can we expect more from Llosa, given his advanced age of 79? I was in for a surprise when I read his recent interview to Paris Review in which he says " My greatest fault, I think, is my lack of confidence, which torments me enormously. It takes me three or four years to write a novel—and I spend a good part of that time doubting myself. It doesn’t get any better with time; on the contrary, I think I’m getting more self-critical and less confident". 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Pacific Alliance, a new business and cultural partner of India

Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, the four members of the Pacific Alliance (PA), is called by some as the Pumas of Pacific. It is the latest addition to the new power house of Asian Tigers, Indian Elephant and the Chinese Dragon.

PA is the new kid in the block in Latin America which has four other regional groups: Mercosur, Andean Community, Alba and Sica. PA stands out as distinct from the other four blocs as the most vibrant, dynamic and ambitious group while they are struggling with existential difficulties. 

The members of the PA distinguish themselves qualitatively from the other Latin American countries. 

The macroeconomic fundamentals of PA countries are stronger and more solid than the other Latin American countries. They have higher growth with lower inflation. They are projected to grow by three percent and more in 2015 while Latin America as a whole is expected to grow only by about one percent. The average inflation of PA region is less than 4% and half of the annual Latin American inflation.

The policies and tax regimes of the PA countries are more stable, transparent and predictable as well as investor-friendly. The four countries are the leaders of the region in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey 2014. Their global rankings ( Colombia-34, Peru-35, Mexico-39 and Chile-41) are way ahead of India's lowly 142nd rank.

They have lower tariffs, more liberal foreign trade policies and have signed the most number of FTAs. Chile has signed FTAs with 60 countries, Peru with 50, Mexico with 44 and Colombia 30. All the four have  FTAs with US as well as European Union. Mexico, Peru and Chile are in the TPP and Colombia is also keen to join. Chile and Peru have FTAs with China and Colombia has just announced its intention to negotiate a FTA with China.

The Indian business is attracted by the large and growing market of PA which has a total population of 214 million, GDP of 2 trillion, trade of one trillion and average per capita GDP of over ten thousand dollars. 

India's trade with PA has been growing rapidly reaching 15.4 billion dollars in 2014 accounting for forty percent of the trade with Latin America. It has the potential to double to 30 billion in the next four years. Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile are the second, third, fourth and fifth largest destination of India's exports in Latin America. Mexico and Colombia have become regular source of crude oil while Chile and Peru are the sources of copper and gold imports for India. 

Over thirty Indian companies have invested in PA in areas such as IT, Pharmaceuticals, energy, mining and manufacturing. Ten companies from PA have invested in India. The most notable is Aje from Peru which has successfully entered the cola drinks business in the Indian market with its brand ' Big Cola'. 

What could be done to improve the win-win partnership with the Pacific Alliance? India could sign FTAs with Mexico, Colombia and Peru to enable its exports competitive vis-a-vis the products imported by PA countries from their FTA partner countries. India already has a PTA with Chile which is being widened and deepened. India should open a large line of credit of at least 500 million dollars to promote and facilitate investment and project exports of Indian companies. India has become a observer in PA since 2014. Using this status, India could engage with the group and consider participation in the next summit of the PA to be held in Peru this year.

India could learn from the Mexico Pact under which a dozen major reforms have been brought about in the last two years under an unprecedented consensus between the ruling and the opposition parties. The success of Mexico in making itself as a manufacturing hub of the Americas has lessons for the 'Make in India' campaign. The Left in India could find inspiration from the success of the leftist governments of President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Olanta Humala of Peru who pursue pragmatic and balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies. 



The four PA countries account for five out of the six Nobel Prizes for literature won by Latin Americans. Chile has won twice while the other countries have won one each. This includes Octavio Paz who was Mexican ambassador to India and has written essays and poems on India. His book ' Vislumbres de la India'( In the light of India) was the first major book on contemporary India by a Latin American and it was an eye opener. Satish Gujral had learnt from his apprenticeship in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Building on these, India could enhance the literary and cultural interaction with the countries of Pacific Alliance.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Latin America has reduced hunger with proactive policies


Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has halved the percentage and total number of undernourished people, according to the  Food and Agricultural Organisation(FAO)'s May 2015 report 'Panorama of Food and Nutritional Insecurity in LAC 2015'. While 10.9% of the global population is undernourished, it is just 5.5% in the case of LAC. Poverty has  declined from 2002 onwards, from 44% to 28% and inequality has also reduced in the region.

The region's success story is the result of the countries' political commitment with the fight against hunger at the highest level, a process which was underpinned by a general context of macroeconomic and political stability. 21 countries in the LAC region have active conditional cash transfer and other such pro-poor policies. With this commitment and success, the region has become an example to the rest of the world. The region has also become a pioneer with its proposal to complete eradicate hunger by 2025 through the 'Hunger Free LAC Initiative'. 

Hunger still affects over 34 million people and extreme poverty has risen in the last two years. 
Thanks to economic growth, increased public social spending and public policies focused on the most vulnerable, LAC has also reduced poverty and inequality.


The LAC region has more than enough food for their entire population and has become a major global food supplier.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

China's pivot to Latin America: worry for US and opportunity for India


In the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum meeting held in Beijing in January  2015, the Chinese President announced that the trade with the region would double to 500 billion dollars and investment would reach 250 billion dollars in the next ten years.
The trade has already reached 275 billion dollars in 2013 from 12 billion in 2000. China has become the top trading partner for some countries (especially Brazil) and has overtaken European Union as the second largest trading partner of the region. China's share of the region's exports was 10% and imports 16% in 2013. 
China has already invested around 100 billion dollars in Latin America, much of it in oil fields and mines.
China has extended 119 billion dollars of credit to the region in the period 2005 to 2014, according to Inter American Dialogue, a US think tankIn 2010, the Chinese credit of 37 billion dollars given to the region was much more than the combined total given by World Bank, Inter American Development Bank and the US EximBank.  The largest recipient is Venezuela (56.3 bn $) followed by Brazil (22 bn), Argentina (19 bn), Ecuador (10.9 bn), Mexico( 2.4 bn) and Peru (2.3 bn) besides six  more Latin American countries.

Besides these loans to individual countries, China has also extended credit for region-wide projects in collaboration with the Inter American Development Bank, of which it is a member. The US blackballed the Chinese application for membership for a year and let them in only after extracting some back door concessions.

The Chinese banks have become the principal sources of finance for countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina and have come to the rescue of these countries which have been spurned by the Western capital markets. China is heaven-sent for the Argentine government, harassed by the American vulture funds and blocked from western finanical sources. When Petrobras, the Brazilian company got mired in a corruption scandal recently, the American investors filed class action suits in the courts and the rating agencies downgraded the investment rating of the company. The Brazilians contrast this with the Chinese who came to their rescue quickly. The China Development Bank agreed to give a bridge loan of 3.5 billion dollars on 1 April 2015, as part of a two year cooperation agreement. The Chinese have extended currency swap facility to Argentina and Venezuela  to help them tide over foreign exchange shortage. The Chinese have opened branches of their banks in Latin America and have bought controlling stakes in local banks to facilitate the growing financial relations with the region
A Chinese company HKND has signed a contract with Nicaragua to build a canal connecting the Atlantic with Pacific ocean at a cost of 50 billion dollars. Although there is lot of skepticism within Nicaragua and outside about this project being done by the little-known Chinese firm without previous experience of large scale projects, one cannot miss the comparison and potential competition with the US-built Panama canal. In any case China has become the second largest user of the Panama canal after the US.

The Chinese are providing aid and technical assistance to the the region and are setting up Confucious Institutes to teach Chinese language and have started a number of student and academic exchange programmes. They have also started supplies and collaborations in defense, space satellites and nuclear energy.

There is a win-win complementarity between China's resource needs and surplus cash with Latin America's surplus resources and need for cash. China's arrival has coincided with the Latin American aspiration to diversify their economic partnership and reduce their dependence on their overbearing traditional partners.
The US is worried by the Chinese 'encroachment' in Latin America, considered as the 'backyard of US' since the declaration of Monroe doctrine in 1823. Recently, the Head of the U.S. Southern Command is reported to have said in his Congressional testimony that “While the Pentagon is launching its 'pivot to Asia', China is engaged in its own 'pivot to the Americas”.
The US media has articulated the concerns more openly. For example, Forbes published an article on 15 Oct 2014 " As the US sleeps, China conquers Latin America" and Business Insider wrote on 9 April 2015 "Obama lands in Latin America while China is 'running away with the gold' in the region". These reports and articles portray China as a predatory investor exploiting Latin American natural resources, dumping cheap chinese manufactured goods, damaging the Latin American industry, lending without concern for human rights and extracting natural resources without environmental safeguards. One of the motives for the US reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and their enthusiastic courting of the region at the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama city is to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region.

While recognizing the commercial importance of China, the Latin Americans also perceive China as a potential threat.  There is a trust deficit. They impose antidumping duties on Chinese goods and restrictions on Chinese immigration. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have imposed limits  on acquisition of agricultural land by foreigners after some Chinese companies scared them with proposals to buy several hundred thousand hectares. 
In contrast, the Indian firms have a good image in Latin America. The Indian IT firms which employ 25,000 young Latin Americans in their operations in the region have earned admiration and respect.  The reduction in the cost of health care for the Latin American consumers and governments after the entry of less expensive Indian generics has created goodwill. Latin Americans have a better understanding of India with their admiration for Indian culture and practice of yoga, meditation and spiritualism. India's democratic, pluralistic and open model resonates more with the Latin Americans who do not like the communist dictatorship model of China.
The Latin American firms and governments have started realizing the perils of over dependence on China and are keen to diversify relations and reach out to other large and growing markets such as India. The news that India is overtaking China in annual growth rate has caught the attention of the Latin American businessmen who have started stopping by Mumbai on the way back from Shanghai.This opens an unmissable opportunity for Indian business. 

As part of the containment of China in Latin America, the US seems to be keen to see more Indian presence in the region. This is evident from a blog of Americas Quarterly (28 January 2015) with the title,"Now is the time for India to make a move". The blog ends with the suggestive question" Is 2015, the year of India in Latin America?". It is time for Prime Minister Modi to pay closer attention and make a trip through the region, just as Chinese leaders are doing frequently, the latest being Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia from 17 to 29 May.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Even Silence has an end – my six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle" book by Ingrid Betancourt


Ingrid Betancourt, while campaigning as a candidate in the Presidential election of Colombia was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas in February 2002. She spent a harrowing six years in captivity in the jungles from 2002 to 2008. The guerrillas humiliated her with cruelty and and diminished her dignity. Ingrid chronicles her traumatic ordeal of existence and survival, in this book published in 2010.



Ingrid came from a rich political and diplomatic family. Her mother was a senator and father a minister in the government and was also ambassador. She held a French passport by virtue of her first marriage to a French man. Ingrid who was brought up in a life of comforts and luxuries, was made to beg for food, mattress, and toilet facility from the illiterate FARC guerrillas who revelled at her misery. Initially she was overtaken by shock and disbelief. Her hope turned into delusions and later depression, as the months and years went by. She gave up all hope and started believing in miracles and prayers. She lost her bearings and had an identity crisis.

Ingrid, the sophisticated and cosmopolitan intellectual, had to endure insults and abuses of the guerrillas who called her as a 'puta' (whore) and mocked her calling as doctora. They denied her privacy by forcing her to take bath and use the toilets publicly. She had to run for her life with the guerrillas whenever the Colombian army attacked Farc camps where she was held. 


She was tormented not only by the captors but also faced petty jealousies and mean acts of her fellow prisoners whose personalities were also perverted by the captivity and by the basic instinct for survival at any cost. She had to fight for her ration of food and other basic necessities with other hostages. The FARC commanders encouraged fighting and bickering among the prisoners as part of their divide and rule game. 

She tried to escape four times. Each time, she was caught and punished severely. She was put in chains and humiliated publicly. 


She describes in some detail the story two of her companions; the young Clara , her campaign assistant who was also captured with her and Lucho another political prisoner. The relations between Clara and Ingrid soured in the wretchedness of their captivity. Clara became pregnant probably by one of the guerrilla commanders. She gave birth to a boy who was taken away by FARC to bring him up as another guerrilla. Ingrid became close to Lucho another political prisoner who was the only other person with whom she could have meaningful conversations. But he suffered from diabetes without insulin supplies and memory lapses from time to time and she had to take care of him.

After the initial sufferings, Ingrid had reconciled herself to the fate and tried to make the best out of the misery. She opened her eyes to discover the birds, plants and flowers of the jungle as well as the dangerous wild insects, animals and snakes. She relearned to laugh and enjoy the small mercies of life and of her captors. She started playing cards with others, teaching French to other prisoners and guerrillas and table manners to some FARC soldiers. She made friendship with some guerrillas and tried to understand and empathize with those who had joined FARC due to poverty or suffering in the hands of the Colombian army, paramilitaries and land owners. She even advised her captors on their love lives. 
The book gives a glimpse of FARC, which remains as the single largest undefeated guerrilla force in Latin America. It gives insights of the lives, personalities and world view of the FARC commanders and soldiers.



It is a pity that after undergoing such suffering, Ingrid became controversial and unpopular when she sought multimillion dollar compensation from the Colombian government  as a victim of terrorism. Faced with popular outcry, she withdrew her claim later. She has now moved out of Colombia and shifted to US and France.



The experience of Ingrid is like one of the 'magical realism' stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the famous Colombian writer. The only difference is that in the case of Ingrid, her suffering was real and there was no magic during her six years of captivity.


But Colombia has become magical. The country which was a hostage to FARC terrorism for the last five decades has also been liberated..almost. During their hey days, FARC controlled a significant part of the territory of the country and terrorized the population with kidnappings and violence. The government has decisively broken the back of FARC and is currently holding peace negotiations which have made considerable progress. FARC is on the retreat and the government is reclaiming the areas earlier occupied by FARC and using the new areas for agriculture and exploration of oil and minerals. The economy is booming with growth of industry, exports, agriculture and mineral and oil production. The country has become safer and more peaceful. There is increasing number of foreign tourists who visit the country trusting the advertisement ' the only risk of visiting Colombia is... wanting to stay'



Monday, April 27, 2015

No place for héros – novel by Laura Restrepo

The novel 'No place for heroes' (Demasiados heroes) by the Colombian author, Laura Restrepo, resonated more with me since the story is about Argentina, rekindling my nostalgia. Lorenza, a Colombian journalist joins an Argentine resistance group based in Madrid against the dictatorship. She takes an assignment to smuggle passports, microfilms and secret stuff to Buenos Aires. There she falls in love with an Argentine militant Ramon. They start living together but the life is filled with fear and tension under the military regime. Lorenza persuades Ramon to shift to Colombia when they get a baby. She wants Mateo, the son to grow in peace in Colombia. But Ramon gets bored in Bogota and drifts away from Lorenza after some time. He returns  to Argentina and takes his son Mateo also with him after lying to Lorenza that he is just taking him out for a weekend outing in Bogota. Lorenza gets even madder when a narco mafia group threatens her and her family for repayment of a large sum of money Ramon had taken from them with a cheque in which Lorenza's signature was forged. Lorenza goes to Argentina to recover the son and finds him in Bariloche happily enjoying with Ramon horse riding and walking around the scenic Bariloche area. Lorenza manages to take Mateo back and escapes to Bogota. Ramon knows Lorenza's plan but lets her get away. When Mateo grows up, he comes back to Argentina with his mother to look for the father, after the end of the dictatorship. He manages to find and reunite with him in Bariloche.
The novel brings out the dark period of the Dirty War in Argentina when thousands of people 'disappeared', exiled, tortured and killed. The Argentine society had a traumatic experience caught between the cruel and sadistic military and the naïve idealistic militants who fought against the dictatorship.  Thousands of young people from the middle class believed in their noble cause and plunged into the resistance movement with a romantic revolutionary fervor.  Their amateurish acts and provocations were punished with inhuman and terrible suppression by the secret service and the dictatorship.
I have read many Argentine books and novels about the travails of the Argentine society during the dictatorship. Laura  Restrepo has given an outsider's perspective. She did not just imagine Argentina. She had actually lived there for four years as a member of the underground resistance, married an Argentine and had a son from him in Buenos Aires. The novel seems like a fictionalized autobiography.

Restrepo's narration of the resistance is also authentic reflecting her own political activities in Argentina, Colombia and Spain as well as her journalistic experience of covering the Colombian guerillas. She had faced dangers because of her political activites in Colombia itself and was forced into exile for six years in Mexico. She was member of the Trotskyist party of Colombia for some time. 
Restrepo praises the courage of the mothers who marched in Plaza de Mayo demanding the return of their sons and daughters, daring and defying the watching eyes of the murderers. In her words, this was the beginning of the fall of the dictatorship. Restrepo describes the endless agony of those whose dear ones had ' disappeared'. While death of someone closes the emotional door in some sense, the 'disappearance' keeps the door open with eternal hope, waiting and driving oneself to madness. I remember reading the statement of an An Argentine general who said, 'not alive not dead but simply disappeared'. 
Restrepo has depicted the typical Argentine Macho spirit through Ramon's emotional, reckless, moody, mysterious and adventurous character. She gives a vivid account of the good life in Buenos Aires by taking the readers through the lively and elegant cafes, bars and restaurants as well as the discrete but unmissable 'telos' of Buenos Aires.
The best part of the novel is the constant conversations between the mother who narrates the stories of her adventurous life and the adolescent son who questions everything she says in his irreverent way. Lorenza tells him about her revolutionary younger days, her uncertain life in Argentina and her love for Ramon . But he interrupts, challenges and interpretes everything with his sarcastic comments. 
The book is a delicate blend of romance, love and revolutionary spirit of the lovable Latin America.
I have earlier read Restrepo's other books: The dark bride (blog review),  Leopard in the sun (blog review),  and La Isla de Passion blog review and 'The angel of Galileo'.

The real life of Laura Restrepo is also as fascinating as her novels. A glimpse of her life at  http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3433900063.html
-an interview in which she herself narrates her life http://bombmagazine.org/article/2457/
-another interview to La Nacion of Argentina when the book was launched in Buenos Aires in 2009 http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1134340-laura-restrepo-cuenta-sus-anos-en-la-clandestinidad

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Latin America and Bengal share two passions and a link

Latin America and Bengal share two passions and a link: football, communism and Tagore.
Football
Bengal shares the passion for football with Latin America. The crowds in Kolkatta went crazy when Maradona visited the city in 2008. The rivalry between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal teams and fans reminds me of the super classic rivalry between Boca and River Plate in Argentina and the one between Palmeiras and Corinthians in Brazil. When I was anointed as the fan of Boca Juniors in La Bombanera stadium in Buenos Aires, they told me that I could change my political party, religion, god and spouse but not the loyalty and fidelity to Boca !
Communism
MN Roy 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 became a communist  during his stay in Mexico. He was very active in the Mexican leftist politics besides writing articles and books. The Mexican government had given him a diplomat 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
Majority of the countries in Latin America have leftist governments. But the New Left of the region has become more pragmatic and less dogmatic. It gives ample space for the private sector to flourish so that they also generate wealth for the country, jobs for the people and taxes for the government. 
Tagore
Tagore spent two months in Buenos Aires where he was looked after by Victoria Ocampo. She introduced him to her social and literary circles in the city and got his articles published in Argentine newspapers. He got rejuvenated and she got spiritual awakening and inspiration. Tagore dedicated his Purabi poems to Victoria. In one of the poems, he says,
Exotic blossom
I whispered again in your ear
What is your language dear
You smiled and shook your head
And the leaves murmured instead

They had extensive correspondence after the Buenos Aires encounter which was also romantic and platonic besides cultural and literary meeting. Their exchanges have been collected and put in a book ' In your blossoming garden' by Ketaki Kushari Dyson.

In his letters Tagore addressed Victoria as ' Dear Vijaya..my bhalobhasa'. She in turn started her letters with 'Dear Gurudev' and ended with ' Your Vijaya'.

Tagore to Victoria, " you were the only one who came to know me so closely when I was old and young at the same time"
Victoria to Tagore, " The days have become endless since you went away…I miss you"

Tagore confessed to her about his immense burden of loneliness as a celebrity and talked about the woman's love he deserved. She wrote that Gitanjali fell like a celestial dew on her anguished 24 year old heart".

The personal meeting also turned out to be a continental encounter. Tagore wrote,' For me the spirit of Latin America will ever dwell incarnated in your person'. She wrote, 'you are and will always be India to me'

They met in Paris in 1930 when Victoria organized the first-ever painting exhibition of Tagore's works in a Parisian art gallery. It is believed that it was Victoria who encouraged Tagore to start painting.

In his last years, Tagore used to relax in the reclining chair gifted by Victoria and even wrote a poem about it in April 1941, just before his death in the same year.

Yet again, if I can, will l look for that seat
On the top of which rests, a caress from overseas
I knew not her language
Yet her eyes told me all
Keeping alive forever
A message of pathos


picture above: the chair gifted by Victoria, kept in Udichi House, Shantiniketan

When Tagore died, Victoria sent a telegram which said ' Thinking of him'. 
This is the title of a movie proposed to be made by Pablo Cesar an Argentine director/producer. The script is about the Tagore-Victoria encounter as well as about the contemporary link between India and Argentina. Cesar is looking for an Indian coproducer.