Saturday, June 23, 2012

India seeks to boost economic ties with oil rich Cuba.

The strains of the Indian national anthem filled the iconic revolution square in Havana as India's foreign Minister SM Krishna started his three-day visit to the Cuban capital by paying homage to the father of the Cuban revolution, Jose Marti. He was then ceremonially greeted by all the 180 ambassadors to Cuba from the world over at the foreign ministry.

It was an unprecedented welcome by Cuba for an old friend whose world view was identical at one point of time in history but which has taken a very different path since then. While India has had an embassy in Cuba for the past 50 years, this is the first visit of a foreign minister in 23 years - a time during which much has changed in both countries and in the rest of the world. Neither side acknowledged the drifting of ties in the middle. Minister Krishna opened his bilateral meeting with his Cuban counterpart saying, "There is a special place for Cuba and the Cuban people in India's heart."

Cuba and India have historically had strong relations since the revolution in 1959. India was among the first countries to recognise Cuba and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was among the first major world leaders to visit Havana in 1960. The personal role of President Castro in forging the India-Cuba alliance is well known. The image of him embracing Indira Gandhi while handing over the NAM chairmanship to her in 1983 has become iconic. But in a world where international affairs are ruled increasingly by pragmatism, the challenge for New Delhi is whether it can build on the goodwill of a historic alliance, based largely on an increasingly irrelevant ideology, and craft a new partnership for a new world.

The apparent warmth and bonhomie on Mr Krishna's three-day visit is reflective of both countries' desire to strengthen and renew relations and take it to the next level.

According to Mr Krishna, "Our political relations are excellent, but we must give greater economic content to those ties." Bilateral trade between India and oil rich Cuba reached its highest level in the 1980s when it topped $300 million annually. It currently stands at around $30 million a year. Krishna also announced that India's commerce and industry minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, will travel to Cuba in July to "open new horizons" in bilateral economic cooperation.

Already ONGC has invested over 70 million US dollars in oil exploration in Cuba's Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a move welcomed by the Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez who expressed his appreciation saying, "We welcome the powerful Indian oil companies with international activity and I hope that this business can be in mutual interest and profitability for both our countries."

Foreign minister Krishna's itinerary over the past week has looked like something out of a James Bond movie. He has travelled for bilateral talks from China to the US and now to Cuba, an ideological rival of Washington. Whether it is coincidence or plain logistical sense taking into consideration world geography, the Indian foreign minister's transcontinental travels reflects India's determination to balance diverse partners in an increasingly interlinked and multi-colour world.