Bolivia, part of the so-called 'lithium triangle' which includes Chile and Argentina as well, is experiencing a boom in the mining and extraction of lithium in an era of electric vehicles and renewable electricity generation. Currently, the country possesses the world's largest lithium reserves. In an interview with the Diplomatist, the Ambassador of Bolivia to India, Mr. Sergio Arispe Barrientos, who at 37 is the youngest head of mission in New Delhi and only the second envoy from his country to India, spoke of the immense possibilities that are open for enhancing Indo-Bolivian ties with regard to not just the energy sector, but trade, tourism and culture as well. Excerpts...
Six years after the opening of the Embassy in India, how fruitful do you think the extent of bilateral ties have been so far and how do you see them shaping up in the coming 5-10 years?
Though we've been here since 2012, it's still a new mission to a certain degree. India has transitioned these last few years, having experienced an enormous growth spurt which has motivated many countries including my own to establish diplomatic missions here, which shows you the political will that we emphasize on a country such in lieu of what it is due to become in the future. Geopolitically, India is growing in strength and scope, and this will lead to greater interactions with the world. As a member of the GRULAC embassies, we see that there is going to be a greater influx of high level visits to Latin America in the near future from India, and the same will come from ours. We're at a point where things are starting to accelerate, with India rapidly shaping itself into a strategic partner.
Bolivia has proposed the signing of a framework agreement for bilateral cooperation. Any progress on that front?
We have just proposed this, and we are looking to sign it in the near future. I have also been communicated to initiate the process of a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) with India, which is a clear sign of strengthening the bilateral relationship, especially with regard to commercial ties. Nothing concrete has materialised yet, but we have certain copies that we are already addressing. The PTA will certainly solidify the relationship. We recently met with the Minister of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Suresh Prabhu, and he expressed that there is a will from the Indian government to entertain PTAs with a variety of countries. Chile already has one; Peru has one in the making; and we would like to promote one soon. Of course, these processes do take time but it's something that, at least, we have a political will to do on both sides and this is, obviously, a step forward.
Previously, you have also talked about a visa exemption proposal. Has anything happened on that front?
We are currently working on a suppression of visas for diplomats and official category personnel only. We are not yet seeking a visa exemption for everyone, but that is one of our ultimate goals. My country champion's the necessity to travel without borders and I hope that, in the near future, we can address these issues because, ultimately, this leads to greater influence and interaction between the two countries.
Can you provide some information on the current status of bilateral sectoral investments in the field of hydrocarbons, mineral reserves and other industries between both countries?
It is very clear that enhanced cooperation between Bolivia and India in these sectors, particularly in light of PM Modi's ambitious objectives in terms of transitioning towards EV (electric) vehicles, is not just a possibility but a growing reality. We have had meetings with the Indian Minister of Renewable Energy, Mr. R.K Singh, and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM). I think India will promote incentives and subsidies into this diversion (towards electric cars) and this, obviously, will create the possibility of interacting with countries that have large deposits of lithium (for making EV batteries), including Bolivia. Bolivia is home to one-fourth of the world's lithium reserves, and we've just signed an agreement with ACS, a German conglomerate, for lithium extraction. This does not mean that we are not looking for associates in other strategic countries. India is one of them; I'm trying to fly my Deputy Minister of Lithium to India in the near future to ensure further interactions between the relevant ministries, interested parties, and stakeholders so that we may sit down on a technical level to work out an agreement on lithium extraction and use. Some private sector Indian companies have also shown an interest - Tata Chemicals has recently come to Bolivia and interacted with parties there. This is a sprouting market and we're still in an initial phase, but we have to bear in mind that this can take time. Up until now, Bolivia was still seen as a place that couldn't satisfy or entertain these types of developments. I think this is all set to change though; we are talking about a JV which will include around $1.3 billion in investments from the Germans. This obviously sets the pace, and will give the right signs to the international community.
The Bi-Oceanic Trade Corridor project - you had approached India for this, but the project has now gone forward with the Swiss. Any comments about the same?
While India has the companies and the market requirements to look into the Latin American region, I don't believe India is in Latin America with industry yet. India is part of a region which will probably be the main economic driver of the world in the next 10 to 20 years. India has been, thus, concentrating most of its efforts in its own region. However, naturally, you have to evolve and promote exchanges with other regions such as Latin America. In this regard, I also think we have a very big structural issue to address; we are a bit too reliant on mass media and analyses that are pro-Western. We must collectively challenge this, because both India and Latin America have been frequently presented as places that are not there yet in terms of being reliable partners for foreign investments. But I think that if you're not in our region or in India, you're missing out on the future of world economy.
Within the Asian region, China is playing an active role. Any comments about the same?
China has successfully changed the vision of the world about how things occur. I remember one of the latest issues of The Economist stating "how the West got China wrong," and this is the same that will happen with India and with us. Both India and Bolivia have gone through governments who've managed to tackle major issues which, today, have led to huge prospects, and I think both regions are truly, even in biological terms, the future of humanity. Both countries have a median age of less than 30 years. So, it is only natural to seek to cultivate bilateral ties between our two countries but this is not something that will happen immediately. I am trying to promote links that will probably materialise later on, maybe not even in my time in office. The first Ambassador from Bolivia to India did what was needed - to promote more of a government-to-government relationship. Now that I'm here, I am attempting to engage both the government and the private sector, because the presence of the latter in India is huge. Furthermore, the nature of things here permits you to have a bit more flexibility and quicker results. We as governments have to promote the basis for partnership between companies from both countries. We need to sign the PTA, give companies insurances and the legal framework so that they can come together with something where they feel comfortable. That's why I propelled conversations with my capital about starting a dialogue on PTA because that would provide the legal framework upon which the flow of trade and investments can be encouraged and sustained.
Another area of importance is tourism, a key indicator of growing people-to-people ties between any two countries. What are your plans with regard to promoting Bolivia as a tourist destination in India?
If I ask people in India about Bolivia, they probably don't even know where my country is. We can address a niche market in this country - India has a population that has the budget and the culture to see new places. Countries in Latin America, in association with tour operators here in India, must address possibilities of Indian nationals coming not only to one country but multiple countries in the region. There are 3 huge tourist hubs in Latin America - the Caribbean; Brazil - which is a world unto itself; and then you have the cluster of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. These three big quarters must come together and initiate joint tourism efforts. Bolivia has salt plains which are not only the largest in the world but also one of the most worldly sites; then you have Machu Pichu in Peru; and the services and tourism that Chile is already offering are well known, and Argentina as well. Moreover, connectivity is no longer that much of an issue because you have hubs that are open in the ME which permit you to have a much shorter lay over. Transiting through Dubai, going to Sao Paolo, and from there going to different Latin American capitals is now much easier to do.
Any specific tourism promotion project that you are planning to initiate in the near future?
I'm in talks with the Ministry of Culture of Bolivia as well as the private sector, and am motivating some companies from Bolivia to come here to promote their services. The Bolivian private sector is willing to invest in India and will be coming in the near future; I'm actually waiting for a delegation to arrive in the next two months that will visit some of the financial hubs in India to promote their services. Hopefully, this and other measures will lead to better promotion of Bolivia as a preferred tourist destination for Indians.
I read about the presence of numerous Bollywood dance academies in Bolivia. How popular is Bollywood in Bolivia?
Bollywood has gained popularity the world over, and has come out in Bolivia as well. Bahubali was the first Indian movie to be shown in the cineplexes of Bolivia, with subtitles of course. The joy and breaking of certain rules of Hollywood that Bollywood provides to places like Bolivia permits you to cultivate a closer appreciation of India's dancing, rich culture and colourful nature and that speaks to itself. Other cultural imports from India include yoga. The Indian Embassy in Bolivia has been organising different events in Santa Cruz to celebrate International Day of Yoga in Bolivia.
The recent discovery of ceramic pots adorned with ancient Indian scriptures in Bolivia has provided evidence of the long history of trade and cultural exchange between our two countries. What are your thoughts on the same?
I don't think we should ever even doubt the legacy of cultural and economic exchange between our two civilisations. One of my friends and a former Bolivian Ambassador comes from a family of historians who have worked on different archaeological sites for decades. He told me that, some time ago, his grandfather had found ceramics belonging to a period perhaps 2500 years ago which were inscribed with Vedic signs. His theory is that Bolivia was once inhabited by a people, mentioned in our historic texts, that were called the Kanakas. The Kanakas were situated near my hometown and were later expelled by the Inca Empire as they started moving. These Kanakas, according to my friend, were probably from the Karnataka region of India. The Kanakas eventually moved towards the Amazon basin, and the indigenous tribes currently living there have linguistic traditions which can be traced to India. Given these possibilities, I think that the linkages between our two ancient cultures are obvious and substantial, and will one day lead to more cultural links between Bolivia and India.