External Affairs

Looking at Outer Space: Betting Big on Mexico-India Relations

Mexico is one of the most important economies in the world, a member of the G20, a leading oil producer, but a country that has not seen a visit by an Indian prime minister since 1986. Rajiv Gandhi was the last time an Indian prime minister visited there; that was 30 years ago. On June 8, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a one-day working visit to Mexico City at the invitation of the Mexican president.

On the eve of Modi’s visit, I interviewed Melba Pria, ambassador of Mexico to India, for Rajya Sabha TV. Excerpts:

Melba Pria, ambassador of Mexico to India. Credit: Embassy of Mexico

Melba Pria, ambassador of Mexico to India. Credit: Embassy of Mexico

You’ve had a great year as ambassador. I met you when you came here from Indonesia last year, and in this year, you’ve had your foreign minister visit. She met with Madam Sushma Swaraj, and the prime minister. Now you have this visit by the prime minister, as I said, the first time in 30 years. And  believe Prime Minister Modi met with President Peña Nieto in New York. Many of your colleagues in the diplomatic community in Delhi must be quite jealous of you.

I hope not. It’s just hard work. And two leaders that find each other interesting, and two nations that have had 60 years of very good relations, and it’s blooming.

When we talk of India-Mexico relations everybody goes back to Octavio Paz; you know, there is a sense of a deep cultural connect, even though we don’t share language, we don’t share the kind of colonial history – in the sense that India has an affinity with the countries that were colonised by British. But despite that, there was a lot of hope in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that the India-Mexico relationship would blossom, bloom. It’s done okay, but somehow high-level exchanges, high-level contact – particularly in the last three or four decades – has been a little disappointing, wouldn’t you agree?

I do. I do agree, but the relations are not only about that. The relations are about government relations, are about people-to-people relations, are about business relations. Mexico is the biggest investor of Latin America in India. We have 13 companies here. You are the biggest investor, or Mexico is the biggest investor for India in Latin America.

So the biggest destination of Indian FDI in Latin America is Mexico. And the biggest FDI of Latin America is Mexico. We have a trade that is not bad, but…

It’s around, what, 6 billion dollars?

Six billion dollars. You know, we’re scratching, with the size of the economy of India, with the size of the economy of Mexico, with the opportunities of each other. So what you have to do is give visibility to this relationship, if we talk about trade. But if we talk about other things, as you say, culture– you know, Mexican children in fifth grade are reading Tagore, in our official textbooks. We read Tagore… Mexicans are called Indians because the Spaniards many, many centuries ago thought that they had arrived to the Indies. So Mexicans are called Indians because they thought that they had reached India. Look at me, look at yourself, and people say, ‘Oh yeah, we arrived in India’. That’s why Mexicans are called Indians. Every chilli that is consumed in India came from Mexico. Then you made it better, because your soil has different qualities, and that’s it. You have curry, we have mole. It’s exactly the same thing. So we have many similarities. But science and technology, aerospace, there are many other areas in our relationship that are blooming, but they are not well known.

So what we are out there to do is let people know what Mexico-India relations are really about.

There’s another kind of historical connect – a few years ago I helped edit a book written by an Indian author, Savitri Khankhoje, whose father, Pandurang Khankhoje, was an Indian freedom fighter who actually spent about 20 years of his life in Mexico.

Yes. Yes.

And he was a collaborator with Diego Riviera, he was an agronomist, and he was recognised by your government, and of course came back to India after independence. And M. N. Roy, another prominent Indian politician, had connections with the…

Very important, M. N. Roy.

Mexican radicals, exactly. So there is a sense in which, I think, there’s been connections beyond government, beyond the private sector, an emotional, political, social connect. And I think it would be wonderful if now, given the high-level political interaction, the entire relationship gets a kind of boost. Now, tell us something about how the current visit of Prime Minister Modi came about. Was it something arranged quite suddenly, or has it been in the works for the past year?

I would say both things are true. First of all, we are expecting an official visit of Prime Minister Modi in the first quarter of 2017. It has something that has was agreed in the UN General Assembly, that’s why my minister came, that’s why Madam Swaraj is going to Mexico in September-October to have our joint commission so this has been in the making. Then, of course, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US started, and I started saying, sort of, ‘You’re already going to be in the US, it’s already very close’. ‘Well, we don’t have time, yes, no, yes, no,’ and then suddenly the say, ‘Yes, we’ll take up your invitation. Yes, we want to come.’

So what was planned for 2017 is now going to happen?

No.

Oh, so that will still go on? 

We hope that it will still go on. This is a short working visit. This is to pave the way for our joint commission. This is to pave the way for 2017 when the leaders will have really, like, long interactions with each other. And so, you know, we’re very happy that Prime Minister Modi is coming for a working visit, will have a nice dinner with the president, and we’re going to work. It is a working visit.

The last time a Mexican president came to India was in 2007, President Calderón. How would you evaluate the implementation of decisions and agreements that were struck at that time. it’s been, what, nine years? Would you say that the momentum that that visit sought to impart on that relationship has been fulfilled to some extent?

Yes. Of course… changes of government do make a difference. You know, we had change in government in both sides. But it’s incredible what is happening really in our relationship. From here to September, we will have three different high-level groups’ meetings. So we have the trade and investment meeting in Mexico in June, we have in July science and technology, we have another coming up for solar energy and aerospace and all of these in September. So many things are happening that are maybe not out there, and those are the 4th, the 5th, the 6th; they meet every two years– one time they meet in India, one time they meet…

And so this is an agenda that come out of the ’07 visit?

Yes. So, so it has been happening, even if we don’t necessarily know it. So you know, sometimes things are slower, sometimes things are more prompt, but we’re very excited about our relationship. It is a 60 year relationship; we’ve been through our ups and downs, there has never been a real problem between Mexico and india. We have cooperated in many issues; the green revolution of this part of the world was done with Mexican seeds.

Today we have 60, 70, 100 corporates coming back and forth for science and technology. We have 40 or more science and technology projects going on in nanotechnology, in water, in different field of energy, and nobody knows it. So I don’t know why we keep so silent, when both Indians and Mexicans are not known to be silent people!

 

Let’s look at the economic dimension, before I come to the political or strategic issues. Trade. 6 billion dollars. Now, the main composition of this is energy… and so these are Mexican oil exports to India, essentially.

Mexico exports 4% of what you consume in oil. We want to better it, we want it to be higher – maybe much higher– but we don’t only want that. I always say, don’t talk about the $6 billion, talk about 3 billion. And $3 billion is ridiculous in a trade that can be much, much bigger than that. We have to make business…

So if half of that $6 billion is oil, what’s the other $3 billion? Is it auto, engineering stuff, or…

Engineering stuff, automobiles. India is producing some of the cars that are consumed in Mexico, by Volkswagen. The same the other way around, because that’s how globalised companies work. But there’s a lot of many little little nitty-gritties. There is engineering, there is IT, there is a lot of consumer goods that is happening. And there are many other possibilities for things to be happen – processed food. I mean, both our countries are very big consumers of processed food. So this is a possibility…

Which is not good for people, by the way!

Minerals. Minerals. I mean, we are the fourth largest producers of gold in the world. The first largest producer of silver in the world. And instead of…

And you know how Indians are crazy for gold.

Yes. So instead of trading bilaterally, we all go through the bourses, because that’s what people do. So, the possibilities in minerals and other things are, because we want to see it. What we have to do is to turn our heads and look at each other in other ways.

Right. So NAFTA, does that provide a platform for Indian investors to access, say, the US or Canadian market if they set, if they manufacture in Mexico, and do we see evidence of that happening?

 

Let me tell you a story that one of your big pharma companies told me. The CEO of that company told me, ‘I am very happy to be in Mexico. I saw my investment in Mexico as an investment that had to do with the regional market.’ In pharma specifically, Mexico is very tough in its laws for, for pharma. Why, because in Mexico most of the pharma is bought by the government, because we have general healthcare. Therefore, 80-%-90% is bought by the government and given free to the people, because we have universal healthcare. So regulations are very tough. Once you have the Mexican regulation, you go to any Latin American country, because it is recognised everywhere in Latin America. But it’s also recognised in Europe. So 80% of [drugs approved by our regulator], for example, is recognised by the health authorities of the US. So once you have the Mexican certificate it is easy, or easier, to get the Mexican certification. So it’s a global market. But what that gentlemen said to me is, ‘I am selling from my Mexican business, with Mexican certification, to Europe that I cannot sell from India.’ Because Mexican certification has a rank in pharma. So of course, it’s not free…

So even though it’s the same formulation, but essentially taking advantage of the Mexican…

Yes. And of the FTAs. I mean Mexico has free trade agreements, or free trade arrangements, with more than 41 countries. So an Indian company that becomes a Mexican company when it comes to Mexico has all of that at their disposal. So that has been very interesting. Like IT for example. Indian companies are on the same, in Mexico, are on the same timezone to take of their customers in the Americas. so for them it has been very valuable to be in a timezone that provides that possibility.

How might some of this change with the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Mexico is one of the founders.  There are apprehensions that the TPP and arrangements of that kind in a way are fragmenting the multilateral trading system; the WTO-Doha process is stuck and the US is pushing different initiatives. Is there a danger that the TPP might undo some of the things that India and Mexico have been doing? Because we are not going to be part of it at least in the first decade, if ever.

In a way, we don’t have any free trade agreements with India. You know, we have a lot of dealings, and we work on better ways to make our business people be more successful. Because making business people successful means that you will have more jobs and we will have more jobs. So that is something that we believe in, and that’s why we have been doing a lot of free trade agreements and free trade arrangements with everybody. Of course, NAFTA was a big break-though for Mexico and a big break-through for free trade agreements in general. It is still discussed in universities, it is still discussed in the diplomatic academies of every country. How did that happen and how did the affections, because the size of the economies were very different. Well Mexico is a much better economy today than it was when we signed the free trade agreement. In 1990s, we were already a skilled economy of 30% of our GDP coming from infra-, from doing manufactures. Today, 60% of our GDP comes from manufactures. Half of every manufacture done in Latin America comes from Mexico. I’m not talking about, you know, sewing together this and that, no. I’m talking about mid and high level technology manufacturing. So we are the biggest producers of auto parts in Latin America. Fourth in the world. The best, the number one in free, in flat screens. Number one in every refrigerator in the world. That…

And you also have Mexican investments in the United States, right? I mean when your foreign minister was here she was saying how, I think she gave a figure of 6 million jobs in the US that could be linked to Mexican entrepreneurs. That’s something you don’t hear from Donald Trump.

Mexico-America relations are much more complicated and very interlinked. We have a very broad agenda in any topic that you can imagine. I think the success of our relationship has been that after many years, have managed to not contaminate the relationship because of its problems. When you have such a big border and such a big trade, you try to, if we have a problem here, not contaminate the other hundred things that are happening everyday that are great. We are, you know, very conscious of the process, of the democratic process that is going on in the US. We cannot intervene and will not intervene and should not intervene, and…

But it was unusual for you president, former presidents, I think Mr. Fox, Calderon, even Mr. Peña Nieto, have made statements on, critical comments about Trump’s, some of his suggestions.

What you cannot do is to pretend that he is not insulting your people.. We don’t comment on the person, but we make comments on the insult to our people.

Right.

You know, the US is a very open economy, and it is also an open country which has many diasporas of many types. But it has a very large Mexican and Mexican origin population. So if you remember, a few years ago there was a film that said ‘A Day Without a Mexican’. It was a very interesting film and it was a sort of parody, and it said that if the Mexicans would leave the US, it would be a chaos  because you have Mexicans in every realm of life of the US. Mexican-origin is as big as the nation itself. So it’s the biggest minority in the US.

And I heard an astonishing figure for the number of consulates Mexico has in the US.

We have 51 consulates in the whole of North America.

That must be the most consulates any country has in any other country.

Exactly. It is the biggest consular presence of any country in any given country. We work everyday with the social security, we work everyday with the schools, we work everyday with agriculture, we work everyday with everybody.

So the government to government relations, even the local to local, are very big. You can transfer your kid from one school system to the other, almost seamless. You can, you know, we have American people that live in Mexico by the millions. They retire in Mexico. The social security and the pension systems talk to each other. So, you know, we are very interlinked.

Another area in which Mexico gets a bad rap from the US is on this whole issue of the war on drugs. Mexico in many ways has been a frontline state. Your leaders over the years have made the point that the war on drugs, there’s a supply and a demand dimension. The US has to do more to tackle its domestic demand which is driving a lot of this trade. But there is also a debate on the need to decriminalise milder drugs, marijuana for example. There was recently a UN special session of the General Assembly which many countries had hoped would move the debate forward, but it never happened. How important is this as a factor in Mexico’s relations with the US, and Mexican foreign policy in general.

Let me talk to the dimensions. First, the UN General Assembly on drugs. It’s not a coincidence that it was Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, or however you want to phrase it, that actually pushed forward for that conference. Those three countries– like many others in the world, maybe, but those three countries– have been suffering the consequences of drug and drug war. It is not also a coincidence that we are countries that go from south to north, where the consumers are.

The biggest consumers of drugs in the world is the United States of America. That is a fact; it’s not something that I say, it’s a fact. So there is a problem in those countries that are in that corridor. Many things happened, and many things changed the composition of that war. For many years, you had something that was called the ‘sea door’. The sea door makes it “easier” for the drug dealers to go through the sea, and into the US. That changed when President Bush decided to close the sea door of Florida. Funnily enough it was his brother that was governor there. So why is the sea door “better”– there is never a better– than a land door? Because you don’t see people, you only see sea. You have islands, you have this, you have that, but you don’t have to do that corridor. But when the corridor became the land corridor and it had to cross from South America to North America, through central America and through Mexico, then it really became a problem. We don’t have, you are not allowed to carry guns in Mexico. And suddenly, the border of the US, for the first time in many years of neighbourhood, opened its door to illegal…

Arms.

Arms coming from the US, bought in the supermarkets, the armed supermarkets, the armouries, that you have in the US. So you have a very different reality. You have a consumer market, and you have an armed market that are “unrelated” but make a difference for the countries that are on the way. So the whole discussion is, how do you do this prohibition policy, a policy that becomes more a public health problem. How do you make it happen in a way that it will prevent your country from being the warlords’ playing ground, and make the people a safer place to live. So there is problem. For many years that was a problem in our relation with the US. Again, as we learned, what we tried is to divide the problems that we have with the US and work on the things that are very good in our relationship with the US. So we have to talk about about it, but we have to talk jointly about it. It’s not a US-Mexico problem. It’s a global problem that has to be tackled and looked at in a global environment.

One of the global issues that in a way divides Mexico and India, and I’m sure this will come up in some shape or form when Prime Minister Modi is in Mexico City, is of course UN reform, where the Indian position is for expansion and permanent membership. G4 is the group that we are part of. Mexico is a proud member of Uniting for Consensus, the so-called coffee club that says that there should not be any addition in permanent membership. How wedded is Mexico that position? Is there any scope for India and Mexico to work to bridge this gap?

It would be the same if I asked you ‘How much wedded are you to your wife?’. We are wedded with that position, as much as India is wedded with its position. We are not against the position of India on the, you know. We just think that the architecture of the UN, and especially the whole idea of that is that we should have a more transparent governance in the UN. That can only be when you have more members of the Security Council, but more members that are non-permanent, that you don’t have a veto– I mean, there are things that you cannot go back with like that.

But let me just before we finish go back to the visit by Prime Minister Modi. We are very happy, if that’s the right word, we are very engaged with that visit with Prime Minister Modi. We will talk investment, we will talk, as I said, science and technology, we will talk outer space– we want to be part of the outer space project of India. We are very interested in launching some of our satellites with Indian technology. We will also talk about, of course, UN and general matters because that’s what leaders do; they are part of G20, they are part of UN, and there are many things that are important to us. And so the relationship is a 66 year old relationship that is blooming. We want more people to come to Mexico. We had 55,000 Indians coming to Mexico, most of them because they have US visa. Only 10,000 visas were given but we had 55,000 visitors. We are now extending the possibility of having a one-year Schengen visa so you don’t need a Mexican visa. We love Indians.