In 2019, India and the Dominican Republic celebrated the completion of 20 years of diplomatic relations. Out of those 20 years, outgoing ambassador of the Dominican Republic to India Frank Hans Dannenberg Castellanos, has served for 15 long years. As the longest-serving ambassador to India, he is also the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps.
In his first farewell interview, Ambassador Hans Dannenberg Castellanos who is soon going to his next posting in Moscow shares with Huma Siddiqui his views on the relations of India-Latin America, growing interest about India in the region and how his two sons are in love with India.
Following are excerpts:
What is it that you have learned about India? And India and Latin America? now?
First of all, I have been in India for 15 years and I have seen a lot of changes here, mostly positive changes. Also, the relationship between India and Latin America has witnessed a lot of positive changes. In my view, there is a bigger interest now in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) towards the region than there was 15 years ago or even eight years ago.
Now there are a higher number of high-level visits from India to our region — There have been visits by President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
The external affairs minister had declared 2020 as the year of Latin America. Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic of Coronavirus, the year has been washed out. We hope that 2021 would be the year of Latin America and India will open more embassies in the region.
I am hoping that more top leaders from Latin America visit India, as this is the time to further deepen the relations between the two sides.
What about trade between India and the region?
The trade between Latin America and India has been witnessing an upward swing every year. In fact, the numbers are even higher than when some countries of Eastern Europe. If you compare the numbers between India and some of the Eastern European countries, where India has had a presence for many years, and some of the countries where Indian doesn’t even have a presence, our numbers are higher.
I feel these numbers could triple or quadruple with professional Indian diplomats in those embassies. And I think the MEA led by the external affairs minister S Jaishankar has become more accessible and the focus is on the region now. During the global lockdown, he has made an effort to be creative and had many webinar meetings with his counterparts all over the world, including the Latin America region. Despite the huge time difference, he was always available to talk with his counterparts and extend a helping hand.
On the LAC Desk in the MEA, we have Joint Secretary Gloria Gangte, who had worked in the same department 15 years ago with Ambassador R Vishwanathan. This helps in building relations as she has the knowledge, knows the language and the culture. We are all happy with how our interaction with both the MEA and the Indian government has changed in the last years. It is also important to recognize the solidarity of Indian government with many of our countries during this pandemic and how they donated large amounts of medicines to not only to my country but many countries in our region.
Your country was the first to get help from India…
We were. And also Brazil was one of the first countries in the region to get help from India during the global pandemic.
The Dominican Republic received an emergency aid of 200,000 Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) tablets from the Indian government. Mainly because of our geographic location and the fact that from our countries, it could also move on to other countries. India was the first country to send us aid during the pandemic.
That was very significant. And we received a second donation later and I have to say that when we first asked for 20,000 tablets, we were very surprised when we received 200,000. So they added a zero and surprised us very well. I have actually received letters from people in the Dominican Republic who have told me that their loved one’s lives were saved thanks to those Indian medicines.
What was the reaction of your people?
It was very satisfying for me as the ambassador that coordinated the transportation and the movement of this medicine, to know that people actually received it and were impacted positively by them. The HCQ is also used for treating Lupus, so we gave a small amount to the Lupus Foundation in Dominican. Thank you India, it has saved many lives in my country as well as the region!
India and the world
India is playing a very major role in the world today, and they have to have a bigger presence in every part of the world. We have seen a large number of embassies of India open in Africa, and we hope that in the next couple of months, we can see a large number of Indian embassies open in our region. Our region has been present in India, even without the presence, India is present in our capitals. And that shows that we are interested in increasing and strengthening relations with this country.
What attracts the region to India?
That there’s been an utmost admiration and respect for Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Indian culture, Bollywood movies, Indian dances, all over Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. And I hope that in the coming years, this will be taken to another level with the opening of missions, with more visits, both ways, and with a better and clear vision of what Latin America and India can achieve together.
Some interesting bits of your 15-year experience in India
Well, I think that 15 years ago, the Indian public only knew Brazil, Cuba and Argentina — Brazil because of BRICS, Argentina, because of football, Cuba, because of the Non-Alliance in the past with Fidel Castro and Indira Gandhi.
There was hardly any awareness about the region anywhere even in the diplomatic circles. But, it has all changed now. There are more people to people contacts through tourism, as well as through other ways. The most important change is how India has had the vision to look at small countries in the region as part of an economic bloc instead of individual countries — SICA, CARICOM, Pacific Group. And this is important because they realize that not only small countries have one vote in the UN equal to the big countries, but these small countries when you add them up in one big bloc they are bigger.
So are you satisfied that India is doing okay now with these small countries?
When I came to India, everybody knew about Dominica because it is part of the Commonwealth. And even in the diplomatic booklet, the first time it came as Dominica when I corrected them, the second time it came up Commonwealth of the Dominican Republic. And the third time came as the Republic of Dominica. When I called and I complained the fourth time, they told me, sorry, sir, Dominica, Dominican Republic, very similar names. So I told the protocol, as of now my card should say ambassador to Indonesia. And he asked if I was moving to Jakarta? And I said, no, India and Indonesia, very similar names. The point was taken and that’s how I got them to change the name in the booklet.
I also think that the Indian traveller has become interested in more adventure. In the past Indians were very limited to looking at Dubai, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. And now the Indian middle and high class when they plan their travels look at extending the Americas towards Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Colombia. Or, if they do a Southern American trip, not limit themselves to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, but they also look at Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
There, is an interest, with Peru because of Machu Picchu because of indigenous cultures.
And trade has been witnessing an increase, food items like Quinoa, avocado etc. Nobody was aware of Quinoa t 15 years ago, and it was Bolivia who started promoting it here, though Peru is a big producer of Quinoa. And today, Quinoa is a big part of Indian cuisine and the Indian palate.
Coffee and rum, when I came to India, there was absolutely no Latin American rum. Now you can buy duty-free Dominican, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan rum in India . And in my country, the Indian community never had access to buy masala and certain Indian products. Now every Latin American country has Indian restaurants. I think there is not one country in the region without an Indian restaurant.
Eight years ago, people asked me, is there an Indian restaurant in my country? And I would say, no. Now we have a couple of Indian restaurants in Santo Domingo and some in Puntacana.
What is the reason behind this change?
It is a collective effort of awareness. I think the issue of the making yoga day an international day through the UN now, every country in the world celebrates yoga day. Now yoga is something people look forward to. I remember when we started doing yoga day in the Dominican Republic, it was in the park. Now we have five, six, seven provinces. And in the Ministry of Culture, in huge places now yoga day has become something people look forward to.
Also, India has become part of the world because of its economic growth. It is on the world stage in geopolitics. Also, Bollywood movies have made all very curious. Netflix has also been providing Indian variety shows.
Government to Government
I have to congratulate the new authorities in the MEA they have changed how they look towards our region.
And I hope that MEA will continue looking at ambassadors or people that have been posted in other, in Latin American countries to come back as joint secretaries as it gives them a positive edge.
One of your sons is very fond of the Lord Ganesha and one of has a huge collection. What do they love about India?
My two sons are made in India. Both my sons are fond of Lord Ganesha. They are very much attached to India and they have made me promise that I bring them here every year on vacation. One of them does not like Indian food because of the spices, but loves everything else about India from culture to yoga, to Lord Ganesha. And, the other one loves Indian food and loves the spicy food, eats chappati and eats with hand. I know that after 15 years in India, India will always be part of my life and that of my family; I would continue visiting India often.
So I tell the new diplomats when I received them as Dean, is that to, please open up and enjoy every part, everything of India. India is a very colourful and unique place in the world.
My biggest issue was the spicy food. It was just too spicy for me staying here for 15 years, I have become more tolerable with spices, but, I cannot say I enjoy food when they’re full of chillies because it’s just not something I enjoy.
What would you miss the most?
I think friends I made in India; I think Indians are very friendly people and they embrace foreigners quickly. The constant activities and the people, traffic in Delhi. And I think I will miss that. I am sure that in Russia with the cold weather, I won’t see so many people around. Maybe there will be a lot of activities indoors.