New Delhi, Oct. 22: Decorum teaches recipients never to look a gift horse in the mouth. But diplomacy demands that donors must look under the hood before they gift buses to Cuba.
India did so and found that the buses it had originally shortlisted for Havana had two key components with links to American firms.
US-associated components in consignments headed for Cuba are the modern-day equivalent of wrapping a gift in red and dumping it among a herd of steaming bulls.
Any handover of the low-floor range of Tata buses to Havana would have instantly violated a half-century-old embargo imposed by the US on Cuba after Fidel Castro and his comrades overthrew the Batista regime and then nationalised American properties on the island.
The upshot: low-floor buses of the kind now seen in Calcutta will not make it to Havana’s streets despite India’s pledge to help Cuba salvage its rickety urban public transport. New Delhi wanted to send the buses as a diplomatic counter to China’s growing influence in Latin America.
India is now sheepishly offering Cuba another line of less powerful buses.
The first-choice, low-floor buses, used by Calcutta and over a dozen other cities under the Urban Renewal Mission, best match the requirements outlined by Cuba to the external affairs ministry.
India had unofficially committed itself to sending these buses to Cuba and planned to gift the first fleet of 25 buses early next week, when Vice-President Hamid Ansari visits Havana after a trip to Peru. The subsequent consignments of 200 buses would have been sold but on a line of credit from India.
India had initially picked the Tatas’ LPO 1618, LPO 1623 and LPO 1624 series of low-floor buses, which have the AC option, engine power, seating, design and chassis that the Cubans want.
When the Tatas submitted the technical details, the government realised that these buses use engines manufactured jointly by the Tatas and Cummins Engine Company, based in Columbus, Indiana. The gearboxes are made by Allison Transmission, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Cummins and Allison Transmission would both face legal action in the US if India were to sell or gift these buses to Cuba. In the past, the US has blacklisted foreign companies involved in helping Cuba access American technology or products in violation of the sanctions.
“We’re going to meet our commitment and gift Cuba the number of buses we promised, but this is a setback,” a senior Indian diplomat said. “We had been discussing this proposal for a while now, but we didn’t know of this problem before.”
India was also concerned about other fallouts. “There’s no doubt the US would see any Indian-aided violation of American sanctions against Cuba as a major betrayal of its trust by India,” a diplomat who earlier worked in India’s embassy in Washington said. “It would be an understatement to say that ties would be strained.”
The Yutong buses that Beijing has sold Cuba and which now rule Havana’s streets are comparable to the low-floor Tata buses that India originally planned to gift Cuba.
India is now planning to offer the Tata Starbus vehicles that come with fully Tata-manufactured 3783cc engines, which are less powerful than the 5833cc Cummins engines in the low-floor buses.
Which means India’s two goals — “to build on our traditional ties with Cuba and Latin America, and to compete with China in a region they are targeting aggressively” — will have to bank on lower horsepower.