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Modi catches Cuba bus

US thaw gifts chance to deliver on Manmohan promise

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 13.02.15
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New Delhi, Feb. 12: A struggling economy isn't the only legacy Prime Minister Narendra Modi inherited that he is promising to turn around. His government is now assuring an old India ally it will deliver in five months on an assurance the preceding UPA administration made but failed to implement.

The Modi government has resurrected a proposal to gift Cuba 25 buses for public transport in Havana, originally pitched by the Manmohan Singh government, with a rare emphasis on delivering the vehicles quickly, senior officials confirmed to The Telegraph.

But the fresh commitment to Cuba on the buses is about timing in more ways than one.

The promised buses were initially to be handed over to Cuba in the winter of 2013, but an inability to find a way around the US embargo on the island meant the gift remained with the giver. Indian bus manufacturers like Tata Motors use American components in key body parts.

The US-Cuba thaw - though the embargo stands - has handed the Modi government a moment when it is likelier than ever before to be able to deliver on the bus promise through negotiations already under way with Washington.

"This is the right moment," an official familiar with the project said. "The Prime Minister is obsessive about timely delivery, but the timing of decisions is critical for that - and this is one example."

In Cuba, as in much of Latin America, India is trying to at least hold on to - if not expand - its influence at a time China has emerged a key investor, donor and trade partner to many nations in the region.

"Failed promises are the worst way to build any influence, it's a recipe to lose trust," a serving diplomat once posted in Cuba said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a good sign that the bus promise has been revived."

Originally, the foreign office had planned to deliver the buses - or at-least a prototype - symbolically when Vice-President Hamid Ansari visited Cuba in late October 2013.

The plan was to gift 25 buses, and then sell up to another 200 to Cuba. The specifications Cuba wanted fit perfectly with the low-floor buses Calcutta and Delhi are now familiar with.

But there was a problem: those buses use engines jointly manufactured by Tata Motors and Indiana-based Cummins Engine Company.

The financial and economic embargo the US placed on Cuba prevents any American firm from pursuing any financial transaction with Havana without specific prior Congressional approval, and even with the approval, strictly by cash.

The UPA government tried persuading Indian manufacturers to retrofit the buses with domestically made engines, but failed.

The image of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a bear-hug with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983 during a NAM summit in New Delhi remains emblazoned in the minds of most Indian diplomats.

In December 2014, with the promise moving nowhere, the foreign office quietly killed the proposal to gift the buses to Cuba.

But within days, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a historic rapprochement - the two countries, which had no diplomatic ties since the Cuban revolution in 1959, would re-establish official, diplomatic relations.

They declared they would set up embassies in each other's countries, and slowly lift travel and financial restrictions.

The embargo still stands, Cuban ambassador to India, Abelardo Cueto Sosa told reporters here recently. "Please don't think that's over, not yet," Sosa said. "We've just taken the first steps."

But Obama has said he intends to press Congress to lift the embargo entirely, and American and Cuban diplomats have begun negotiations on the terms of that deal.

"This is the environment in which it seems possible that the buses could be delivered - exactly as the Cubans wanted them - with no retrofitting," a second official said.

"It'll help us avoid the reputation of making promises we can't deliver on. But really, this is all about timing."