Latin America: the continent unknown to New Zealanders

In a world where New Zealand’s closest neighbours are a large continental nation to the west of us, and a host of small island nations to the north and northeast, it is easy to forget a large land mass 11,000 kilometres to our east. The dozen or so countries that make up South America are little exposed to New Zealanders by the media and not often referred to by politicians.

So, what is Latin America to New Zealand, in terms of trading, culture and politics? What can we offer them and what can we learn from these countries?

Whilst at University my international horizon was broadened hugely by meeting an array of people, many of whom I am still good friends with today. They include a Colombian Masters of Science student and her sister who is well known cellist, a Peruvian couple who were married shortly before I met them. She was doing a Masters in Law and he a PhD in seismic engineering and who now live in Los Angeles as well as a Uruguayan couple.

Much of my still very limited knowledge about Latin America was gained from them. I suspect I am not the only New Zealander who considers their knowledge of this amazing and diverse continent to be badly lacking.

But I think there is much that New Zealand can both learn and give to Latin American nations. We share some commonalities with Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, being on the boundary of two tectonic plates and thus prone to active volcanism and large earthquakes. Football is a growing sport here and a dominant sport among their peoples as well.

In terms of what we can actually trade with them, Chile’s market liberalization enabled a greater range of goods and services to flow in and out of the country. Whilst marked by the scars of the Pinochet regime which New Zealand did not sever links with, Chile and New Zealand have concluded a trade agreement for a range of goods. The two countries have holiday working visas so that peoples of both countries can work in the other whilst travelling.

Another country marked by violence is Colombia. New Zealand’s relationship with Colombia is somewhat limited, but improving. A New Zealand embassy opened in Bogota in 2018. New Zealand helped Colombia realise the agreement between the country and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (F.A.R.C.) to end their involvement in the armed conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people and upended many communities. There is also limited, but growing trade between the two nations.

Until New Zealand opened an embassy in Argentina in 1977, relations between the two countries was very limited. New Zealand cancelled its diplomatic relationship with Argentina during the Falklands War. It restored the relationship in 1984. Since then Argentina has become a significant Latin American trading partner. Argentinian and New Zealand rugby teams play each other on an annual basis and both countries are working together for preservation of the Southern Ocean.

New Zealand and Latin American countries generally collaborate on subject matter such as education – New Zealand universities are being encouraged to develop links with their counter parts in several countries – and law. In the case of the latter international law including human rights, the non proliferation treaties for weapons and peace keeping are the key focus points.

I see promise in this relationship. Latin America and New Zealand have a common responsibility to look after the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic. Working to preserve fish species from over fishing, the prevention of mining on the frozen continent and the improving of human rights on board trawlers are all things those countries and New Zealand can collaborate on.

Government cleaning out non performing diplomats

The Government is set to announce a clean out of diplomats from New Zealand’s overseas missions. The announcement comes at a critical time as New Zealand attempts to adjust the country to an unsettled geopolitical environment created by Brexit, the divisive nature of current American politics, capped off by high international tensions with Iran.

One of the diplomats being pulled is Tim Groser, current ambassador to the United States. Mr Groser, prior to going to the United States was Minister for Trade in the National-led Government of former Prime Minister John Key. In that capacity Mr Groser was tasked with pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement to a fruitful conclusion. It was under Mr Groser’s watch that the many major concerns about the T.P.P.A. became known to the public and the beginning of the backlash occurred.

Mr Groser’s time in Washington D.C. does not appear to have been overly successful. Indeed one insider admitted that during his ambassadorship, the residency of the New Zealand ambassador has been “party central”, with numerous functions and parties hosted.

Mr Groser is not the only diplomat being recalled.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters believes that the idea of political appointments to the diplomatic posts is not a good look and not in New Zealand’s interests to continue. Mr Peters views Mr Groser as a political appointment because it was made by the previous National Government when Mr Key was still in office.

There are other key diplomatic posts opening up, including one in Dublin. This is a well sought after post because among other boards, it is home to the International Rugby Board, as politicians it was noted in the Government of Mr Key love to be seen with rugby royalty.

Mr Peters said that the Washington post is just one of many being reviewed and necessary recalled by the new Government. Others include a possible posting to London.

I believe that New Zealand needs to put more focus on building diplomatic ties with African and Latin American countries more than anywhere else. Neither of these two regions is very well understood by New Zealand, despite growing communities of Latin American nationalities and African nationalities in the country. Aside from sharing New Zealand’s wariness of war, Latin America also offer opportunities in trade and have been one of the few international bright spots in the last few years with the end of the Colombian civil war. And Africa, for all its mystery, remains the least understood part of the world in just about all respects. Trying to better understand this continent of mystery when some Governments take an ivory tower view of thinking they know best, when they do not, is not only a really good idea, it is essential.