Bryce Edwards: John Key in Latin America

Bryce Edwards: John Key in Latin America

1 John Key in Latin America NZ Politics Bryce Edwards

Is it ‘a mind boggling blunder’ for John Key not to go to the funeral of Hugo Chavez? That’s the allegation being made by ex-MP Keith Locke – Andrea Vance’s Key’s Chavez funeral snub ‘mind-boggling’. Although the Green might be ideologically sympathetic to Venezuela’s dead president, he has a point. After all, here is a chance for New Zealand’s Prime Minister to join with all the leaders of Latin America in farewelling a figure of major significance to them. If for nothing more than pragmatic diplomacy, the event offers a rare opportunity for the PM while on his ten-day trip in the Latin American neighbourhood. As Toby Manhire (@toby_etc) playfully tweeted on hearing of Chavez’s funeral arrangements: ‘If only NZ had some senior statesman in the area’. [Read more below]

Key’s logic for avoiding the funeral also seemed suspect: ‘We haven’t had a political relationship of any great note with Venezuela. Realistically it’s been a trade relationship and that’s about it’. But isn’t that what these foreign trips are all about – fostering foreign political and trade relationships where they are weak? As Locke says, ‘This is a funeral, attended by the Latin American presidents who are hosting Mr Key on his trip, and our Prime Minister should be there. He is missing a great opportunity to show his support to the whole of Latin America’.


Key has pointed out that Venezuela imports a lot of New Zealand milk powder. In fact, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Venezuela is actually ‘New Zealand’s second largest dairy export market in the world’ importing ‘NZ$433 million worth of goods’ – see: New Zealand and Venezuela. In comparison, the trade for the other four countries being visited by Key are somewhat smaller: Mexico: $280m, Colombia: $13m, Chile: $77m, and Brazil: $81m – see Brook Sabin’s Key holds talks with Mexican president. (And despite Colombia’s tiny trade with New Zealand, Key says he wants to open a new embassy in Bogota.)


One report suggested that New Zealand’s decision not to attend the funeral was to avoid upsetting Venezuela’s foe, the US. And, Locke too, says ‘One suspects Mr Key’s diplomatic judgement is being clouded by the strong criticism of the left-wing Chavez administration by the United States ringing in his ears’. This is disputed by Key, who responds: ‘I don’t think so, really. They would say its up to us’ – see Andrea Vance’s Chavez’s death delays Key trade talks. Nonetheless, Key’s trip has been disrupted by the revolutionary leader’s death, with his itinerary reconfigured so that he can still meet with the various national leaders who are going to the funeral.


5 John Key in Latin America NZ Politics Bryce Edwards


Key’s response to Chavez’s death was also worth noting. He expressed the usual condolences, and then told media that ‘There was obviously a very acrimonious relationship there [with the US] and he was no fan of Westernised capitalism, that’s for sure…it’s pretty obvious where he was standing. But each country to their own’. As Fran O’Sullivan points out, ‘Key could have taken his cue from US president Barack Obama who said it created a chance to build a constructive relationship with the US. But he played it safe with by rolling out the usual anodyne sentiments’ – see: Hugo Chavez’s death turns Venezuelan politics upside down; so too, John Key’s Latin American swing.


O’Sullivan has also expressed disappointment about missing the revolutionary’s funeral, saying the decision is a ‘Pity. A Venezuelan state funeral would introduce a new element of political theatricality to Key’s Latin American swing’. What’s more, O’Sullivan says Key could learn a thing or to from the late Chavez – especially with a list of insults that the Venezuelan became famous for (‘Ramp it up, Prime Minister’) – see: ‘Vete al inferno’, John Key ignores Chavez’s funeral as political leaders gather to bury the ‘king of insults’.


So far, the  best coverage of Key’s Latin American trip can be found in Claire Trevett’s Leaders swap praise and promises. Trevett reports, for instance, on the flattery directed at us by Mexico’s president: ‘New Zealand was a role model in international diplomacy and had a vigorous civil society. It had a wonderful landscape and respect for the environment. It was tolerant, pluralistic, had an inclusive society and a dynamic economy’.


Political journalists sometimes receive flack for their reportage from these foreign affairs trips – being accused of focusing more on style than substance. But that’s certainly understandable when a Prime Minister’s trip is little more than a public relations journey. In this case, Trevett says that, ‘At times Mr Key came across as the travelling salesman for the car yard of New Zealand’.


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This explains the reports on the beauty of host politicians. In Mexico, Key was reported as feigning ‘ignorance when asked about the beauty of Mr Pena Nieto’s wife – a stunning actress.  “I didn’t notice,” he said, when asked before adding “Bronagh told me to say that”’ – see Andrea Vance’s ‘I thought she was very nice’.


Similarly, Barry Soper has given the best account of the fun side of the trip, concentrating on life as travelling journalist and what’s going on behind the scenes. For instance, his report John Key’s dry Mexican presser focuses on Mexico’s glamorous First Lady Angelica Rivera de Pena: ‘My Mexican gossip says the Pressy’s wife’s been given a full makeover, they thought she was a little, well she said it, trashy to be a President’s wife’. Elsewhere, Soper explains that being on such trips requires no passport for entry into the US, no form filling, and that you could even wander through customs with five kilos of cocaine and not be noticed – see: Political Report: March 5.


Naturally the travelling media contingent has looked for great photo opportunities and amusing moments to report on. So when Key was given a sombrero by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, he responded immediately by saying, ‘My media are going to love this’ – see Andrea Vance’s Key makes headway in Colombia. Vance says that ‘Key has made a lasting impression on Colombia’ with his hat-wearing. And in return, of course, Key gave Columbia a rugby ball.




Then there’s the usual light-hearted digs at John Key for his ‘Key-ologisms’, which Trevett says have been limited, to the benefit of the Spanish language translator. But news reports do discuss the Latin American pronunciations of the PM’s name, variously as ‘Junkie’ or ‘Junkay’.


Locally, obituaries and analysis of Hugo Chavez have spanned the usual ideological spectrum – see Gordon Campbell’s On Hugo Chavez, and the TPP, David Farrar’s Chavez dies, and Paul Buchanan’s Chavismo without Chavez.


Finally, the PM’s trip has produced some wonderful images and – see Toby Manhire’s John and Bronagh go to Mexico: in pictures, and my own blogpost, Images and coverage of John Key in Latin America.