Reflections of an Australian Ambassador in Latin America

John M L Woods

(Ambassador John ML Woods, Peruvian Foreign Minister Roncagliolo and Ms Gay Woods at the Australia Embassy Peru Australia Day Reception. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Gallery)

It was an honour for me to be appointed to serve on two occasions as Australia’s Ambassador in Latin America. I was Ambassador to Venezuela from 2000 to 2003 and at that time had non-resident accreditation to Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I returned to Latin America in 2010 and re-opened the Australian Embassy in Lima, Peru. I served in Lima until September 2014. I was also accredited to Bolivia during that period.

Congratulations to the Young Diplomats Society (YDS) for seeking to focus more attention on Latin America. It is an exciting part of the world, as you rapidly discover when you visit and work in the region. I am sure as well that the significant increase in Latin American students coming to Australia in recent years (some of whom may well be members of the YDS) is also helping to stimulate greater interest in the region and the opportunities it offers.

Rather than recount facts and figures about Latin America (it is an amazingly diverse region in any case) let me share some personal experiences to support my contention that it is a very exciting region in which to develop and practice all aspects of diplomacy.

My years in Venezuela, for example, coincided with the beginning of the regime of Hugo Chavez. They embraced the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, his return after two days to the Presidency and then his accelerated program to eliminate rivals and to exert control over all the institutions in the country capable of checking his power. Our Embassy played a key role in reporting and advising on Chavez’s policies for Venezuela. Regrettably the successor he appointed, Nicolas Maduro, has continued to drive the country to destruction. It is distressing as a diplomat to see a country such as Venezuela decline so quickly. Venezuela’s current leaders talk about addressing social alienation and disempowerment but reject democracy as a system of government, have no workable policies to address the decline of the country and preside over a deeply corrupt regime adhering to the failed ideology of Bolivarian Socialism.

(Protester facing the Venezuelan National Guard in May 2017)

As difficult as it was to experience the start of Venezuela’s current decline, it was fascinating to see close hand Colombia take small steps along the road that eventually resulted in the 2016 Peace Treaty with the FARC.

Such experiences – quite distant from Australia’s immediate diplomatic priorities – were nevertheless very instructive. You saw first hand in Venezuela the destruction that can arise from bad policy, and alternatively in Colombia the tentative, faltering steps towards peace resulting from better strategic policy choices.

Why was this important or relevant for a country like Australia? Venezuela continues to be a resource rich country (it still has the world’s largest reserves of oil) but its sustainable management of its resources has been disastrous, especially since 2002. Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America and is strongly committed to a deeper engagement with Asia and Australia. Both countries are important – not just on the global stage, but particularly in the region. Chavez was the dominant political figure in Latin America when he was President of Venezuela, commanding much more influence than his idol, Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Between 2006 and 2010, I was deeply involved in Canberra in developing Australian policy towards Latin America. During that period I was also a member of the Australian team that negotiated the Chile – Australia Free Trade Agreement – the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Australia had concluded with any country in Latin America. I helped develop a new strategy for the region. A key feature of the strategy was a modest Aid Program for aid-eligible countries worth $100 million over four years from 2010, focused primarily on the provision of post graduate scholarships. This was a first in Australia’s links with Latin America.

(Australia’s Trade and Investment Minister, Andrew Robb and Chile’s Foreign Minister, Heraldo Muñoz updated ACIFTA’s in Santiago, Chile, 2014. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade News Archive)

So it was particularly exciting to return to the region in 2010 and re-open the Australian Embassy in Lima, Peru. Neither as populous as Colombia, nor as resource rich as Venezuela, Peru nevertheless had established a very solid record of economic growth over that decade. Peru is a member of APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum) and was negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The importance Australia attached to APEC and the TPP immediately provided new and stronger bilateral connections with Peru. And it was in Lima in 2011 that the Pacific Alliance – the most trade liberalising agreement in the region – was launched. Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile are the founding countries of the Pacific Alliance and in 2017 Australia announced it would negotiate an FTA with the Pacific Alliance.

Australian Ambassadors are tasked with promoting trade and investment and assisting Australian business interests. While Peru’s increasing prominence as a mineral exporter resulted in a doubling in the number of Australian companies operating there during the four years I served as Ambassador, it was exciting to complement this by working on these new and stronger regional trade agreements and linkages with Peru.

It is often the case that diplomats work very hard during their posting to lay the groundwork for agreements that may be concluded after the diplomats conclude their assignment. So it was in my case with the conclusion of the Peru-Australia Free Trade Agreement (PAFTA). The TPP negotiations concluded a year after I departed Lima but they then enabled the rapid negotiation of PAFTA, eventually signed in 2018. FTAs not only typically lead to increased bilateral trade and investment, but they also elevate significantly the connections between countries and a broadening and deepening of linkages. We were in any case working on much of this when I was in Peru and we used the modest Aid program to fund significant capacity building projects and to boost cooperation in key areas such as sustainable development.

Not every representation an Ambassador makes is successful and this unfortunately was the case with the Australian government’s decision to end the Aid Program to Latin America. We Ambassadors in the region thought we had made a strong case for modest aid, especially scholarships, to continue from 2014. We argued that the modest program had been used to support another of Minister Bishop’s initiatives – economic diplomacy. In the end we were not able to persuade the Minister. It is arguably a greater loss for Australia – lost opportunities to build stronger relations through the scholarship programs – than it is to the region as a whole.

(Lima’s city skyline)

On the other hand, encouraging stronger people-to-people links, particularly through education and tourism, is one of the great pleasures of being an Ambassador in Latin America. Once they overcome their initial reaction “Australia is so far away” Latins invariably become very interested in Australia, in what Australia offers and the success that can be achieved here. It was exciting 15 years ago, for example, to run Australian film festivals in Caracas and Bogota. It was even more exciting in 2013 to bring the Sydney Dance Company to Lima to showcase acclaimed Australian culture.

There is still much to be done to heighten interest on both sides of the Pacific in the rich array of opportunities to consolidate relations with Latin America. It was such an exciting and rewarding experience for me and my family to have the opportunity to contribute and to help develop these links. Despite the many attractions of diplomatic service in the Indo-Pacific region, there is undoubtedly more to discover and develop with Latin America. I hope very much that some of you will benefit from the opportunity to experience the rich rewards that come by becoming diplomats in this exciting region.

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