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Slow steps begin relationship with Colombia

ANDREA VANCE IN BOGOTA
Last updated 05:00 08/03/2013

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John Key might be the first New Zealand prime minister to visit Colombia, but residents of its bustling capital don't stand on ceremony when they're rushing to work.

Mr Key's motorcade made slow progress through jammed city streets yesterday as it fought against the tide of eight million people trying to start their day.

Rolos - as local residents are known - overtook the official escort, one even smashing into a police motorcyclist.

At one point the motorcade was passed by a horse and cart, whose unimpressed driver delivered a two-fingered salute to the foreign delegation.

But by lunchtime, at least a few Colombians were aware of Mr Key, largely because he tried on a sombrero vueltiao in front of more than a dozen local news reporters.

After an hour of formal bilateral talks at President Juan Manuel Santos' official residence, Casa de Narino, the pair held a press conference.

Given a traditional black and white Colombian hat by the hosts, Mr Key tried it on, turning to the cameras saying the media would "love this".

The image was immediately greeted with po-faced derision back in Wellington. Deputy Labour leader Grant Robertson tweeted: "Another gringo puts on the hat and behaves like a twit."

Hutt South MP Trevor Mallard added: "Tell him not all publicity is good for New Zealand. Village idiot on tour."

But Dr Santos clapped delightedly and the moment sent local photographers into a snapping frenzy.

News that Dr Santos wished to strike "un tratado de libre comercio" (free trade deal) with New Zealand was immediately reported by El Pais.com. It would end crippling import tariffs, and boost two-way trade from a modest $33 million a year.

The Wellington-Bogota relationship is embryonic - there is no New Zealand embassy in Colombia.

Dr Santos praised Mr Key for the "miracle" he had achieved in New Zealand, saying Colombia had been waiting "a long time" for his visit.

Mr Key promised to back Colombia's pitch to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In return, there will be support for New Zealand's upcoming bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Colombia has recently shown healthy economic growth - about 5 per cent - and is trying to shake off its image as a cocaine trafficking hub.

Dr Santos hoped peace talks with revolutionary organisation Farc would end the guerrilla insurgency in time for him to seek a second term next year.

He wanted closer ties to the Asia-Pacific region and Kiwi agricultural know-how. He tweeted: "We value visit, co-operation and investment plans of New Zealand in Colombia. This is more jobs."

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But despite progress in the last decade, millions of Colombians live in poverty. Trade unionists are regularly subjected to violence and in 2010 Reporters without Borders noted press freedom had sharply deteriorated.

Kiwi media experienced constraints, with strict restrictions placed on their movements. A chance to ask questions was pulled for fears reporters would ask Dr Santos about the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

After intervention from Mr Key's office, only queries on the talks were allowed.

Mr Key flies to Santiago today, but talks with President Sebastian Pinera have been delayed to allow the Chilean leader to attend the Chavez funeral.

- Fairfax Media

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