Key rejigs schedule as Chavez funeral nears

Last updated 05:00 09/03/2013
John Key and Sebastian Pinera

BEST FRIENDS: New Zealand Prime Minister John Key sits down with Sebastian Pinera in Santiago.

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This is shuttle diplomacy, John Key style.

It seems the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has thrown VIP diaries across Latin America into disarray, disrupting the prime minister's talks with Chilean and Brazilian leaders.

However, because Mr Key is cruising around South America in his "own" aircraft - an Air Force 757 - he can afford to be flexible.

A Saturday meeting with President Sebastian Pinera turned into a late-night catch-up in Santiago, Chile, yesterday. And Monday's tete-a-tete with Brazil's Dilma Rouseff has been moved forward a day.

He was whisked off a flight from Colombia, and then down an empty motorway to downtown Santiago shortly after 8pm (local time). The talks took place at Mr Pinera's presidential offices, the grand Palacio de la Moneda - a former mint, fitting because the former banker and airline magnate is a billionaire.

After sombrero-wearing capers in Bogota, Colombia, on Thursday, a statement to the press with Mr Pinera was muted, but chummy. Mr Key is "a friend to Chile", and the relationship is "profound, fruitful", Mr Pinera said. New Zealand is "a giant" in agriculture, and "generous every time freedom is at stake in the world".

His Kiwi counterpart was equally effusive. Chile is New Zealand's "best friends" in Latin America. Mr Pinera has done a "tremendous job".

They exchanged gifts - exclusive replica Ernest Shackleton scotch and a Maori carving for Mr Pinera. Like the Colombian sombrero he was given in Bogota, Mr Key immediately put on his lapus lazuli cufflinks.

There were few "deliverables" to report from the hour-long meeting apart from a joint scheme to help train Chilean farmers.

Mr Pinera is Chile's first elected Right-wing leader in half a century and earlier this week his approval ratings rebounded to a two-year high.

A poll credited brisk economic expansion, low unemployment and high investment rates. But he is barred from seeking another term in elections in November.

A communique spoke of the "mutually beneficial relationship".

Mr Pinera wants to boost Kiwi investment in agriculture and clean energy. The two nations, both original Trans-Pacific Partnership members, share a keen interest in seeing the trade deal completed. Allusions were made to conservation of Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean, but no specific commitments were made.

Mr Key was more assured about the Colombian leg of his 10-day Latin American swing.

President Juan Manuel Santos unexpectedly said he wanted a free-trade deal with New Zealand. "We're ready," Mr Key said.

A state dinner is to be held tonight in honour of Mr Key and his wife, Bronagh. Mr Pinera hopes to dash back from Chavez's funeral to attend. His wife, Cecilia Morel, will stay in Chile to host the couple.

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- Fairfax Media

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