Prime Minister John Key's refusal to attend the funeral of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is a "mind-boggling political blunder," a former MP says.
Key expressed his condolences after the death of the fiery revolutionary president this week, but said he won't be going to Caracas for the service on Saturday (Friday in Venezuela). He is currently on a ten-day trade mission across Latin America, and talks with Chilean president Sebastian Pinera have been delayed to account for the memorial.
Former Green MP Keith Locke says Key is wasting an opportunity to rub shoulders with leaders in the increasingly influential region.
"He seems blind to what the funeral will be: a major gathering of Latin American leaders to mourn the death of an incumbent president," Locke said.
"Mr Key has the good fortune to be in Latin America, and could easily attend... Mr Key's excuse, that New Zealand has "not much really in the form of a political relationship" is beside the point. 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 dismissed suggestions a New Zealand presence would upset the US. Washington today announced it will send a delegation to Caracas. Chavez's socialist policies and support for Syria and Iran made him an long-term enemy of the US.
Activist and human rights campaigner Locke said "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."
In Bogota today for talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Key said Chavez was a popular leader who would be mourned by his people. Key never met the 58-year-old, who succumbed to cancer in a Cuban hospital after a two year battle, but saw him deliver a speech in Denmark in 2009.
"It's obviously a very sad moment for Venezuela and for the people of Venezuela," Key said." I'm sure they will miss him greatly and obviously our condolences go to the Chavez family and the people of Venezuela."
Foreign Minister Murray McCully, currently in Egypt, will make the call on who represents New Zealand at the funeral.
Key flies to Santiago tomorrow for a programme of events in the Chilean capital.
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