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Jun 23, 2009

Why Latin America is important to Australia

The absence of Australian media presence in Latin America is indicative of a media and broader community mindset in this country.

Australian media organisations cherish their foreign correspondents. It’s prestigious to have a correspondent in Washington, London, the Middle East, Russia and as many as possible scattered throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The ABC even covers Africa. But there is one black hole on the planet as far as Australian media outlets are concerned and that’s Latin America.

This is graphically illustrated on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent website which shows ABC journalists faces dotted around all parts of the globe except for anywhere south of the USA.

The absence of Australian media presence in Latin America is indicative of a media and broader community mindset in this country. It is one that focuses on Asia, the US, the Middle East and Europe, but which seems unaware of the economic and strategic importance of Latin America to Australia in the 21st century. An attitude reflected in the crass portrayal of former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo by radio jocks like 3AW’s Neil Mitchell as some sort of Hollywood “wild west” movie character.

What happens in Latin America today matters very much to Australia. Mexico, Chile and Peru are all members, along with Australia, of APEC. Brazil is one of the emerging economic superpowers — it is the “B” in the BRIC formulation dreamt up by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to describe where economic clout is shifting. When it comes to global trade, the Latin American bloc of countries has as much, if not in some respects more importance, than countries such as Thailand and Japan. Certainly in the key area of agriculture, the Latin American interests and where they head are of vital importance to Australia’s agribusinesses and farms.

In fairness, our government and business community is not ignoring Latin America. Australia has diplomatic representation in Mexico, Argentina and Chile, and will shortly open an Embassy in Peru. Two way trade between Latin America and Australia totals almost $6 billion and is growing at a fair clip.

So for all these reasons, Australians deserve to know more about what is going on in Latin America. It is not enough that our policy makers and business leaders simply continue to forge new links and seize further opportunities to cement diplomatic and trade ties. If we are to truly make up for our neglect of Latin America we need our media and educational institutions need to recalibrate and refocus to ensure that the average Australian has a much deeper awareness of the Latin American story.

Why are we not as a country ensuring that Spanish is taught in our schools and universities to as many students as possible? Spanish is not only the national language of most of Latin America, but it is the language of the Hispanic community, the fast growing ethnic grouping in the US — out closest ally. In fact by 2050, over 50 percent of Americans will speak fluent Spanish. We should also be imparting knowledge to students about the history and politics of Latin America, and about the remarkable emergence of vibrant democratic traditions throughout a region where military dictatorships was once, not long ago, the norm.

Latin America is, by sheer force of demographics and economics, a matter of vital interest to Australians. We need our media and educators to recognise this fact and expose Australians to the narrative as it unfolds.

Greg Barns is a non-executive director of Republic Gold Ltd, which is developing a gold mining project in Bolivia.

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5 thoughts on “Why Latin America is important to Australia

  1. Kevin Murray

    Yes, there are many other reasons as well for covering Latin America:
    – the impact of climate change in countries similarly affected to Australia (Argentina is having one of its most severe droughts also)
    – the important experiments with indigenous rights in countries like Bolivia
    – understanding the environmental and community interests affected by Australian mining projects in the region
    – sharing the experiences of new Chinese investments in areas like mining
    – understanding the common challenge of seeing ourselves at the bottom of the world (see

  2. michael crook

    As well as which there are some incredible social advances occurring in places like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, who are all part of the ALBA bloc. Venezuela especially through a policy of using oil revenues for social programmes and a structured nationalisation process for essential industries such as cement making and rice distribution. The Venezuelan version of 21st century socialism is providing a great example of the achievements that are possible when programmes are directed towards the benefit of all not just the wealthy. Empowerment of the poor, and an educated social awareness are just two of the social advances happening there. I urge everyone to go and have a look for themselves, as I did.

  3. Brian Mitchell

    It’s not often that I agree with Barnsy but he’s right on the money.

    Fostering language development should not be a second-order issue. It is of supreme importance. Every child should be taught from day one a second language, with Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Indonesian, Hindi and Korean offered most widely, with other languages offered where possible.

    What it will take however is a supreme act of political will on behalf of Julia Gillard to wrest control of education from the states.

    It’s long past time that Australia’s school system was nationalised, with one central curriculum. Allowances could then be made for parochial interests (local and state history, for example) and centering second-language choice most appropriately.

  4. Scott Grant

    Ditto to all of the above.

    I first heard of Hugo Chavez in 2002 through IndyMedia. I saw nothing in the SMH or ABC at the time. Since then, the occasional reports I have seen in local newspapers all seem to have been filtered through a neocon propaganda machine. Very little independent reporting.

    I heard of the El Alto riots in Bolivia (aka Bolivian gas war), in IndyMedia, in 2005. At the time I did a search of the web sites of all major news organisations in Australia, and came up with one hit at the ABC. The story was written up as something along the lines of “Australian Tourists Stranded”.

    I completely agree that Australia would be better served by having a “foreign correspondent” or two, from one or more of our major news organisations, to write stories about Latin America that have not been filtered through someone else’s agenda.

    Our northern neighbour The Phillipines, shares some history with Latin America – colonised by the Spanish, then by the US during the Spanish American war. How many are aware that Hawaii was annexed, against the express wishes the majority of its inhabitants, as a prelude to invading the Phillipines? But I digress.

  5. Geoff Phillips

    I suggest that Greg sniff around and check out the sterling coverage provided by Neil Wiese, the man illustrated in this week’s Media section of the Oz, who was based in Managua covering the civil war for the ABC and Time magazine in the mid-80s and returned to cover Latin America, with distinction, for ABC Radio in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Maybe
    someone at the ABC should contact him and lure him back from media management in London.
    It should be noted that when he was based in Panama City, Neil was fulltime for the ABC. He was also part-time when based in Miami.
    Of course, Nick Olle, son of the late and much-admired Andrew, works as a stringer for the ABC out of Buenos Aires.