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Latin America and New Zealand

by Warwick E. Murray

Increasing numbers of New Zealand tourists are being drawn to Latin America by experiences such as Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival and visits to ancient Incan cities. New Zealand’s diplomatic and economic relationship with the region has expanded in recent years.

Diplomatic relations and migration

The relationship between New Zealand and Latin America (South America, Central America and Mexico) has flourished since the late 20th century. Before that interaction was virtually non-existent. Migration, trade, investment, and geopolitical and diplomatic ties grew particularly rapidly from the late 1990s. During this time New Zealand’s geopolitical gaze broadened from Europe, while Latin America’s diversified from North America.

Kūmara: a vital link?

Little is known of prehistoric relations between South America and New Zealand. However, the kūmara (sweet potato), a traditional Māori food, has its origins in South America, and there may be distant links between Polynesians and the indigenous people of South America.

Diplomatic relations

Diplomatic relations were established between New Zealand and a few Latin American countries after the Second World War, the first being Chile in 1948. It was not until 1972 that the first embassies were founded, with Chile establishing representation in Wellington and New Zealand in Santiago. Despite a cooling of relations during the Chilean dictatorship (1973–90), diplomatic contact continued. During this period many New Zealanders protested against the Chilean dictatorship and supported an unofficial boycott of Chilean goods.

Argentina established an embassy in Wellington in 1977, but the relationship was broken in 1982 when New Zealand supported the UK in its conflict with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. A consulate was reopened in Auckland in 1987 and a full embassy in Wellington in 1997. New Zealand has had an ambassador in Argentina since 1998.

Other Latin American countries to open embassies in New Zealand have included Mexico (1991), Brazil (1997) and Peru (until 2010). As well as in Argentina and Chile, New Zealand has direct representation in Mexico (since 1983) and Brazil (since 2001), as well as diplomatic relations with and indirect representation (honorary consuls) in Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.


There have been two main waves of migration from Latin America to New Zealand. During the 1970s and 1980s, many people came as political refugees escaping brutal goverments. The second wave began in the 1990s and was mainly economic migrants. New Zealand still received some refugees from Latin America, principally from Colombia, where civil war continued. Most migrants settled in the major cities, although Queenstown has a vibrant South American community, many of whom are employed in the tourism and hospitality industries. There are relatively few New Zealanders living and working in Latin America, with the majority in Chile and Brazil.

Queenstown’s Latino fiesta

In March 2010 Queenstown hosted its inaugural South American festival. It was the brainchild of Nadia Hughes, who worked at a local language school. She hoped it would make South Americans feel more at home in Queenstown. The festival featured Latino dance, food and music. Hughes hoped it would become an annual event, getting bigger and bigger every year.

Working holidays

Latin American migration has been bolstered by the creation in 2001 of working holiday schemes that allow people under the age of 30 to work for 12 months in participant countries. In 2011 signatories included Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay. This has increased the number of temporary migrants significantly, as around 2,500 South Americans work under the scheme in New Zealand in any given year, with 1,000 each coming from Chile and Argentina.

Trade and investment

New Zealand’s ‘Latin America’ strategy

In the 2000s New Zealand began to look more seriously towards Latin America. The new Labour-led government established a Latin America strategy, launched in 2001. This attempted to stimulate complementary investment, person-to-person links and trade through the pursuit of strategic economic agreements. Much was made of the concept of New Zealand as a bridge into Asia and of Latin America as a door into the wider Americas.

A successor Latin America strategy was launched in 2010, reaffirming New Zealand’s commitment to the region and focusing particularly on strategic trade and economic links. 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

In 2006 a Trans-Pacific Partnership involving New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Chile began. This agreement allowed for complete free trade from 2015 and included agreements on investment, taxation, labour law and environmental cooperation. Subsequent negotiations to expand the agreement involved Peru, among other prospective members. Peru signed up to the resulting Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (2018).

Winning wines

Chilean wines have generally been associated with the lower end of the New Zealand market. In 2011 Chilean Patrick Hurley toured New Zealand in ‘a one-man crusade to show his country’s wines are more than just cheap and cheerful fruit bombs’.1 By showcasing premium wines from his winery he hoped to win over those with discerning palates and fat wallets.


While New Zealand is not a particularly significant destination for Latin American products (or vice versa), trade has grown, especially in agricultural products. Total New Zealand exports to Latin America were approximately NZ $1.2 billion in 2010, with $715 million going to South America. South American exports to New Zealand were NZ $310 million. New Zealand’s main exports to the region are dairy products.

Latin American countries export a range of products, including soy products from Brazil, animal feed from Argentina, and fruit and wood from Chile.

New Zealand’s most important trading partner in terms of absolute value was Venezuela, with a trade value of over NZ $464 million in 2010. This largely comprised milk powder exports from New Zealand.


Investment in the dairy sector, and agriculture more generally, represents the largest economic link between New Zealand and South America. Fonterra, a huge New Zealand-based dairy cooperative, has holdings in several countries, including Chile and Brazil. It is the majority owner of Chile’s largest dairy company, Soprole. There are New Zealand dairy farmers at work in the south of Chile, and there has been active diffusion of New Zealand technical innovations in the sector.

Fonterra’s Brazilian venture

In 2011 New Zealand’s largest company, Fonterra, bought an 850-hectare dairy farm in Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy. Demand for fresh dairy produce among its 200 million people was increasing, and Fonterra wanted to encourage and profit from this growth.

The relationship with South American dairy sectors has occasionally been controversial. As the most efficient producer in the world, New Zealand competition has caused some concern among farmers in South America. The dairy industry, located mainly in southern Chile, is populated by small-scale, sometimes indigenous farmers who have seen their livelihoods threatened by modernisation.

PGG Wrightson is another firm actively involved in dairy in the region, investing NZ $300 million in land in Uruguay in 2007. There are other examples of New Zealand investment in the wood, wine and salmon aquaculture industries in various locations across the continent. There is very little Latin American investment in New Zealand.

Latin America New Zealand Business Council

The Latin America New Zealand Business Council was formed in 1991 and works to encourage and support New Zealand business links with Latin American countries. It acts independently of the New Zealand government.


Cultural and future relations


Latin American embassies in New Zealand are active in promoting their culture; Brazil has been especially successful in this regard. There has been an annual Latin American Film Festival, which travels to several centres in New Zealand, since 2001. Other examples of cultural representation include the Oye Latino radio show based in Wellington, and the women’s group Mujeres in Aotearoa.

All Blacks turn white

During the 1976 tour of Argentina the All Blacks were flown on two DC3 military planes to a match in Córdoba: ‘The pilots, knowing who their passengers were, indulged in a little close formation flying to give them a thrill, flying wing tip to wing tip and turning players even more white than when they started, until manager Ron Don gasped out to desist.’1


Sporting links with Latin America were forged in 1976, when New Zealand’s All Blacks played two rugby games against Argentina’s Pumas in Argentina. The first official test match between the sides occurred in 1985, when a New Zealand team toured Argentina. Since 2012 the two countries have played each other at least annually as part of the Rugby Championship that is also contested by South Africa and Australia. In 2011 the New Zealand embassy in Argentina sponsored the ‘Argentine Rugby Spirit in New Zealand Scholarship’, which is awarded to an Argentine student to play a season of rugby at a host school in New Zealand.


Since 2007 there has been a New Zealand education counsellor based at the embassy in Santiago, Chile.

The New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies was established at the University of Auckland in 2002 and the Victoria Institute for Links with Latin America was set up in Wellington in 2007. Both promoted studies with, on and in Latin America, and organised regular conferences.

New Zealand universities have increased ties with their Latin American counterparts and there are exchange agreements with major institutions, including the Universidad de Chile, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and Universidad de Buenos Aires. The number of Latin American students studying at New Zealand universities has increased significantly since 2000, rising to over 500 by 2010. This has been stimulated in part by scholarship systems in South America such as Becas Chile, established in 2008, as well as by grants offered in New Zealand by the government.

Relatively few New Zealand students travel to Latin America, partly due to the language barrier. Spanish is taught in some New Zealand secondary schools and at university level, but Portuguese is scarcely available. In contrast, in a number of South American countries the teaching of English is compulsory from an early age.

‘Real Travellers’

One New Zealand travel agent promoted South America as a place for ‘real travellers’, luring prospective visitors with exotic images such as these: ‘Feel your whole body resonate as you experience the sight of Iguazu Falls, or abandon all your inhibitions to the gyrating rhythms of Rio’s Carnival. Head upriver to the lungs of the world – the mighty Amazon – and breathe in time with nature.’2


Since the early 2000s Latin America has increasingly been a New Zealand tourist destination. Places such as Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Patagonia and Rio de Janiero have proved attractive to New Zealanders looking for something different from the usual ‘OE’ (overseas experience) in Europe.

The number of South Americans visiting New Zealand has also increased, with 21,000 arrivals in 2009. There are regular flights – eight per week in 2011 – between New Zealand and South America, with regional hubs in Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Future relations

Since 2010 New Zealand has had a less expansive strategy in relation to Latin America, as its geopolitical gaze shifted towards Asia and North America. Latin American countries were also focusing more explicitly on Asia, as the closing and downsizing of some diplomatic activities would seem to suggest. Nevertheless, genuine and substantial progress has been made to bring the respective economies and societies closer. Issues for the future include the deepening of free trade and cross investment, the geopolitical future of Antarctica, and shared concerns over ocean resources and climate change.


How to cite this page: Warwick E. Murray, 'Latin America and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 September 2021)

Story by Warwick E. Murray, published 20 Jun 2012