In one of the most heated weeks in recent history for Latin America, with former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva freed from jail and Evo Morales overthrown from Bolivia’s presidency and flying to exile in Mexico, president-elect Alberto Fernández showed how different Argentina’s foreign policy could be when compared to that of the outgoing Mauricio Macri.
After repeatedly clashing with neighboring Brazil’s head of state Jair Bolsonaro over Lula’s liberation, Fernández did not shy away from explicitly supporting Morales as he lost his grip on power last week, criticizing the Organization of American States (OAS) that questioned the transparency of Bolivia’s elections, taking aim at the country’s police and military and even openly challenging the United States’ stance over the issue.
Fernández even argued with Macri on the phone during the tense hours of Morales’ ousting. “I called him and said Evo’s life was at risk and we had to do something. Macri spoke about the difficulties of bringing him to Argentina as this would complicate the transition and said it was better not to intervene. I said I disagreed,” Fernández said in an interview yesterday. The president-elect added that “even if the OAS told the truth (about fraud allegations), Evo accepted (their conclusions) and called for new elections. I hope Bolivia can restore democracy soon and hold elections with no one banned from running.”
The disagreement with Macri’s administration regarding its stance on Bolivia’s issue, which Argentina did not describe as a coup d’etat, went as far as Fernández calling Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie “an unfortunate fact in the history of Argentine diplomacy”.
The limits of regional diplomacy
If Macri sought to place Argentina as a global player, Fernández seems to be moving towards a regionally-based diplomacy, one supported by the backbone of left-leaning Latin American leaders.
Ten days ago, Fernández was in Mexico, his first trip as President-elect, breaking with the regional tradition that marks that his initial visit should be to Brazil.
México’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador is arguably Latin America’s only progressive President after the ousting of Morales – leaving aside the more extreme left-wing governments like those of Cuba and Venezuela.
During his visit to México and as the Bolivian crisis unfolded, Fernández presented himself as a regional play-maker: in Mexico he spoke about a regional alliance of progressive leaders, he was a prominent figure in the Puebla Group meeting hosted in Buenos Aires over the weekend, and this week he let everyone know how big a role he played helping Morales fly to Mexico for political asylum, talking to all the relevant Presidents in the region.
Although Fernández is careful not to show extreme proximity to Venezuela or Cuba, it is unclear if Argentina will remain in the Lima Group under his Presidency. The Lima Group is an alliance of generally conservative Latin American nations founded in 2017 with the aim of seeking a regime change in Venezuela through –as they argue– negotiation and peaceful means.
Fernández preferred forums are left-leaning, like the aforementioned Puebla Group, which had its second meeting in Buenos Aires last weekend. But while Puebla’s main figures might be as progressive as Fernández wants, they lack sufficient power: Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Colombia’s Ernesto Samper, Uruguay’s José Mujica, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo all share the fact of not being currently in office.
So, how much teeth will this alliance Fernández wants to build really have, if none of its members but one is in power?
“It is an ideas group,” Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, vice-Chancellor of Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and expert in international relations, told The Essential. “No more than that and I don’t think it will be more than that.”
What about Mexico, then? It is a country Argentina does not have much trade with and, on top of that, it “is too distant and will not take any measure that might make Trump uncomfortable,” according to Francisco de Santibañes, from the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI) think tank.
The trouble with Brazil
Unlike Mexico, neighboring Brazil is Argentina’s main trade partner, the main destination for its exports.
Yet, as mentioned, Fernández did not choose to visit Brazil on his first trip abroad as President-elect. It would have been an awkward trip if he did, though.
During the elections Jair Bolsonaro plainly backed Mauricio Macri and said Argentina had made a mistake when Fernández was elected.
Fernández does not miss a chance to show his appreciation and closeness to former president –and Bolsonaro’s political enemy– Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and celebrated his release from prison last Friday.
But it is hard to blame Argentina for this conflict. “I don’t see Fernández or Macri being irresponsible, everything Bolsonaro has been saying even before the Argentine election has been headache-inducing statements,” said Tokatlian.
The risks are not small, though.
“Forty years ago,” remembers CARI’s de Santibañes, “this region was very complicated: there was an arms race, military nuclear programs, and what stopped all that was the strategic alliance established between Argentina and Brazil.”
Faced with this bilateral scenario, Tokatlian thinks Fernández’s government will have to exercise extreme caution. “It will have to seek a relationship with Brazil managed by the Foreing Ministries, lower the tone, avoid answering every (Bolsonaro) tweet.”
Tokatlian suggests Fernández should also try to reinforce the links between business sectors in each country and between both nations’ armed forces, who have a good rapport and have been key to keep the alliance in place.
Brazil might not be the only right-wing government in Argentina’s vicinity. There is a chance Uruguay will have a right-leaning government after November 24th second round and Bolivia’s interim government is also right-wing. This could make Fernández increasingly isolated in places such as the Mercosur trade bloc.
“If Brazil drops its duties (on foreign imports) unilaterally, that would have a massive effect on Argentina’s economy,” de Santibañes warned. It has done so with wheat earlier in November, although not at a scale that can seriously damage Argentina’s trade. But Bolsonaro seems inclined to weakening Mercosur and favour bilateral deals, which will not favor Argentina.
First clash with the US
Meanwhile, the relationship with US President Donald Trump seemed to have started on good footing. Soon after the election, Trump congratulated Fernández and said: “You will do a great job, and I hope to meet you soon.” They spoke over the phone and Fernández met US representatives in Argentina.
The honeymoon did not last long, though. Both leaders disagree on Bolivia’s situation.
While Fernández called it a coup and showed all his support for Evo Morales, Trump released a statement where he called Morales’s resignation “a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”
In an interview on Argentina’s Radio 10, Fernández said that with that comment the US had gone back decades to the worst years of the 70s, “backing military interventions against popular governments, democratically elected ones.”
But then he added that he wants to have a good relationship with the US and that for that it is important “to be frank.” He said he had spoken in those terms with Department of State officials. Department of State sources confirmed to Clarín newspaper that that disagreement did take place.
This issue will be one of the many balancing acts Fernández will face, as the US has a key role in facilitating any change in the conditions of the IMF credit to Argentina. And any renegotiation with private debt holders will also depend on how things work out with the IMF.
In any case, says Tokalian, Trump’s Latin America policies are very erratic: “Those in the State Department who are assigned to Latin America have very little influence on the Executive.
An Executive that is now very much concentrated on his own impeachment inquiry.
Regional leadership – for how long?
If the economic priorities of Argentina should be with Brazil and the US — and the EU and China, reminds Tokatlian — why is Fernández making such a big deal of the progressive Latin America axis?
The President-elect says it is all about values and being faithful to what he believes in, as a Peronist and a progressive.
But de Santibañes believes there might be another reason. Fernández, he says, “will have to take quite orthodox economic policy measures,” so positioning himself close to the regional progressives could work as a counterbalance with part of his constituency. “He needs to find areas where to fulfill (the desires) of the political base (of his coalition, like those closer to vice-President elect Cristina Fernández),” says de Santibañes.
In any case, Tokatlian thinks no acting president in Latina America today is in a position to take the role of regional leader: “There is no one with the possibility or capability to spend too much (energy) on foreign or regional policy for too long, because all have too many internal problems.”
Neither will Fernández be: “I dare guess we will see a more measured Fernández, a more cautious one, one that will also look for partners outside the region.”
After December 10, Tokatlian believes, Fernández will dedicate his efforts to the EU-Mercosur agreement (even if he has spoken against it), as well as honing the relationship with China and the US.