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In diplomatic affairs, unwritten rules aren’t really rules at all. Traditions are respected until they are not respected anymore.
Such is the case of the IABD, the Inter-American Development Bank. Since 1959, its presidency has been held by Latin Americans. But for the election of new authorities, scheduled for the weekend after September 11, Donald Trump decided to back Cuban American Mauricio Claver-Carone as his presidential candidate.
Claver-Carone is a North American who knows the continent well. The Castro-friendly left sees him as a despicable “gusano” due to his ties to the Cuban diaspora, made palpable in his positions on the divisive matter of Venezuela.
The ravaged Caribbean nation is a constant source of conflict for Alberto Fernández. And to heat up matters even more, Fernández also has a candidate of his own for the IABD: Gustavo Béliz.
Béliz is a man who has always liked to cultivate an aura of honesty, but who worked in the early days of the Menem and Kirchner administrations, not known for being too fond of cleanliness. He lost his place near the Kirchners after an ultimatum to Néstor saying it was either him or Jaime Stiuso, then leader of the country’s spy agency. It was easy to see why Kirchner chose the latter.
Today, Béliz cultivates a low profile within the cabinet. He is the visionary, the man who focuses on strategic matters beyond the day-to-day drudge that makes the headlines. And he is permanently consulted by Fernández, for whom he acts as a central advisor.
Claver-Carone vs. Béliz
Fernández is acting like a crusader in his decision to block Trump’s plans. But this puts him in a difficult position, between his Puebla Group sympathies and his pending negotiations with the IMF, whose decisions Trump can turn around on a dime.
Trump made a disastrous investment greenlighting IMF loans to help Macri’s re-election bid. But states have a legal continuity, so Alberto Fernández has to pay back a debt that was only created to beat him — because of who his running mate was.
The need to reach an agreement with the IMF doesn’t necessarily mean that Fernández will behave like a quiet gentleman towards them. He will still back Béliz against Claver-Carone. And he will use the story of the pandemic as the perfect cover, arguing that the IADB election needs to be postponed from September 2020 to March 2021 because of it. His hope is that Trump will lose to Joe Biden in the meantime, ending the momentum of Claver-Carone’s candidacy.
Here, Fernández is behaving a bit like the optimists in Voltaire’s Candide. He has also hired Thomas Shannon as a rented lobbyist to do his bidding in Washington, as if that could soften the heart of Trump or that of his ever-changing staff. It’s a risky bet, similar to others he’s made in the past.
Allies for the gamble
Fernández’s best ally in the continent is Mexico’s Manuel López Obrador, who even helped him with a phone call to his Blackrock friend Larry Fink, nudging him into settling Argentina’s debt restructuring process.
Before December’s inauguration, Fernández had lunch with Claver-Carone in Mexico. Those who try to build up the President’s image say that Claver-Carone asked him for a favor, and Fernández gave him twice what he wanted. The favor was to intercede before Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro for the liberation of an American citizen – and Maduro ended up freeing two.
So Fernández felt Claver-Carone was being ungrateful when he stormed out of his inauguration a few days later, after finding out Venezuela’s former vice president Jorge Rodríguez was also in attendance. Washington sees Rodríguez as one of the masterminds behind electoral fraud in Venezuela, which has led to protests, state repression and death.
For his crusade, Fernández is counting on the support of a minority of European Union countries, plus the surprising addition of Chile through President Sebastián Piñera, and — he believes — that of México through López Obrador, whom Fernández has described as the only other regional leader that “wants to change the world”. But López Obrador and Trump are inextricably linked today.
Apart from that list, Argentina also has Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia and a few other regional allies on its side. But the whole gambit of postponing the IADB vote until March is predicated on the premise of a Biden victory in November. And gambling can sometimes backfire.
What is not yet clear is what bet Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is preparing. She follows Fernández’s candidly optimistic maneuvers from a distance, with a disdainful air of skepticism.
She is waiting, perhaps, for the right opportunity to announce a change of direction, moving closer to Russia and —especially — China, in ideological and commercial respects. The impression she left on Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was certainly better than that of Macri, who tried to earn their good graces with small talk about football.
Her preference for China is already raising concerns among Belgian and Brazilian diplomats. Multiple embassies are trying to understand the real reasons behind the postponement of a key call for tender. The decision on who controls the Hidrovia, used to ship Argentine products across the world, one of the few businesses who are still profitable and produce a daily cashflow in the country, is being postponed from 2021 to 2022. And behind this is the possibility of sidelining Brussels or Antwerp, and opting instead for Shanghai.
In the eight years of her presidency, the US made a costly geopolitical mistake in denying Argentina’s current Vice President of a formal state visit to Washington. It was Argentina’s current Ambassador to the US, Jorge Argüello — the same man that now suggested hiring Shannon as a lobbyst — who, more than a decade ago, was given the task of securing an invitation for Fernández de Kirchner.
The invitation never came, and revenge could now be swift.