Argentina’s Left Turn May Upset Trump’s Plans for South America

Thousands of supporters on the night of his election victory in Argentina.

Source Spencer Platt/Getty

Why you should care

The U.S. might have just lost a key ally in its effort to dethrone Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro.

Barely 30 seconds into a brief speech thanking thousands of supporters on the night of his election victory in Argentina, Alberto Fernández had already taken firm sides on two of the most divisive issues in the region.

After congratulating the leftist Evo Morales on his fiercely disputed victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections the previous weekend, he went on to demand the release of Brazil’s imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. 

Free Lula!” he cried, to roars of approval.

The U.S. wants two things in Latin America: security and stability … instability [in Argentina] just creates more problems.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, Torcuato di Tella University

Many Brazilians are convinced that the left-wing former trade unionist is guilty of corruption as charged — not least the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Fernández’s provocation fueled fears that he will pursue a radical foreign policy in the vein of previous Peronist governments, despite Argentina’s urgent need for good relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and international creditors as it teeters on the brink of its ninth sovereign debt default. 

Hopes of a more moderate approach “may be wishful thinking,” says Benjamin Gedan, who leads the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He describes Fernández’s “completely unnecessary” remarks as a “very discouraging signal.” 

The new Argentine president-elect provided more clues to his foreign policy in a flurry of tweets responding to congratulations on his election victory from leaders across the region.

Friendly replies were reserved for left-wing allies, in particular, “dear” Morales — the only like-minded leader among Argentina’s neighbors — and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, who received Fernández on Monday in his first trip abroad since winning the presidency. 

Fernández said he would work with López Obrador “hand in hand.” But his comments to Venezuela’s autocratic leader Nicolás Maduro were more ambiguous, saying the poverty and inequality rampant in the region should be solved with the “full force” of democracy. 

The Argentine president-elect did not have any message for the hot-headed Bolsonaro, who has confirmed that he will not attend Fernández’s inauguration after declaring that the Argentine electorate made the “wrong choice.”

In August, the Brazilian former army captain called Fernández a “leftist bandit” and he retaliated by describing Bolsonaro as “racist, misogynist and violent.” Relations deteriorated further last week when Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo retweeted a picture of himself cradling a machine gun beside a photograph of Fernández’s son Estanislao, who was dressed up in drag.

Attempting to “transcend ideological differences” with Brazil’s provocative leader is one of the two great challenges Fernández faces, says Patricio Carmody, a member of the Argentine Council for International Relations, a nonprofit academic institution.

Maintaining good relations with Argentina’s largest trading partner is crucial given their host of shared interests, such as the regional trade bloc Mercosur, which some fear Bolsonaro is scheming to exit. 

Perhaps even more importantly, Fernández must keep up good relations with both the U.S. and China. That will be particularly challenging given China’s growing presence in the region — a trend that many in Washington see as a threat, especially given the Asian giant’s secrecy-shrouded, military-run, satellite-tracking station in Patagonia. 

But Gedan fears that Argentina’s relations with the U.S. could be undermined by a U-turn in its policy toward Venezuela, given that the issue is “by far the No. 1 priority” in the region for U.S. President Donald Trump.

That makes it “an inevitable source of tension,” he says, adding that a policy change could have serious implications for Argentina’s negotiations with the IMF, due to the U.S.’s unique veto power over major policy decisions as the fund’s largest shareholder. 

Until now, the U.S. has relied on the outgoing president, Mauricio Macri, to take a leading role in the region in condemning Maduro’s dictatorial regime. Many believe Macri’s close relationship with Trump explains why the IMF was so quick to support Argentina with its largest-ever loan during a currency crisis last year. 

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an international relations specialist at Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires, believes it is “highly probable” that Argentina will become the first country to withdraw its recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. But he also argued that the U.S. was unlikely to want to “shoot itself in the foot” by flexing its muscles at the IMF with a hardline stance against Argentina.

“The U.S. wants two things in Latin America: security and stability,” he says. Given that so many other countries in the region are in crisis, such as the destabilizing protests continuing in close U.S. ally Chile, “instability [in Argentina] just creates more problems. [The U.S.] can’t have so many hot spots in the region,” says Tokatlian.

Diana Tussie, an international relations specialist at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, argues that the shifting balance of power in the region means that all players will be forced to be more pragmatic.

“Alberto is someone who knows how to get out of a tight spot,” she says. “He has been besieged before, and look where he is now. He is very pragmatic.”

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By Benedict Mander

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