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ARGENTINA | 29-10-2019 13:28

Fernández to shift stances on Latin America, US, Venezuela, Brazil, China

Fernández has signalled that Argentina will return to its alignment with the left-wing governments of Latin America. That could see closer ties with Mexico and Venezuela, and greater tensions with Brazil, the region’s biggest economy.

Alberto Fernández has yet to take office in Argentina. But already diplomats in Buenos Aires are anxiously awaiting what’s set to be yet another pendulum swing in the country’s foreign policy, this time to the left.

That may mean a less fulsome embrace of US President Donald Trump than incumbent Mauricio Macri, under whom Argentina aligned more with US goals in regional affairs, especially regarding Venezuela.

Fernández has signalled that Argentina will return to its alignment with the left-wing governments of Latin America. That could see closer ties with Mexico and Venezuela, and greater tensions with Brazil, the region’s biggest economy.

The Frente de Todos leader doesn’t take office until December 10, but the first signs of change were on show within hours of his election win. In an address to supporters at his campaign headquarters, he congratulated Evo Morales – the socialist who’s South America’s longest-serving leader – for securing a fourth term in Bolivia. That’s even as the results are still being verified and as Morales’s opponents allege fraud.

He also called for the release from jail of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a hero for the Latin American left who is serving nearly nine years for graft and money-laundering. That drew immediate disapproval from current President Jair Bolsonaro, signalling a rift between the two largest members of the Mercosur regional trade bloc.

Fernández is also poised to make Mexico the destination of his first international trip (as soon as next week), according to a person with knowledge of the matter. There he would meet with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, one of the most popular left-wing presidents in the world with an approval rating over 60 percent.

The initial actions point to a shift from the US-focused, business-driven foreign policy of Macri toward the more ideological approach favoured by the radical left elements in Fernández’s coalition, who see international relations as an extension of domestic politics.

His running-mate adds to that perception. The incoming vice president is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who in her time as president favoured alliances with leftist leaders and invited tension with western nations.

Here are the main hot spots for Argentine foreign policy under Fernández:

Venezuela
Fernández’s policy toward Venezuela is important not just for President Nicolás Maduro but for the US as well.

Under Macri, Argentina was a leader of the Lima Group, an ad-hoc outfit created in 2017 by nations seeking free elections in Venezuela that’s been increasingly critical of Maduro’s regime. During the campaign, Fernández suggested Argentina could leave the group and align with Mexico and Uruguay, which have taken a less strident approach. He’s also demurred on calling Venezuela a dictatorship – a term Macri has repeatedly used. Any move to leave the Lima Group would be viewed with concern by Brazil and the US, which has taken a strong stance against Maduro. While Fernández didn’t mention Venezuela in his victory speech, his triumph was celebrated by Maduro as a defeat of neoliberalism.

"Congratulations to the heroic Argentine people! In a historic democratic governance, they've defeated the neoliberalism of the IMF. The resounding victory of @alferdez and @CFKArgentina opens the window for a better future in Argentina," he posted.

Brazil
Ties with Brazil and its right-wing president will be a key test for South America’s top two economies.

During the campaign and even on election night, Fernández repeatedly called for the release of Lula, whom he visited in prison in July. That has irritated Bolsonaro and those who see his comments as interfering in Brazil’s judicial decisions. Bolsonaro, who has warned that Brazil could leave Mercosur if Argentina pivots to the left, on Monday declined to congratulate Fernández for his election win – he said Brazil could potentially join forces with other members of the trade bloc to suspend Argentina. Diplomats in Brasilia say their hope is Fernández takes a more pragmatic approach once in office, and that he realizes the value of the trade partnership.

United States
For the United States, Fernández’s elevation presents a risk after the close alliance between Macri and Trump. The last thing Washington wants is another outspoken Latin American leftist who would reinforce the position of Maduro and the regime in Cuba.

In that sense, the US has an incentive to reach out to Fernández – particularly given the strong investment of US companies in the country -– and work with the more pragmatic elements of his government. The US is also seeking to curb China’s influence in the region. As the largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund, the US will be key to unlocking negotiations between the new government and the Washington-based organisation over Argentina’s US$56-billion funding programme, which is currently on hold. While the IMF board will wait to see the details of Fernández’s economic plan, Washington does have some sway. Argentina’s policy toward Venezuela will be key in these talks. Washington may be less willing to give much support at the IMF if Argentina sides with Maduro. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo congratulated Fernández on his election win, but Trump has yet to comment.

China
Argentina’s economy is in crisis. Fernández has promised to end the austerity of Macri, but there is no money in the state coffers to do so. That could mean he turns toward China, which has shown a willingness to dip into its famous deep pockets and extend long-term loans in other countries. If Fernández weakens ties with the US, it could also give an opportunity for China to come in and send more defence equipment to Argentina. President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Buenos Aires a year ago alongside the Group of 20 summit.

“The Fernandez government will likely deepen economic and political ties with Beijing — with the particular goal of seeking much-needed financing from China,” said Kezia McKeague, a director at McLarty Associates in Washington DC. “That said, President Macri had already ably walked a geopolitical tight rope of maintaining good relationships with both Washington and Beijing.”

by Juan Pablo Spinetto, Bloomberg

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