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ARGENTINA | 17-06-2023 06:39

Fernando Straface: ‘In the case of President Fernández, there is a certain ignorance of how the world works’

Fernando Straface, secretary-general and secretary of foreign affairs for the Buenos Aires City government, on international relations, the legacy of the Mauricio Macri government and what a Horario Rodríguez Larreta Presidency would look like.

Fernando Straface, City Hall’s secretary-general for external affairs and a confidant of Mayor Horario Rodríguez Larreta, criticises the national government’s ideological foreign policy, while highlighting a successful legacy left by ex-president Mauricio Macri after inserting the country into the world.

In a feature interview, he describes what the outgoing mayor’s presidency would be like as from December, if elected.

 

Could it be said that Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s ideas are closer to the Democratic Party [in the United States], if not at an institutional level, whereas those represented by Mauricio Macri or Patricia Bullrich are closer to the Republican Party?

Argentina’s leading foreign investor is the United States, with China as the second trade partner. Argentina thus needs both countries to develop and we will have to secure a working relationship with whoever governs in the United States for our strategies of development in Argentina. The error committed by President Fernández was to inject ideology into relations with Brazil to the point that our relationship with our main regional strategic partner did not work out because they did not belong to the same ideological family, an error which cost Argentina dear.

 I would say that in the case of Rodríguez Larreta, we have a very important agenda with the US government. Indeed I have just recently returned from a meeting with State Department officials but being ideologically independent, we’d be very much up to working with another administration, if that were to be the case, as from next year’s elections in the United States. 

 

It seems to me unfair to say that Alberto Fernández inserted ideology into the relationship with Brazil when their president was [Jair] Bolsonaro who sent him messages insulting his wife and children before he took office. It seems to me that it was President Bolsonaro who injected ideology into the relationship with Argentina.

I take your point because I have highlighted several times that the responsibility was shared. [Former] President [Mauricio] Macri governed with three Brazilian presidencies, [Dilma] Rousseff, [Michel] Temer and Bolsonaro himself. A strategic relationship like that between Argentina and Brazil should not have to depend on the gestures or moods of one candidate or the other. 

I take your point that President Bolsonaro also went overboard, first with Argentina and then with other countries like France, something costing him the agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, an important setback, precisely because of the impossibility of dialogue.

 

Trying to be fair, it is true that Alberto Fernández went to see Lula in jail which must have affronted then President Bolsonaro. How would the international policies of a Horacio Rodríguez Larreta presidency differ from those of Macri, over and above working in different periods of time?

But the moment is also highly determinant of the essential features of foreign policy. The Macri presidency was definitely very successful and a positive legacy which we must regain by reinserting Argentina as a protagonist in the world. Holding the G20 summit in Argentina with the possibilities of direct dialogue and the construction of confidence at a personal level with some of the world leaders of that period, including Chancellor [Angela] Merkel [of Germany] and the Presidents [Barack] Obama followed by [Donald] Trump of the United States – there you have a good demonstration of the flexibility when defending Argentine interests with different administrations. 

Now with Horacio as president as from December, an exceptional opportunity would open up, I would say in five areas of global importance where Argentina can be absolutely protagonistic: food security, energy security, critical minerals, especially lithium, tourism – a sector sometimes underestimated but has enormous potential as extending throughout the national territory with Argentina located in a region of peace, pretty scarce in today’s world – and knowledge-based industries. The foreign policy of  Horacio Rodríguez Larreta will be especially geared to realising the full potential of those motors of Argentine growth. In all probability the geopolitics we are projecting will be geared to generating growth opportunities for Argentina and Argentine jobs in each of those sectors. And there is some reason for optimism since we are very realistic in each one of these issues.

Regarding food security, the Macri presidency left the European Union-Mercosur agreement at a very advanced stage and, although interrupted for various reasons during the last three-and-a-half years, there are today very sustainable and robust reasons to think that it could be signed, thus opening up a new market of half a billion consumers of lithium because Europe has just issued a resolution whereby, as from 2035, there will be no more cars fuelled with petrol or diesel circulating – they will have to use ecological fuel but fundamentally electric, which in turn will require batteries with lithium, where we have the second most important reserves in the world within the ABC triangle of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile in the three northern provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Catamarca, inaugurated by President Macri. 

Juntos por el Cambio has the will to integrate Argentina into the world while Horacio Rodríguez Larreta will steer all that integration towards a productive integration for Argentina for a “trickledown” of the motors of growth. The geopolitics of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s foreign policy will seek to fit into his Plan of Development and Growth for Argentina.

 

What will be the differences between your international policies and those of the Macri era and those which Patricia Bullrich might push forward?

In Horacio’s case, I was pointing out recently that the imperative of his foreign policy is Argentine development. It has to be a foreign policy which, unlike the government of President Fernández, is not, shall we say, branded by ideology, prejudice or history. In the case of President Fernández, there is also a certain ignorance of how the world works. 

With a Horacio Rodríguez Larreta presidency you will have a highly pragmatic foreign policy when it comes to defending Argentine national interests. When Brazil voted, for example,  Horacio Rodríguez Larreta was the first Juntos por el Cambio leader to congratulate the new president of Brazil, namely Lula, not because of any ideological preference but because he is the constitutional president of Brazil. Ditto for President [Gabriel] Boric in Chile and he would do the same for any other democratically elected president in the region. Horacio Rodríguez Larreta thus has the vocation to be a regional leader in a continent with some centre-left governments. 

In some other interview you spoke of a possible third pink wave for the region with others more centre-right like [Uruguay’s Luis] Lacalle Pou and the president-elect [Santiago] Peña in Paraguay. A president like Horacio could be a truly centrist president in Argentina and balance ideology within the region. It seems to me that this will guarantee Argentina’s capacity to be a very important conversation partner with the world to advance the agendas interesting Argentina in the realm of development.

 

There would seem to be no difference between Rodríguez Larreta and either Macri or Bullrich. For example, I’ve heard you highlight that it would be erroneous to introduce ideology into international relations. Would it be inserting ideology to speak of Argentina heading towards becoming Venezuela when Lula backs Nicaragua and Venezuela? And are there any concrete differences between Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich when it comes to international policy?

It is true that we share with ex-president Macri and the other Juntos por el Cambio parties the broad lines of foreign policy because we form part of the same coalition with common values and the legacy of the Mauricio Macri presidency, which gives us an important part of the orientation to think ahead. 

The biggest difference in the foreign policy of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, its superiority rather than a difference, will lie in its profoundly productive nature, as I was pointing out when talking about the motors of growth, with a highly federalist focus on foreign policy.

For the last several weeks I’ve been covering the country with the former foreign minister [Luis] Florido and Martín Redrado, going to each Argentine province to understand better the possible international action for driving the plan to develop each province. That bias, if you want to use that word, towards a federal foreign policy, seems to me an important point where Horacio Rodríguez Larreta makes a difference. And thirdly, Horacio’s flexible leadership to seek common interests with other countries in the region, independent of their ideology, as long as they are democracies, of course. 

 

How do you balance the relationship between the United States and China when there has been a unipolar world since the 1990s and now China is competing with the United State although that could be exaggerated, perhaps there are 20 more years to go before they really start to do so?

To start off with, an economy like Argentina’s, as well as of several countries in the region, are far more complementary with China than with the United States because we have what they need. China needs our food, minerals and possibly our energy whereas the United States is self-sufficient. That is a complete commercial agenda and, as Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has pointed out several times, there is plenty of room for growth whereby we understand that a policy like adhesion to the Belt and Road Initiative or Silk Road and a strategic trade alliance with China must be continued and here there is continuity of state policy if you wish. 

Now it is also true that we not only share with the United States a continent but also certain values such as democracy and human rights, as well as certain common interests in the Atlantic. We thus also have a very substantial defence agenda, battling against terrorism and drug-trafficking. Now to be consistent in foreign policy, a middle-income country and a middleweight power like Argentina has to navigate this complementary nature in a very serious fashion. It’s not about going to China and telling China what it wants to hear, nor going to Russia a few days before its invasion of Ukraine and telling [Vladimir] Putin what he wants to hear, and then going to President [Joe] Biden and not only telling him what he wants to hear but also bad-mouthing [former] presidents of the United States and Argentina, as President Fernández did in his recent visit to Biden, which seems to me aesthetically and geopolitically erroneous. 

You have to have very serious dialogues with both the established power and the emerging power which is China, some difficult conversations about what can and cannot be done, but above all offering predictability. The quality of the foreign policy of a middle-income country like Argentina but with an enormous potential for protagonism in some global issues, as I was pointing out before, passes for its consistency for letting the powers know what they can and cannot expect from Argentina, not zigzagging from one side to the other according to mood or even, in some cases, according to ideological prejudice, as we were discussing earlier.

 

I’m going to be provocative: Is that US competition with and hostility towards China a fallacy for South America with China, on the contrary, making itself useful in the South American backyard of the United States with a series of investments finally taking the region out of its extreme poverty and extreme underdevelopment by in some way also irrigating that backyard?

That focus might have been valid some years ago but more recently there seems to me a shift towards a genuine US concern about the Chinese presence in some countries of the region, linked to the use of strategic resources such as lithium, the South Atlantic fisheries and food supplies. The United States has thus started to emerge, and not very effectively, from a certain lethargy towards the region because they also see that several of its countries understand that there are development opportunities with China which should not be wasted but this also means a loss of US presence and ascendency in several countries of the region. 

In my recent trips to the United States and in some dialogues I had last week with US government officials, it became objectively clear to me that they are paying attention to the kind of work China is doing in the region. What is happening is that this would mean the United States offering equivalent development opportunities to countries in the region and this sometimes makes the United States, as the democracy which it is, more of a dealer than a regime like the Chinese where the strategic direction given by the government is transferred to the private sector.

 

Lula offers regional leadership and a desire to be an actor at the international level, as he attempted when last president, and now he is trying to mediate between Russia and Ukraine while shifting China towards a different position. When Uruguay wanted directly to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China, Lula came along and China said: ‘Gentlemen, only with Mercosur.’ How do you see Brazil’s unquestionable role in the subcontinent, as possessing two-thirds of the South American gross product, when it comes to harmonising policies throughout the region?

This renaissance of President Lula’s global vocation surprises me a bit. To begin with, because he belongs to a country with an imperial tradition and a self-definition as a continent in itself, this expansionist tradition of Brazil, increasingly backed by the size of its economy, is almost to be expected. 

It seems to me that in the first stage of his government President Lula had an internationalist “rush” beginning with Argentina – and I would like to highlight that this tradition which does Argentina a lot of good, it seems to me, has always been respected – followed by Uruguay, the United States and then China. He is playing on different global chessboards, seeking to make Brazil a global protagonist, very much in line with the thinking of [his Foreign Minister] Celso Amorim and that Brazilian tradition, in some cases in areas where he gains more clout in association with Argentina. 

I’m referring, for example, to the European Union-Mercosur agreement, definitely with a more harmonic vocation on the part of Brazil when it comes to the environment and also the consequences of the war in Ukraine on energy and food security. Today the EU-Mercosur agreement is more viable, also because of the ascendency of Lula who manifestly favours that agreement. And at the same time Lula’s vocation to see Brazil playing on other additional chess-boards, with a possible Mercosur agreement with China, is understandable. 

That does not mean that Argentina necessarily has to agree with absolutely every point Brazil places on the table in order to walk together. I would mention one issue, for example, where we in Juntos por el Cambio differ from the position adopted by the current government of President Fernández regarding entry into BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), now strongly pushed by Brazil but unfortunately presented within BRICS by Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov in conjunction with Iran, which is probably impossible for Argentina. We believe that entry into BRICS is not a priority right now for Argentina. So that is an issue over which we will have to converse when would be the right time for it, should Rodríguez Larreta become president, but in the same way we should converse about that issue, we should march together with Brazil towards the EU-Mercosur agreement and on other fronts.

 

Redrado was formally the deputy foreign minister when in charge of the economic side of relations at City Hall, as he was second-in-command at the Foreign Ministry at the beginning of the century. You are always imagined to be the foreign minister should Horacio Rodríguez Larreta reach the presidency and you have a relationship with Redrado. I would like to hear your vision of the role you would have and the one  Redrado would have in a possible Rodríguez Larreta presidency.

Today I’m very happy to be sharing ministerial duties with Martín Redrado.  I see myself together with him and other internationalists such as [former Foreign Minister Jorge] Faurie as well as some ambassadors of the Mauricio Macri government like Fernando Orís de Roa, Ezequiel Sabor, Ricardo Lagorio and others. We see ourselves as part of a team of internationalists who will be the protagonists of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s foreign policy. 

As I said at the beginning, the model of development proposed by Horacio Rodríguez Larreta will be really central. Anticipating the distribution of specific posts within that team is premature. But I have no doubt, because we are doing so now, that I’m going to work very well with Martín Redrado in whatever spots we are given.

 

In international relations, in both cases.

I aspire in my case that, whatever it might be, I have the vocation and I have prepared for it, working towards that for a long time. And in his case, he obviously has that experience you pointed out, which is very important for a vision of international productive integration.

 

Do you think that Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s running-mate, regardless of whether he wins or not, should come from inland?

Personally, and I believe that I represent a feeling due to everything I was pointing out before about Rodríguez Larreta, I would say yes, I think that an Argentine government will be better to the degree that it represents this country’s mosaic of federal wealth. And I believe that it would be a good symbolic gesture and also an objective of a coalition government to show that both the Cabinet and the presidential ticket represent the entire country.

 

Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

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