If a week is a long time in politics, as then-British prime minister Harold Wilson observed half a century ago, so is a month of transition between governments (with 31 days still to go for the inauguration). Nor is president-elect Alberto Fernández exerting himself unduly to fill the vacuum – insofar as a favourite maxim of Juan Domingo Perón was: “When I define, I exclude,” Fernández can be considered a true Peronist. His future Cabinet remains a mystery while his road map for a stricken economy does not go beyond a broad socio-economic agreement, with a 2020 wage and price ceiling of 35 percent widely floated but far from confirmed. But what we have seen from a president-elect spending most of last week in Mexico is some indication of his foreign policy, at least where this hemisphere is concerned.
During this visit Fernández announced a “strategic alliance” with Mexico and pronounced a vision of Latin American unity based on the Puebla Group of progressive leaders. To speak of these two countries as a cradle of integration is almost an oxymoron since Argentina is one of the world’s most closed economies while Mexican presidents traditionally take pride in never leaving home soil, G20 summits etc. apart, with Andrés Manuel López Obrador yet to venture abroad after almost a year in office (just as no US president ever left the United States until the Treaty of Versailles a century ago). The generally nationalistic and protectionist leanings of Grupo de Puebla leaders are assumed to cement Latin American unity more firmly than the more open economy championed by their adversaries (as well as boost exports to pay off debt, as Fernández told a Russian television channel this week).
Nor is the Grupo de Puebla any more convincing as a basis for integration. Housing past, present and future presidents, it does not even attempt to bring together sitting governments, never mind states, with “progressive” being the one common denominator. And nor does it focus on the acute social and economic problems causing unrest in almost half the subcontinent beyond a blanket rejection of “neoliberalism” – the immediate priority would seem to be the personal legal complications of some of these leaders themselves, including previous two-term president and future vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The discussions centred on the concept of “lawfare” whereby progressive populist leaders allegedly become the innocent victims of corruption trials. The Grupo de Puebla springs to the defence of prosecuted progressives in Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, among other countries, but is curiously silent over Peru where just about every ex-president of the last generation is on trial on similar charges (or even the same in the case of Brazil’s Odebrecht scandal with its continental fallout), with Alan García even committing suicide – these generally promarket leaders are considered to stand guilty as charged.
Meanwhile, the “lawfare” defence of Brazilian ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the star victim is complicating relations with Argentina’s biggest trade partner even before the new presidency has started. It would be impossible to say that all the fault lies on the side of Alberto Fernández when Jair Bolsonaro is on the other – the latter is largely responsible for making such an issue of the Brazilian presence at the inauguration – but the collision course is being gratuitously accelerated. Even allowing for the ideological incompatibility, if Fernández can manage to be on at least speaking terms with US President Donald Trump, why not work towards a minimal co-existence with the elected government of Brazil, which is (after all) a rather large part of the Latin America which the Grupo de Puebla seeks to unify?
Yet all this talk about foreign policy does not offer many clues as to domestic (and where it does in this case, they are often negative, such as a blind eye towards corruption). The president-elect’s allergy to definitions is a luxury he can ill afford. Any elected politician should normally be entitled to the benefit of the doubt before they start to govern but these are not normal times and the doubts bring no benefit – Fernández cannot waste any more time in clarifying them.