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OP-ED | 18-06-2021 22:17

Central America and the middle ground

Deploring disrespect for the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs and electoral processes is a bit rich when coming from President Alberto Fernández, who only five days previously had drawn a protest from Lima’s Foreign Ministry for prematurely congratulating Peruvian leftist candidate Pedro Castillo.

Election campaigns are invariably presented as being all about the middle ground and yet the Frente de Todos government’s application of this logic is patchy in the extreme. With “extreme” being the operative word because both at home and abroad – with the incongruous passion for nationalisation (be it the health system or the Paraná waterway) by a state drained by the coronavirus pandemic suddenly seizing the ruling coalition’s Kirchnerite wing and with some of the recent voting in international organisations (especially over Israel and Nicaragua) – the government is shifting sharply away from that strategic middle ground. There is no consistency here either since such extremism is contradicted by displays of ultra-pragmatism on other fronts – notably the abrupt conversion of Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof to classroom education at all odds with the pandemic statistics registering hundreds of daily deaths, data which the provincial government tweaked in order to align its epidemiological traffic lights with opinion polls overwhelmingly in favour of having children in school.

Within that uneven scenario this editorial proposes to focus on the international voting patterns as the sphere where the impact is most likely to persist after the electoral dust has settled, and also where government actions enter most into conflict with its human rights creed. Especially in the case of last Tuesday’s extraordinary session of the Organisation of American States where Argentina abstained from condemning the Nicaraguan government’s arrest of over a dozen leading opposition figures with the confirmation of candidates for November’s general elections due next month – a motion which Bolivia was the only South American country to oppose while Argentina was the only nation of the subcontinent to abstain. In a joint communiqué with Mexico, the government did not exactly smile approval on the arbitrary actions of the authoritarian Daniel Ortega regime, expressing “concern over recent events in Nicaragua” together with “our disposition to collaborate constructively so that this situation is overcome by the Nicaraguans themselves … with full respect for all human rights,” but it roundly disagreed with the OAS willingness “to ignore the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, imposing criteria from outside and ignoring electoral processes.”

Deploring this disrespect for the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs and electoral processes is a bit rich when coming from President Alberto Fernández, who only five days previously had drawn a protest from Lima’s Foreign Ministry for prematurely congratulating Peruvian leftist candidate Pedro Castillo amid countless further examples of gratuitous commentary on other countries near and far. But President Fernández was also being disloyal to Argentina’s own human rights history when only 20 months ago the 40th anniversary of the historic OAS mission to denounce the human rights violations of the military dictatorship was so widely celebrated here.

The vote on Nicaragua is no isolated episode but corresponds to a sustained trend in foreign policy. Three weeks ago Argentina voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” in the Gaza Strip (against Hamas terrorists firing over 3,000 rockets into Israeli territory) in consonance with China and Russia and against both Argentina’s Mercosur partners and the United States. The language applied to Nicaragua of non-intervention and insistence on a country’s problems being resolved by its own citizenry (no matter how despotic its government) is virtually identical to that consistently used with Venezuela. A benefit of the doubt only extended to self-styled progressive presidencies in a blatant display of double standards – Frente de Todos foreign policy kicked off by immediately condemning the forced resignation of Bolivia’s Evo Morales as a coup.

Over and above the ethical merits and logical consistency of this foreign policy, it is hard to see its use. Throughout history foreign policy has notoriously served as a distraction from domestic problems but if the chances of the average voter attaching greater urgency to (say) judicial reform than to the pandemic and its accompanying economic woes are already slim enough, the probability of the integrity of the Nicaraguan electoral process taking pride of place is even more microscopic. Looking beyond Argentina, gainsaying the rest of the continent in these international votes also has its economic consequences. The indefinite postponement of last Tuesday’s Mercosur ministerial summit was chiefly due to Argentina’s insistence on protectionism but breaking trade bloc unity in international voting does not help while the Nicaraguan vote came at exactly the wrong time for Speaker Sergio Massa’s mission to Washington to smooth negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

All more of a muddle than the middle.        ​

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