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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-10-2019 08:20

Venezuela on Alberto’s mind

The extremes of Argentina’s love-hate relationship with the world’s most powerful nation become glaringly explicit in the current juncture, where presidential frontrunner Alberto Fernández is struggling to band together a wide array of Peronists that cross the political spectrum, while trying to figure out how to contain the fallout of a Chernobyl-like economic meltdown.

Argentina has always been obsessed with the United States. From the consistent trips to New York and Miami of the rich and wealthy, which extends to the middle class during the few semesters in which the economy isn’t imploding, to the absolute hatred of the “gringos” expressed, for example, during the 2005 Americas Summit where Néstor Kirchner invited Hugo Chávez and Diego Maradona to repudiate George W. Bush’s presence.

The extremes of Argentina’s love-hate relationship with the world’s most powerful nation become glaringly explicit in the current juncture, where presidential frontrunner Alberto Fernández is struggling to band together a wide array of Peronists that cross the political spectrum, while trying to figure out how to contain the fallout of a Chernobyl-like economic meltdown.

Over the past few weeks, a flurry of rumours have made their way through the media regarding what position a hypothetical ‘President Fernández’ would take with regards to the country run by US President Donald Trump, particularly given the fact that running-mate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presided over a state that aligned itself with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Cuba, and sought to negotiate a sort of amnesty treaty with Iran.

This becomes all the more relevant given President Mauricio Macri’s excellent rapport with the platinum blonde real-estate mogul who lives in the White House, built on a prior business relationship with Papá Franco. Still, while the personal relationship is touching, Macri’s greatest policy success is arguably on the foreign front, where his plan to integrate Argentina with the mainstream global community worked wonders, to the point where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) coughed up a record US$57-billion emergency loan to help the serial defaulter. While the crux of the problem is economic at its root — what level of support Argentina can muster from the IMF and its private creditors in restructuring its debt — it ends up becoming a consequence of the political attributes of the players involved. The questions circulating in Washington, Wall Street, and Buenos Aires consider Cristina’s role will be a probable Fernández-Fernández government.

Assuming the polls are right this time, Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner will become Provisional President of the Senate, a chamber controlled by a league of Peronist governors that dislike her deeply, and who constitute the main support base of President Alberto. CFK’s powerbase will consists of the 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that are diehard Cristina fans, who reside mainly in the poorest neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires Province, where lapdog Axel Kicillof is expected to handily take the governorship from María Eugenia Vidal. Son Máximo, spiritual leader of the La Cámpora youth organisation, and a deputy, used that power to put together candidate lists that granted hardcore Kirchnerites a tangible level of political capital. Cristina has been absent throughout the campaign, holding major rallies to promote her recent bestseller, Sinceramente, while traveling often to Havana, Cuba, to visit daughter Florencia. With the Kirchner family under judicial siege, Florencia’s self-imposed exile responds in part to a legal strategy given the fact that Cuba doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Argentina, but sources close to the family indicate she is truly struggling. Reports about her condition vary, but the consensus points to a deep depression with strong collateral effects on her body and psyche.

According to journalist Román Lejtman, US Ambassador Edward Prado recently asked Jorge Argüello — former Ambassador to the United Nations and the US under the Kirchner administrations — to organise an informal meeting with Cristina. Prado, like every diplomat serving in Buenos Aires, needs to understand whether the FernándezFernández government is willing to clash with Washington on the key issue of Venezuela. During Macri’s government, Argentina took a leading role against the government of Nicolás Maduro, particularly from the Lima Group alongside Brazil and Colombia, quickly recognising Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the Bolivarian nation. The Lima Group is aligned with Washington in that Maduro is a problem for the region, not only because of the humanitarian crisis generated domestically and abroad, but also because of the influence of Cuba and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China, practically the only reasons why he’s still in power.

That’s where the conflicts of interest come in. Fernández has already noted publicly that he agrees with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez in taking a more neutral stand, which seeks to broker a diplomatic solution to the Venezuelan conflict that isn’t based on the rigid condition that Maduro must take the fall. Fernández, a true pragmatist, pulled out his full repertoire. Seeking to keep his coalition united, he made a rhetorical argument differentiating dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, putting Venezuela in the latter basket. Brilliant.

Yet, Frente Renovador leader Sergio Massa, one of the pillars of Fernández’s pan-Peronist coalition, went on a shotgun public relations tour to the US recently, putting words in Alberto’s mouth: “When Alberto Fernández refers to [Michelle] Bachelet’s report, which notes systemic human rights violations, it is referring to a dictatorship, which is what we think,” Massa said at a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Massa is a longtime friend and even business partner of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City Mayor who is currently Trump’s personal lawyer. The man from Tigre sought to convince Wall Street that Alberto will not default on the country’s sovereign debt. Something he said seems to have worked, as a few days after returning to Buenos Aires in a hurry due to a medical situation with his wife Malena Galmarini — who is running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies — a report indicated the US still backs Argentina’s intention to become a full member of the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD), aka the rich countries club. Interestingly, the letter signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and released by Bloomberg, did not lend its support to Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro continues to struggle politically.

The key to unlocking Argentina’s short-term riddle is the IMF, where the US runs the show with 17-percent of overall voting power. Journalist Marcelo Bonelli reported Argentina’s debacle was taking down the influential Alejandro Werner, Director of the Western Hemisphere department, and could potentially drag Roberto Cardarelli — in charge of the Argentina mission — with it. Neither of them made the call on Argentina, that was all Trump according to Bonelli, but they will take the blame. Christine Lagarde came out unscathed as well, currently in charge of the European Central Bank.

Which brings us all back to Cristina, whose daughter Florencia depends on the whims of Havana for her medical treatment. Can Alberto preach to the choir domestically, claiming he will leave the Lima Group, while negotiating his support for the removal of the Maduro regime in exchange for the IMF’s support in the necessary debt-restructuring? Can he take a middle-of-the-ground approach and align himself with Mexico and Uruguay without losing Trump’s support? Will Cristina Fernández de Kirchner truly take a supporting role in the Alberto administration? And what of Macri, the standard bearer in the battle against the Maduro regime, once he becomes opposition?

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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