Argentina’s new ambassador to US: "I have great expectations"
Experienced businessman Fernando Oris de Roa shares his experience of meeting US President Donald Trump and predicts that Argentine beef will soon lead the way in establishing a stronger bilateral and trade relationship.
Argentina has a new ambassador to the United States – and he’s ready to get down to business. Fernando Oris de Roa, a successful businessman in his own right, is widely credited with having transformed the lemon industry in Argentina, helping to change the country into the world’s largest producer and exporter of the citrus fruit. Lemons have been at the top of President Mauricio Macri’s agenda since 2017, after the Donald Trump administration backtracked on a trade deal agreed under the Barack Obama administration. With this in mind – and with Trump’s government culling or renegotiating old trade accords, raising tariffs and blocking imports as the anniversary of his first year in office passes – one can see why the appointment of Oris de Roa made perfect sense for Macri. He is well acquainted with the type of tough negotiations that dominate agriculture-related exports, government regulations and lobbying.
But despite his record in the private sector, the challenges facing the ambassador are considerable. With over onefourth of Argentina’s exports to the US currently stalled by a 70-percent duty hike on biodiesel exports, and aluminum exports also on standby, Argentina’s trade deficit with the United States is predicted to continue growing. Fully aware of the difficulties before him, the 65-year-old ambassador remains confident that he and the diplomatic corps have the tools and know-how necessary to accomplish the three primary objectives given to him by the president: reducing poverty, creating employment and narrowing the trade deficit.
Hours after he presented his credentials to US President Donald Trump inside the Oval Office of the White House, the Ambassador gave a roundtable interview to a group of journalists – including the Times – in the Argentine Embassy’s salon.
How was your meeting with President Trump?
The greeting with the president was the culmination of the exchange of credentials process, but I would be over-simplifying the event to say that it was meeting.
I met with the ambassador of Lebanon and Ecuador, who arrived recently. When we finally came to the Oval Office, I had two opportunities to present my credentials before President Trump. The first thing he said was “Mauricio!” after he was informed I was the Argentine ambassador, and he then repeated that three or four times and patted me on the back saying, “You are going to do a great job!” And immediately after having welcomed me he then said, “Lemons, Lemons,” two or three times. I think he told me that, without having any idea that I was in the lemon business since 1992, [there was] a time when people didn’t even know that lemons existed in Argentina. So, on a personal level, it is a nice anecdote. I remember when I came here in the late 1990s for public hearings about opening the market, and we had to fight with our backs against the wall against Dreyfuss (global agriculture and food-processing company). So, to all of a sudden be in the Oval Office and the president of the United States is repeating the word lemons three times, was very nice for me. Of course, one thinks to himself, ‘I have many more things than lemons to offer’ (Laughs). But, of course, I had less than two minutes of time with him.
And what is the next official step you will take now that you are ambassador?
My first step will be here inside this house (the Embassy). Getting to know the Embassy’s personnel and getting up to speed with all the issues that they are following, and learning how I can help each one of them in the work they are doing.
How will the transition be regarding Congress? Will the new Argentine caucus in Congress help relations?
It’s a significant step. But this isn’t something that comes from my initiative. We have a diplomat that dedicates himself exclusively to congressional issues named Mr. Christian Hotton, whom I’ve met, and he is preparing an agenda that we will review together following a strategy that we will develop here inside. Twenty-five percent of my activity will be dedicated to working on this agenda with Congress.
What will be the two or three main congressional issues?
Argentina’s agenda is not a novelty because it’s completely public. But what might also be important is to see what the agenda is on the other side of us. I mean to say, if we put blinders on and only focus on our agenda, without understanding what the agenda of the other side is, we will have difficulties advancing. So our whole commercial agenda – which in the short-term includes the entry of Argentine beef into the United States – are issues that can also multiply and be solved faster in measure with how we establish this back-andforth relationship.
What are the expectations for the trade agenda, taking into account the first year of the Trump administration?
I have very high expectations. At this moment, relations are excellent between Argentina and the United States. Wherever we go, whether it’s the recent exchange of credentials event with the State Department, or even beyond those formalities, we receive comments that the United States is interested [in seeing] Argentina progress and have success. So, the goodwill from the other side exists, and that’s no small thing.
Do you trust that this goodwill will translate into favourable results? Because up to now it’s all been going backwards.
No, I don’t know if it’s been all going into reverse. Maybe up until now, it hasn’t been as fast as one would want but the willingness is sustainable. Even if the US wants something politically, they have technical and administrative structures in which they also have to co-exist. It will also depend on the ability of how the Embassy is administered; how far we can advance in negotiations so that we satisfy both sides. But I’m sure that our team in the Embassy has an enormous amount of capacity to achieve these expectations.
Did President Macri give you any specific instructions on what to focus on, or at least prioritise at the beginning of your mandate?
Without a doubt. President Macri told me that I should focus on three objectives: the reduction of poverty, job creation and the reduction of our deficit. And anything that indirectly or directly helps solve these issues will be a priority for my administration. These priorities have helped me a lot and serve to guide what I do every day. My experience has been the creation of different companies, of employment, the possibility of doing new things – in the good and bad moments – independently of the political mood of the moment. For 45 years I’ve been doing these things, and I hope this won’t be an exception.
Do you have anything planned for biodiesel, or will this be a matter for the WTO?
I plan to follow the Production Ministry and Foreign Ministry’s policy. Argentina’s position is to continue negotiating over the importance that biodiesel is for its agenda with the United States, and in that regard, there is no sign that we will discontinue that policy.
It depends, I don’t know. But what I can say that amongst all the things, it should be the first to come out. Politically speaking we have the greenlight. We just have to start coordinating these things on both sides.