Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Argentina’s Foreign Policy See a Radical Shift?

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández and incoming Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner take office next month and could take the country’s foreign policy in a new direction. // File Photo: Fernández Campaign. Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández and incoming Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner take office next month and could take the country’s foreign policy in a new direction. // File Photo: Fernández Campaign.

In his first foreign trip, Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández met this month with leftist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City with the aim of strengthening ties. Meanwhile, tensions have been high between Fernández, a Peronist, and far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who have exchanged barbs in the media over ideological differences. What shape will Fernández’s foreign policy take? Is his government likely to shy away from traditional partners such as Brazil, and what implications could that have for the Mercosur trade bloc? To what extent is a distancing from the United States likely, as was the case during the presidential administration of incoming Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner?

Shunko Rojas, partner at Quipu and former undersecretary of international trade at the Argentine Ministry of Production: “It is still early to say what form Alberto Fernández’s foreign policy will take. The final composition of his team will have a great influence on Argentina’s foreign policy. This comes with a complex international context, with a trade war that generates many uncertainties and affects global growth and a situation that is especially worrying at the regional level. Social protests in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia show that, beyond the dynamics and policies of each country, there is an environment of low social tolerance and high political tensions. In this scenario of instability, risk and polarization, Argentina must implement a prudent, multilateral and depersonalized foreign policy, which must be built taking into account the country’s enormous internal challenges—including its delicate macroeconomic situation, the need to continue international insertion by placing exports at the center of the development model and defending the values that have traditionally characterized our foreign policy. The relationships with traditional allies that today have similar governments, such as Mexico and Spain, will focus on multilateral areas in which Argentina can contribute, such as human rights, the environment and nuclear energy. Despite the lack of personal affinity between Bolsonaro and Fernández, Argentina will not seek a conflict with Brazil, a fundamental strategic partner. There is a common frontier, an important productive and commercial integration and deep political, social and cultural ties that have traditionally united the two countries beyond any government. Mercosur remains Argentina’s main international commercial platform. I don’t believe Argentina-U.S. relations will return to the dynamics that prevailed during the CFK presidency. The presidents are not the same—Fernández will have his own vision and imprint—and U.S. foreign policy has also changed significantly in recent years. The issues on the bilateral agenda have also changed. Argentina is in a delicate situation and has no room for ideological experiments or positions. It remains to be seen which of the different forces within Fernández’s coalition will prevail in terms of influencing foreign policy—either taking more distant and confrontative positions or reinforcing the path of constructive dialogue and cooperation.”

Andrés Asiain, director of the Scalabrini Ortiz Center for Economic and Social Studies (CESO) in Buenos Aires: “The United States maintains an aggressive foreign policy in Latin America. It supports and was probably part of the coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, previously favored the institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment of Lula, which opened the way to the neofascist government of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and it maintains a siege on Maduro’s government in Venezuela—among so many examples. In Argentina, through the IMF, the United States financed Mauricio Macri’s government and seeks to condition the next Peronist government’s economic plan. Faced with such interference in the internal affairs of the countries of the region, it is natural that popular governments seek to preserve themselves. In that sense, the reconstruction of a democratic and progressive axis from Mexico to Buenos Aires seems to be the natural foreign policy of Alberto Fernández’s government—an axis in which countries of the region that try to preserve their sovereignty against North American advancement can be allied. In this regard, if the United States continues with its aggressive foreign policy, it is likely that this new Latin American axis will weave strong alliances with Russia and China. In the case of Argentina, if the United States conditions the debt restructuring to adjustment programs incompatible with a just project, seeking Chinese and Russian financing and investment is a natural alternative. Alberto Fernández is not a politician who wants to face off with the United States. But if U.S. foreign policy continues with its current attitude, it is likely that Fernández will have no other alternative.”

Laura Gómez-Mera, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami: “Clearly, there will be a shift in the vision orienting Argentina’s foreign policy and in the strategy of international insertion. Since the elections, Alberto Fernández has given clear signs of his intentions to strengthen ties with progressive leaders in the region and beyond. He has hinted his wishes to revive a more progressive or ‘developmentalist’ strategy of regional integration, based on the strengthening of Unasur, CELAC and the Grupo de Puebla. Yet, he has also shown prudence and moderation with regard to his right-wing counterparts in the United States and Brazil, two key countries for Argentina. Fernández has spoken about his intentions of developing ‘mutual respect’ and ‘mature’ relations with the United States. He has also pledged his commitment to Mercosur, despite charged exchanges with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in recent weeks. This more pragmatic, moderate approach shows a realistic reading of Argentina’s extremely vulnerable position in the global and regional structures of power and, in particular, the importance of securing U.S. support when renegotiating with the IMF. External indebtedness aside, Argentina’s long-term national interest would be ill-served by a radicalized, ideologically driven foreign policy. A more pragmatic approach that builds economic ties with the United States, Europe and China, while also promoting a more developmentalist approach to regional cooperation in Latin America would be more promising. Ultimately, however, Fernández also faces strong domestic constraints and his international strategy will depend greatly on the balance of power within his governing coalition and the domestic economic situation.”

Jenny Pribble, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond: “President-elect Alberto Fernández assumes office in a moment of extreme upheaval in Latin America. Since September, the region has seen widespread social and political unrest in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti and Peru. This scenario may grant Fernández a new stage to lead the region on issues of democracy and protection of human rights. It could also push world leaders, worried about instability in Latin America, to work more constructively with Argentina. This may allow Fernández to pursue a third-way policy that embraces progressive ideals, while maintaining working relations with conservative governments. Fernández has not yet announced his foreign policy team, but early signals suggest he is pragmatic and will prioritize Argentina’s economic crisis, while rebuilding progressive regional organizations. Despite conflict between Fernández and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the economic situation in Argentina and Brazil incentivizes the maintenance of Mercosur. Fernández will assume office amid a severe economic crisis. To boost growth, revenue and foreign currency reserves, the president-elect must focus on expanding Argentine exports. Brazil is Argentina’s top export market, making it a crucial partner and one that Fernández cannot afford to alienate. Brazil’s trade surplus with Argentina is large. Any effort by Bolsonaro to exit Mercosur, therefore, could also generate political costs for Brazil’s already unpopular president. One of Fernández’s top priorities will be renegotiating Argentina’s IMF agreement. The United States is the IMF’s largest shareholder, and any new deal will require Washington’s support. Fernández, therefore, will likely avoid confrontation with the United States. This will require that the president-elect walk a delicate line in his policy toward Cuba and Venezuela.”

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