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Argentina's new president less aligned with U.S. policy

Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg

Alberto Fernandez speaks on stage with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Buenos Aires, on Oct. 27.

- Incoming president signals a break with Macri foreign policy
- Left-leaning leader may warm up to Mexico, spar with Brazil

By Juan Pablo Spinetto / Bloomberg

BUENOS AIRES
Petroleumworld 10 30 2019

Fernandez doesn't take office until Dec. 10, but the first signs of change were on show within hours of his election win. In an address to supporters at his campaign headquarters, he congratulated Evo Morales -- the socialist who's South America's longest-serving leader -- for securing a fourth term in Bolivia. That's even as the results are still being verified and as Morales's opponents allege fraud.

He also called for the release from jail of Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a hero for the Latin American left who is serving nearly nine years for graft and money laundering. That drew immediate disapproval from current President Jair Bolsonaro, signaling a rift between the two largest members of the regional trade bloc known as Mercosur.

Argentina's Fernandez Has Outreach Coffee With Defeated Macri

Fernandez is also poised to make Mexico the destination of his first international trip, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. There he would meet on Monday with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, one of the most popular left-wing presidents in the world with an approval rating over 60%.

The initial actions point to a shift from the U.S.-focused, business-driven foreign policy of Macri toward the more ideological approach favored by the radical left elements in Fernandez's coalition, who see international relations as an extension of domestic politics.

His running mate adds to that perception. The incoming vice president is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who in her time as president favored alliances with leftist leaders and invited tension with western nations.

Here are the main hot spots for Argentine foreign policy under Fernandez:

Venezuela

Fernandez's policy toward Venezuela is important not just for President Nicolas Maduro but for the U.S. as well.

Under Macri, Argentina was a leader of the Lima Group, an ad-hoc outfit created in 2017 by nations seeking free elections in Venezuela that's been increasingly critical of Maduro's regime. During the campaign, Fernandez suggested Argentina could leave the group and align with Mexico and Uruguay, which have taken a less confrontational approach. He's also demurred on calling Venezuela a dictatorship -- a term Macri has repeatedly used.

Any move to leave the Lima Group would be viewed with concern by Brazil and the U.S., which has taken a strong stance against Maduro. While Fernandez didn't mention Venezuela in his victory speech, his triumph was celebrated by Maduro as a defeat of neoliberalism.

Fernandez replied with an ambiguous message to the Venezuelan leader on the same social media platform, saying “true democracy” in Latin America is the way to overcome poverty and inequality in the region.

Brazil

Ties with Brazil and its right-wing president will be a key test for South America's top two economies.

During the campaign and even on election night, Fernandez repeatedly called for the release of Lula, whom he visited in prison in July. That has irritated Bolsonaro and those who see his comments as interfering in Brazil's judicial decisions. Bolsonaro, who has warned that Brazil could leave Mercosur if Argentina pivots to the left, on Monday declined to congratulate Fernandez for his election win -- he said Brazil could potentially join forces with other members of the trade bloc to suspend Argentina.

Diplomats in Brasilia say their hope is Fernandez takes a more pragmatic approach once in office, and that he realizes the value of the trade partnership.

The U.S.

For the U.S., Fernandez's elevation presents a risk after the close alliance between Macri and Trump. The last thing Washington wants is another outspoken Latin American leftist who would reinforce the position of Maduro and the regime in Cuba.

In that sense, the U.S. has an incentive to reach out to Fernandez -- particularly given the strong investment of U.S. companies in the country -- and work with the more pragmatic elements of his government. The U.S. is also seeking to curb China's influence in the region.

As the largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund , the U.S. will be key to unlocking negotiations between the new government and the Washington-based organization over Argentina's $56 billion funding program, which is currently on hold. While the IMF board will wait to see the details of Fernandez's economic plan, Washington does have some sway.

Argentina's policy toward Venezuela will be key in these talks. Washington may be less willing to give much support at the IMF if Argentina sides with Maduro.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo congratulated Fernandez on his election win, but Trump has yet to comment.

China

Argentina's economy is in crisis. Fernandez has promised to end the austerity of Macri, but there is no money in the state coffers to do so. That could mean he turns toward China, which has shown a willingness to dip into its famous deep pockets and extend long-term loans in other countries.

If Fernandez weakens ties with the U.S., it could also give an opportunity for China to come in and send more defense equipment to Argentina. President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Buenos Aires a year ago alongside the Group of 20 summit.

“The Fernandez government will likely deepen economic and political ties with Beijing — with the particular goal of seeking much-needed financing from China,” said Kezia McKeague, a director at McLarty Associates in Washington DC. “That said, President Macri had already ably walked a geopolitical tight rope of maintaining good relationships with both Washington and Beijing.”

— With assistance by Samy Adghirni, and Peter Martin



Story by Juan Pablo Spinetto from Bloomberg.

bloomberg.com / 10 29 2019

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