What kind of foreign policy can the world expect from Argentina when its new president takes office in December? The country’s government sparred with the United States and other Western countries when Cristina Fernández was president. Now she is returning to power, this time as vice president after Sunday’s presidential election. Some analysts believe President-elect Alberto Fernández will pursue a less combative path, however, as the country struggles to revive its economy with international support.
WHAT WAS ARGENTINA’S FOREIGN POLICY UNDER CRISTINA FERNÁNDEZ?
Cristina Fernández’s tirades against the U.S. were a source of frequent eye-rolling in the White House. She was also close to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s anti-American late president, and admired Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
“Cristina was in office at a time when many leaders across the region leaned left,” said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and she “did what many others did: took a hard line with the US, praised regional integration, but never got very far.”
She infuriated Spain by depriving the Spanish company Repsol of its majority stake in the YPF energy company and was accused of helping Iran hide its alleged role in the deadly bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994, a claim she denied.
“Cristina’s foreign policy, especially during her second presidency, was characterized by a profound isolation, especially with Western countries,” said Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst based in Buenos Aires.
Relations with the U.S. improved under her successor, conservative President Mauricio Macri. Barack Obama visited Argentina, where he danced the tango at a state dinner. Donald Trump welcomed Macri to the White House. The two leaders had a personal relationship that went back to their days as businessmen.
“Argentina’s relations with the U.S. can be expected to be cooler than they were under Macri, but not as conflictive as they were under the two administrations,” of Cristina Fernández, said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
Alberto Fernández said Friday that Trump has called to congratulate him on Sunday’s vote. In a statement, his press office said that Trump told him that he would do “a fantastic job,” that he looked forward to meeting him soon and that his “victory” had been talked about worldwide.” The White House had not yet reported on the call.
WILL IT BE A RETURN TO THE CRISTINA POLICIES?
Some Argentines fear Cristina Fernández will try to manipulate Alberto Fernández (the two are not related), but he dismisses this. Analysts say he needs to take a pragmatic approach because he inherits high poverty and employment, soaring inflation and diminishing foreign reserves.
“The piggy bank is empty and global demand for commodities, including Argentina’s agricultural exports has dropped, so the latitude for a profligate populist program of redistribution is severely limited,” said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York and a senior research fellow at Chatham House.
“Much as the new domestic and international economic context will call for an economic balancing act, so will it in the international realm,” Sabatini said.
Alberto Fernández is also seen as the figure that unified Peronism, the broad but splintered political movement that many adhere to in Argentina.
To keep that unity, he “may need to take special care in his interactions with Venezuela or Cuba,” said Jenny Pribble, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond. “At the same time, Fernández might use foreign policy interactions to symbolically remind voters of his left-leaning ideological orientation.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH THE IMF?
Alberto Fernández will also need to negotiate the terms of Argentina’s $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. That might force him to take a “middle-of-the road approach in the early months,” Pribble said.
WILL ALBERTO SEEK ALLIANCES ON THE LEFT?
Yes — with limits. Alberto Fernández’s first planned trip is a visit to Mexico to meet President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He also remains close to leftist former leaders such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica. But early signals suggest that he will be less confrontational in dealings with other leaders.
“He’s evidently seeking a third way,” Berensztein said. “It’s not in line with the United States, nor is it with Venezuela or Cuba. That’s why he has a caveat: He recognizes and thanks the greetings (by world leaders), and quickly says ‘but,’ and that places him in the center.”
The new Argentine government also cannot afford to break up the Mercosur trade bloc of South American nations and its recent deal with the European Union, as well as its economic integration with Brazil, Sabatini said.
WHAT ABOUT BRAZIL?
Argentina and Brazil are South America’s largest economies and the biggest members of Mercosur. The neighbors and soccer rivals are heavily dependent on one another for trade. But Fernández has already jousted with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, saying that the Brazilian leader’s archrival Lula de Silva is unjustly imprisoned. Bolsonaro in turn said Argentina had “chosen poorly” in the elections and would skip Fernández’s inauguration.
Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, said the animosity shows they are playing to hardline wings of their support base. That will make it difficult for pragmatists on either side to reduce the tension, though the leaders could eventually develop a working relationship.
“Alberto is a pragmatic. He’s very different from Cristina. He’s always looking for balance. He’s a tightrope walker,” Berensztein said. “There are strong ties to ‘Lula’ and that distances him from Bolsonaro, but he knows that for Argentina’s strategic benefit, he can’t fight with Brazil.”
Associated Press writers David Biller in Rio de Janeiro and Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.