Argentina Needs Help. Trump Is the Answer.
Aside from Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, countries mired in dictatorships and crises, the only democratic, center-left governments in Latin America today are those of Mexico and Argentina. Both have to deal with bullying from a distracted and erratic administration in Washington. Argentina’s incoming president, Alberto Fernández, as the new kid on the block, has the tougher challenge today.
Mr. Fernández inherited an economic disaster of monumental proportions, on both domestic and international fronts. Inflation, recession, a constantly devaluing peso and a huge foreign debt must all be dealt with simultaneously, while taking into account his own citizens logically excessive expectations. The most pressing problem is the country’s $57 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund, extended perhaps irresponsibly by the institution and largely used irresponsibly by Mauricio Macri, Mr. Fernández’s predecessor. And Mr. Fernández can only meet this challenge if the Trump administration is on his side. Given the precarious situation in several countries in the region, this will not come easy.
According to reports from Washington and Buenos Aires, the Trump administration has warned the Fernández government to tread carefully in its support for left-wing Latin American causes. Bloomberg reported last week that “a senior Trump administration official” warned Mr. Fernández that after extending asylum to Evo Morales, the former Bolivian president, Argentina should deny him a platform for his political activities directed at returning to power. Not doing so would jeopardize United States support for the renegotiation of that $57 billion debt with the I.M.F. Washington apparently also urged Mr. Fernández not to get too close to the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, who attended the new president’s inauguration.
It is difficult to know whether this attitude reflects President Trump’s position or only that of his National Security Council officer in charge of Latin America, Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Cuban-American hard-liner. He was to represent the United States at Mr. Fernández’s inauguration but declined to attend after learning that a high-level Venezuelan official would also be attending. The challenge for Mr. Fernández, and to a lesser extent for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, is that even if Mr. Trump is not fully managing policy toward the region, consumed as he most likely is with Iran and impeachment, lower-level officials can complicate matters for countries like Argentina and Mexico.
The main bones of contention are the Bolivian situation, along with Venezuela and, as always, Cuba. Mr. Fernández helped Mr. Morales find asylum in Mexico after his resignation. He received a hero’s welcome there and made myriad declarations about the continuing struggle in Bolivia. According to the country’s new interim authorities, he personally directed demonstrations, highway closings, and the creation of fuel and food shortages. The day after Attorney General William Barr’s December visit to Mexico City — perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not — Mr. Morales departed for Havana and, days after, arrived in Argentina, where he has obtained permanent asylum. From Buenos Aires, he continues to engage in political activities, going as far as inaugurating public works by phone and holding meetings of his party’s delegates and possible candidates for coming elections.
Argentina needs relief from its overwhelming debts. Mr. Trump cannot deliver this relief easily, but he can block it. Mr. Fernández, far from your typical Peronist, appears to be a reasonable, well-informed and honest politician. His running mate, former President Cristina Fernández (no relation), and a broad left-wing coalition, La Cámpora, led in part by her son, prefer confrontation with the United States, but the president may not.
Mr. Fernández would do well to put Bolivia behind him. The military helped nudge Mr. Morales out of office but did not take power. The initial repression and human rights violations by the new government have subsided, presidential elections have been scheduled for early May, and Movement Toward Socialism, Mr. Morales’s party, has been authorized to field a slate. The former Bolivian president should be allowed to stay in Argentina, but without using it as a staging ground for returning to power.
The new Argentine president seems to be partly moving in the direction of prudence and moderation. After Mr. Maduro’s brazen attempt on Jan. 5 to impede the re-election of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president of the National Assembly, the Argentine government issued a highly critical statement, condemning Mr. Maduro. “To impede by force the functioning of the Legislative Assembly is to condemn oneself to international isolation,” the foreign affairs minister, Felipe Solá, said on Twitter. “The course to follow is exactly the opposite. The Assembly should choose its president with complete legitimacy.”
Unlike Mexico, Argentina has not left the Lima Group, created in 2017 to seek a democratic solution to the Venezuelan nightmare without Mr. Maduro. Nonetheless, both countries refused to recognize Mr. Guaidó as the re-elected president of the National Assembly, siding with Cuba and Nicaragua. Mr. Fernández is struggling with the difficult hand he was dealt, and with an international situation that continuously generates crises and challenges.
Submitting to Washington’s diktat is no minor affair in Latin America. Among Mr. Fernández’s Peronist supporters and colleagues, it can be seen as heresy or betrayal. Some concessions to the United States — for example, Mr. López Obrador doing Mr. Trump’s dirty work on migration at Mexico’s southern and northern borders — are clearly excessive. Still, even Mr. López Obrador has opted not to cross Mr. Trump’s supposed red line in Mexico: no Cuban doctors in the country, and no subsidized Mexican oil for Cuba. For Argentina, defending a lost cause in Bolivia, where few principles are involved, and helping Cuba and Venezuela perpetuate the misery of their people at the cost of American support where it really counts are simply not worth it.