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Macri setback strikes blow to Trump’s Latin America agenda

Macri setback strikes blow to Trump’s Latin America agenda

Argentina's shift to the left creates political headache for Washington

On a trip to Buenos Aires last month, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo did not spare president Mauricio Macri any blushes. “We appreciate Argentina’s leadership . . . We hope others will follow Argentina’s lead and example,” he said.

Less than four weeks later, Argentina’s voters decisively rejected Mr Macri in a nationwide primary poll, dealing what most commentators believe was a fatal blow to his chances of re-election in October.

The magnitude of Mr Macri’s loss on Sunday, the shock created by the unexpected result and the market chaos that ensued now make it all but inevitable that the populist left will return to power in Latin America’s third-biggest nation at the end of the year.

Since Mexico swung sharply to the left last year under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, this would leave Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as the only conservative president among the continent’s big three economies.

It also creates a political headache for the Trump administration, which had tried to forge a strong regional alliance of like-minded leaders to advance its Latin American agenda of fighting terrorism, squeezing the far-left governments of Venezuela and Cuba and resisting the growth of Chinese investment.

Daniel Kerner, head of Latin America at Eurasia, a political risk consultancy, said Mr Bolsonaro could go the same way as Mr Macri “if his economic reforms don’t work and he gets to the next electoral cycle with people feeling worse about their lives”.

Brazil’s economy is teetering on the brink of recession and Mr Bolsonaro did not mince his words about the election in neighbouring Argentina. A leftist opposition victory would put Argentina “on the road towards becoming a Venezuela” and Brazil did not want “our Argentine brothers fleeing here”, he said.

The Brazilian president is not the only Latin American leader likely to be feeling uncomfortable after voters punished Mr Macri for inflicting painful austerity measures which triggered a deep recession and slashed living standards.

Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno is following a similar path, like Argentina with support from the IMF and the Trump administration. In Colombia, President Iván Duque, another close Trump ally, has seen his reforms bogged down in congress and the economy slowing. In Chile, pro-business president Sebastián Piñera fired six ministers in June amid stalling growth and plunging poll ratings.

“For Duque, Piñera, Bolsonaro and the others, this is a clear warning,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank. “Conservative governments have to deliver and they can’t count on voters’ support if they are not performing.”

Some of the survivors of Latin America’s “Pink Tide” of leftist governments, which dominated the region until Mr Macri’s victory in 2015, sensed an opportunity in the humiliation of a market-friendly government in Buenos Aires.

From a jail cell in Brazil, where he is serving time for corruption, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tweeted congratulations to the winners of Argentina’s primary election. “We need to give hope to the people, bring better days and help those who need it most,” he said.

Lula’s message drew a warm response from the winner of Argentina’s primary, Peronist former cabinet chief Alberto Fernández. He and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were both political soulmates of Lula while in office.

But it is over Venezuela that the Trump administration may face its biggest challenge.

Washington has strived to stitch together a regional alliance backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader and demanding that socialist authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro step down. Mr Guaidó’s bid for power has stalled and the likely loss of another key foreign ally will only make Trump’s goal to force regime change in Caracas harder to achieve.

“This will definitely weaken the coalition against Maduro, as did the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico,” said Mr Shifter.

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