Trump Ally’s Quest to Head Latin American Aid Bank Divides Region
MEXICO CITY — An aggressive campaign by a Trump official to run the most important development bank in Latin America has divided the region, pitting nations that welcome the administration’s influence against those fearing he would undermine one of the few institutions that can cushion the blow of a pandemic-driven recession.
Latin America and the Caribbean are facing the full force of a global pandemic, a blow that is expected to send tens of millions into extreme poverty, erase decades of growth and create widespread instability in countries already plagued by corruption and violence.
Amid that crisis, Mauricio Claver-Carone, a top adviser to President Trump on Latin America, has launched an unorthodox bid to become the first U.S. official to lead the Inter-American Development Bank. The position is one of the most influential in the region, involving regular contact with heads of state to dole out about $13 billion every year, and it has always been held by a Latin American.
Known as an uncompromising political operator, Mr. Claver-Carone spent years lobbying against the Cuban government before joining the National Security Council, where he has shaped the administration’s hard-line policies toward Cuba and Venezuela.
Among the more than a dozen countries supporting Mr. Claver-Carone are conservative governments, such as Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia, that are politically aligned with the Trump administration, and nations that believe he is well positioned to infuse the bank with cash.
But critics, which include Argentina and Chile, fear that Mr. Claver-Carone could turn the institution into an arm of the Trump administration’s policy in the region — possibly for years to come. Since its founding in 1959, the bank has only had four presidents. Its current head, Luis Alberto Moreno, from Colombia, was elected in 2005.
After the campaign of Joseph R. Biden Jr. recently came out against Mr. Claver-Carone, many also worry that if Mr. Trump loses in November, he will have trouble winning new funding for the bank.
“In the best case, it leads to paralysis and marginalization, and that’s already sidelining the most important institution at the most critical moment,” Michael Camilleri, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue policy center, said of Mr. Claver-Carone’s candidacy. “In the worst case, the bank becomes a vehicle for a fairly radical right-wing agenda that further divides the hemisphere.”
Over decades, the bank has shepherded development in the region, lending to poor countries that have few alternatives so they can build essential infrastructure like roads, border crossings, ports and electricity grids, and investing in marginalized groups shut out by private banks in the region’s healthiest economies.
The bank has faced criticism for a lack of transparency and a failure to engage with local communities, but has remained a crucial lifeline in times of crisis. It is expected to be a driver of recovery in the Western Hemisphere, especially as other multilateral lenders are stretched thin by the pandemic.
Mr. Claver-Carone has pitched his candidacy as a sign of renewed U.S. interest in the region, and suggested that he can persuade Congress to pour more money into the bank.
Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. Treasury secretary, said in June that nominating Mr. Claver-Carone “demonstrates President Trump’s strong commitment to U.S. leadership in important regional institutions, and to advancing prosperity and security in the Western Hemisphere.”
Mr. Claver-Carone has helped lead the “Growth in the Americas” program, designed to attract U.S. investment to Latin American infrastructure, in part to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Earlier this month, Mr. Claver-Carone traveled to Colombia with other administration officials to announce a plan to bring $5 billion in private investment to the country. During the visit, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, made clear his support for Mr. Claver-Carone as head of the bank, telling him: “You have presented a clear agenda to invigorate the recovery of Latin American economies.”
A day after the announcement, Colombia released a statement listing 17 countries that were lining up behind Mr. Claver-Carone’s candidacy.
“They saw this as an opportunity, really, as a commitment from the United States,” Mr. Claver-Carone said in an interview about the regional leaders who support him. “They know I’m always honest with them, I’m effective, some would say I’m tough, but it’s just passionate in that sense.”
Mr. Claver-Carone has also solidified support in the region by promising to give a Brazilian official the bank’s No. 2 job and discussing a top post for a Jamaican official if he wins, according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
To win the election in mid-September, Mr. Claver-Carone needs the support of a majority of the bank’s members, which include Canada and several Asian and European nations as well as countries in the region that borrow from it. But opposition to his candidacy has grown in recent weeks.
A top European Union diplomat has urged postponing the planned September vote, citing the pandemic and the nomination “without precedent” of a U.S. candidate to lead the bank, Reuters reported.
Mexico, Chile and Argentina, which has its own candidate for the job, are also calling for a delay, arguing the election merits more vigorous discussion.
“Mauricio Claver-Carone is not being challenged from a technical perspective, he’s being challenged from a political perspective,” said Felipe Solá , Argentina’s foreign minister. “He reflects the most hard-core ideological wing of U.S. policy toward Latin America.”
Opposition in United States has also been vocal. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which approves funding for the bank, said electing Mr. Claver-Carone “would not bode well for United States support for the Bank in the coming years.”
But Mr. Claver-Carone dismissed the opposition in Latin America as “a handful of countries that for whatever reason — because their own candidates haven’t been able to get off the ground — are looking for ways to hijack the election.”
And he has important backers in Congress: Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Senator Robert Menéndez, Democrat of New Jersey, have both endorsed him.
Noting that he has “not always agreed” with Mr. Claver-Carone, Senator Menéndez commended his “consistent commitment to advancing U.S. national security, our foreign policy interests, and an agenda of shared priorities with our partners in the hemisphere.”
Mr. Claver-Carone decided to seek the job after the current president, Mr. Moreno, rejected his bid to become executive vice president earlier this year, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
The idea to run for the top job, Mr. Claver-Carone said, came from two presidents in the region who had called to ask him if he had considered seeking the top job. (He declined to name the presidents, saying only that one was from South America and the other from Central America.)
“We started calling our partners and allies in the region saying, hey, what do you think, is this feasible?” Mr. Claver-Carone said. There was, he said “a big sense of relief” at the idea that he would helm the institution, partly because it showed the U.S. cared about the bank.
Right before announcing his candidacy, Mr. Claver-Carone called Brazilian officials and asked them not to put forward their own candidate, Rodrigo Xavier, a former Bank of America executive, and to back Mr. Claver-Carone instead, according to three people familiar with the matter. He said he would give a Brazilian the coveted No. 2 job if he won, the people said.
He has also discussed giving top posts to Nigel Clarke, the finance minister of Jamaica, and Richard Martínez, Ecuador’s finance minister. Both countries are backing him.
“I would love to recruit Richard and Nigel," Mr. Claver-Carone said.
After Mr. Claver-Carone helped Luis Almagro win a tough race to be re-elected as secretary general of the Organization of American States this year, Mr. Almagro emerged as a key supporter of his bid to become chief of the bank. When the European Union diplomat urged delaying the vote, Mr. Almagro tweeted: “The region is independent, sovereign and can maturely make its own decisions, decisions that should be made by a majority, not a minority.”
Supporters in the United States are pleased with Mr. Claver-Carone’s vow to push for more U.S. investment in the region, which could steer countries away from doing business with China.
But it is precisely that focus on American interests that could end up hurting hundreds of millions of people who depend on the bank across Latin America, critics said.
“I fear, because of the strength of his views on those subjects, you use the bank to force countries into policies you want as conditions of loans,” said Roberta Jacobson, the ambassador to Mexico under President Obama. “It could pursue that kind of vindictive policymaking on an ideological level.”