Argentina's President-elect Alberto Fernandez gestures as he attends the oath of office of Tucuman Governor Juan Manzur, in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina October 29, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / AGUSTIN MARCARIAN
Argentina's President-elect Alberto Fernandez gestures as he attends the oath of office of Tucuman Governor Juan Manzur, in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina October 29, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / AGUSTIN MARCARIAN

Mexico City — Alberto Fernandez has yet to take office in Argentina, but already diplomats in Buenos Aires are anxiously awaiting what is set to be yet another pendulum swing in the country’s foreign policy, this time to the left.

That may mean a less fulsome embrace of Donald Trump than incumbent Mauricio Macri, under whom Argentina aligned more with US goals in regional affairs, especially regarding Venezuela.

Fernandez has signalled that Argentina will return to its alignment with the left-wing governments of Latin America. That could lead to closer ties with Mexico and Venezuela, and greater tensions with Brazil, the region’s biggest economy.

Fernandez does not take office until December 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 is South America’s longest-serving leader — for securing a fourth term in Bolivia. That is 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 President Jair Bolsonaro, signalling a rift between the two largest members of the regional trade bloc known as Mercosur.

The incoming vice-president is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who in her time as president favoured alliances with leftist leaders and invited tension with western nations

Fernandez is also poised to make Mexico the destination of his first international trip (as soon as next week), according to a person with knowledge of the matter. There he would meet Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, one of the world’s most popular left-wing presidents with an approval rating of more than 60%.

The initial actions point to a shift from the US-focused, business-driven foreign policy of Macri towards the more ideological approach favoured 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 favoured 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 towards Venezuela is important not just for President Nicolas Maduro but for the US 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 has been 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 strident approach. He has 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 US, which has taken a strong stance against Maduro. While Fernandez did not mention Venezuela in his victory speech, his triumph was celebrated by Maduro as a defeat of neoliberalism.

• Brazil

Ties with Brazil and its right-wing president will be a 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 realises the value of the trade partnership.

• The US

For the US, 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 US has an incentive to reach out to Fernandez — particularly given the strong investment of US companies in the country — and work with the more pragmatic elements of his government. The US is also seeking to curb China’s influence in the region.

As the largest shareholder in the IMF, the US will be key to unlocking negotiations between the new government and the Washington-based organisation over Argentina’s $56bn funding programme, which is 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 towards Venezuela will be vital in these talks. Washington may be less willing to give much support at the IMF if Argentina sides with Maduro.

US 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 towards 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 US, it could also give an opportunity for China to come in and send more defence 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 is likely to 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.

Macri “ably walked a geopolitical tight rope of maintaining good relationships with both Washington and Beijing”, McKeague said.

Bloomberg