Barely 30 seconds into a brief speech thanking thousands of supporters on the night of his election victory in Argentina, Alberto Fernández had already taken firm sides on two of the most divisive issues in the region.
After congratulating the leftist Evo Morales on his fiercely disputed victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections the previous weekend, he went on to demand the release of Brazil’s imprisoned former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“Free Lula!” he cried, to roars of approval.
Many Brazilians are convinced that the leftwing former trade unionist is guilty of corruption as charged — not least the rightwing president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Mr Fernández’s provocation fuelled fears that he will pursue a radical foreign policy in the vein of previous Peronist governments, despite Argentina’s urgent need for good relations with the IMF and international creditors as it teeters on the brink of its ninth sovereign debt default.
Hopes of a more moderate approach “may be wishful thinking”, said Benjamin Gedan, who leads the Argentina project at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He described Mr Fernández’s “completely unnecessary” remarks as a “very discouraging signal”.
The new Argentine president provided more clues to his foreign policy in a flurry of tweets responding to congratulations on his election victory from leaders across the region.
Friendly replies were reserved for leftwing allies, in particular “dear” Mr Morales — the only like-minded leader among Argentina’s neighbours — and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, who received Mr Fernández on Monday in his first trip abroad since winning the presidency.
Mr Fernández said he would work with Mr López Obrador “hand in hand”. But his comments to Venezuela’s autocratic leader Nicolás Maduro were more ambiguous, saying the poverty and inequality rampant in the region should be solved with the “full force” of democracy.
The Argentine president did not have any message for the hot-headed Mr Bolsonaro, who has confirmed that he will not attend Mr Fernández’s inauguration after declaring that the Argentine electorate made the “wrong choice”.
In August the Brazilian former army captain called Mr Fernández a “leftist bandit” and he retaliated by describing Mr Bolsonaro as “racist, misogynist and violent”. Relations deteriorated further last week when Mr Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo retweeted a picture of himself cradling a machine gun beside a photograph of Mr Fernández’s son Estanislao, who was dressed up in drag.
Attempting to “transcend ideological differences” with Brazil’s provocative leader is one of the two great challenges Mr Fernández faces, said Patricio Carmody, a member of the Argentine Council for International Relations, a non-profit academic institution.
Maintaining good relations with Argentina’s largest trading partner is crucial given their host of shared interests, such as the regional trade bloc Mercosur, which some fear Mr Bolsonaro is scheming to exit.
Perhaps even more importantly, Mr Fernández must keep up good relations with both the US and China. That will be particularly challenging given China’s growing presence in the region — a trend that many in Washington see as a threat, especially given the Asian giant’s secrecy-shrouded military-run satellite-tracking station in Patagonia.
But Mr Gedan fears that Argentina’s relations with the US could be undermined by a U-turn in its policy towards Venezuela, given that the issue is “by far the number one priority” in the region for US president Donald Trump.
That makes it “an inevitable source of tension”, he said, adding that a policy change could have serious implications for Argentina’s negotiations with the IMF, due to the US’s unique veto power over major policy decisions as the fund’s largest shareholder.
Until now the US has relied on the outgoing president, Mauricio Macri, to take a leading role in the region in condemning Mr Maduro’s dictatorial regime. Many believe Mr Macri’s close relationship with Mr Trump explains why the IMF was so quick to support Argentina with its largest ever loan during a currency crisis last year.
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an international relations specialist at Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires, believes it is “highly probable” that Argentina will become the first country to withdraw its recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. But he also argued that the US was unlikely to want to “shoot itself in the foot” by flexing its muscles at the IMF with a hardline stance against Argentina.
“The US wants two things in Latin America: security and stability,” he said. Given that so many other countries in the region are in crisis, such as the destabilising protests continuing in close US ally Chile, “instability [in Argentina] just creates more problems. [The US] can’t have so many hotspots in the region,” said Mr Tokatlian.
Diana Tussie, an international relations specialist at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, argued that the shifting balance of power in the region meant that all players will be forced to be more pragmatic.
“Alberto is someone who knows how to get out of a tight spot,” she said. “He has been besieged before, and look where he is now. He is very pragmatic.”
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