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03/02/2021

ARGENTINA POLICY 2021: Fernández’ leadership and international relations

ARGENTINA POLICY 2021: Fernández’ leadership and international relations

Argentine president Alberto Fernández is already in the first months of his second year in office, his administration starting December 2019 and continuing till December 2023; However, at the national level, his party has not yet managed to consolidate its leadership, something that is drawing a lot of attention in spaces of internal power, both in terms of the state and Argentine society in general. This is because, traditionally, the political actors of the political phenomenon known as “Peronism” have always built very personal types of governments and leaderships.

Keep in mind that Fernández came to power as a result of a concentration of political parties, forces and spaces grouped in the coalition “Frente de Todxs”, which was created to participate in the 2019 presidential elections and mainly made up of three political sectors: Kirchnerismo, led by the former president and current executive vice president Cristina Fernández, the Renovador Front, led by Sergio Massa and a political movement known as Massismo and Justicialismo, founded by the “great conductor”, Juan Domingo Perón, a group that today many classify as “progressive social democrats.”

This front was joined by other forces and even other political currents outside the broad Peronist spectrum mentioned above: radical parties, parties with communist roots, the most important unions in the country, social movements, and governors and mayors who contributed with votes by mobilizing the electoral apparatus at the provincial and local levels. All these demonstrations actually responded to two calls: that of the country’s greatest political figure, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK), and the rejection of Macrismo, which represented the continuity of neoliberal policies.

To date, the current Argentine president has not managed to get out of the shadow of CFK and, in reality, beyond sharing the standards of social justice and the Peronist bases, their country models, regional integration and international relations: they are different. Thus, one of the greatest political priorities for Alberto Fernández in 2021 will be: to build genuine leadership that allows him to strengthen his government at the domestic level. To do so, he is developing an international agenda that, in the Latin American and Caribbean region, has started with recent visits to Chile on January 26 and 27, and Mexico from February 22 to 24.

In this article, we will analyze the most important points on the political agenda of President Alberto Fernández in regards to the Chilean nation. It is worth saying that this visit was highly questioned by the Argentine left and progressive sectors because they believed that Chile, and especially President Piñera, could not contribute anything positive to the Argentine Republic. However, not everything is quite so black and white: politics always involves a broad color palette.

Argentina-Chile bilateral relations are historical and strategic on both sides of the Andes Mountains. In fact, the independence process and the formation of the Latin American nation states closely unite these countries, since, as President Fernández said during his visit, both states are “indissolubly united”, or, as the Chilean president Sebastián Piñera also pointed out, the emancipatory expedition led by the Argentine hero, the Liberator José de San Martín, was decisive for the independence of Chile.

These historical events are certainly important, however, today, Chile and Argentina are two countries that, although sharing the third largest land border on the planet (more than 5000 kilometers in length, a distance that could increase exponentially if we count the maritime zone and the Antarctic territories), apparently do not have much in common. In economic matters, Chile does not look at the Latin American market with interest or sympathy, but is focused on China, the European Union, and the United States, that explains, in part, why the trade balance (exports and imports) between Argentina and Chile represent less than 5%, and in the case of Brazil, the leading economy in Latin America, less than 7%.

Regarding Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), here there is an inversely proportional change. Chilean capitals have chosen Argentina as the second destination for their investments in the region and in the world (the first place is occupied by Brazil). According to the General Directorate of International Economic Relations of Chile (Direcon), more than 40 companies with Chilean capital from various sectors are based on Argentine soil. However, since Fernández assumed the reins of the country, some of the most emblematic Chilean companies have begun to “pack their bags”, among them, LAN-Argentina, a subsidiary of the LATAM airlines, and Falabella, a kind of Chilean version of Ikea.

In response, the Chilean Confederation of Production and Commerce has stated that “in Argentina there is a clear anti-market and anti-business bias”, while holding the Kirchner government responsible. In addition, the Chilean business sector maintains that fear over the Alberto Fernández administration will follow in the same direction, and that businesses have already begun a slow withdrawal from the Argentine market. From our point of view, the reality is quite different. The global economy was in crisis long before the arrival of Covid19, although certainly the Coronavirus has made the situation worse: the abrupt drop in production, the devaluation of the US dollar, the reduction of profits and, in many cases, the obligation to maintain jobs to minimally ensure the basic income of the labor force is what economic groups are really escaping from, withdrawing their capital from the hardest hit markets by the world recession.

Stopping this domino effect and changing the matrix of business opinion on the Argentine government’s ability to generate economic confidence, and doing so precisely from the heart of Latin American neoliberalism, has been one of the reasons why President Fernández met in Santiago de Chile with Chilean business leaders, investors and producers. Let us remember that other companies from different countries have also begun to close branches in Argentine territory: Walmart, Nike, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Norwegian, BASF, Glovo, Danone, are just some of them. Thus, if President Fernández manages to captivate and convince Chilean investors to stay or return to Argentina, this could have positive repercussions in other markets and companies.

In this scenario, the decision of the Argentine president could be interpreted as pragmatic, but it must be understood that not all Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is necessarily desired or positive for all countries equally. FDI must both be governed by legal regulations and respect national and sovereign development projects. So, with this call to Chilean and other businessmen, Fernández is not being totally open or surrendering in economic terms, as some media sources have claimed. The night is young and we are still far from the end of the pandemic.

Another issue to analyze regarding Fernández’s visit to Chile has to do with the fact that both presidents have antagonistic political positions. So why shake hands with Piñera, the purest expression of neoliberalism in the region? Here, there may be several readings, one of them is that he looks to Chile because he cannot look to Brazil, the true economic power of Latin America and “natural partner” in Mercosur. The bilateral and presidential relations between Argentina and Brazil are at their worst moment in the 21st century, perhaps even in their entire republican history. This is more because of Bolsonaro than anything else: the Brazilian president bet all his chips on a single number, Donald Trump. Now, Bolsonaro is an orphan and alone against the entire world.

Some of you will be able to say, with good reason, that Piñera is not so different from Bolsonaro. Let us remember the brutal repression that the Chilean people suffered in October 2019 when they took to the streets to demand the increase in public transport. The status quo, which took on unthinkable odds, ended up crying out for the end of the neoliberal model prevailing in the country since Pinochet overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973. All this is true, but this is precisely the context in which President Alberto Fernández visited Chile, that is, it does so within the framework of the drafting of a new constitution that opens the possibility of a new constitution serving as the founding base of a new State, which changes the neoliberal economic model and which contemplates at least some of the social demands of the Chilean people: public health, free education, human rights and justice.

This is why, just ahead of the Chilean presidential elections in November 2021, Fernández met, in a full official visit, with opponents of the Piñera government. Regarding that meeting, the deputy of the Chilean communist party, Karol Cariola, declared that “the (Argentine) president called us to learn from the processes that are taking place in Latin America, he even spoke to us about the Argentine process, which for them it was not easy to be able to meet again from sectors that would allow them to recover the government from a reactionary, neoliberal, right-wing one, like that of Mauricio Macri”. In this way, Fernández, together with one of the regional leaders most contrary to his political profile, Sebastián Piñera, made a call for Latin American unity and brotherhood, generating confidence in investors and ensuring more favorable rules of the game for Chilean entrepreneurs in order to stop the exodus of foreign investors from the country and rally the Chilean opposition, warning them of the importance of the unity of the center-left or progressive forces of Chile with a view to the drafting of the Political Constitution and the presidential elections, both key events for Chilean democracy and for building an alternative to the neoliberal model in Latin America region. These could be the first steps in the construction of a pure “Albertismo”, that is, lines that will define the characteristics of the national and regional leadership of the Argentine president.

Micaela Ovelar
Political scientist and international adviser, Argentine-Venezuelan scholar, feminist and social activist. Micaela has a B.A. in Political Science, a Masters in International Relations; with studies in issues of gender, government, democracy, and the state. She was the international relations adviser of president Hugo Chavez and has worked with the Venezuelan government for the last 15 years.She is also an independent journalist, producer, and in Film & TV Direction from EMPA (Venezuela). She was a producer and commentator at Radio Alba Ciudad (Caracas). Micaela worked as translator and transcriptionist on “South of the Border” by Oliver Stone, archival research on "Silvio Rodríguez. My first calling" by Catherine Murphy, and as a journalist for “Correo del Alba.” (Bolivia-Venezuela).

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