BY JAMES M. ROBERTS
The ... ascension of Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to the Argentine presidency ...succeeding her husband, Nestor Kirchner, is unlikely to improve relations between Argentina and the United States. Although her campaign pronouncements convey an image of moderation in foreign policy matters, Cristina Fernandez would most likely continue the leftward drift of Argentina and its cozy relationship with Venezuelan dictator-;President Hugo Chávez. Chávez has sent billions of dollars of Venezuela's oil wealth to bail out Argentina's debts; Argentina's credit rating has yet to recover from the major default the government declared in 2002.
Barring an unexpected shift in Fernandez's thinking or tactics, there is little hope for the economic liberalization so desperately needed in the Argentine economy. Once the showcase of Latin America, the economy has fallen further and further behind as a result of bad policies. The Bush Administration, with few good options for direct engagement, will need to rely on building strong relations with Argentina's neighbors and other Latin American countries that are still resistant to Chavista populist appeal. As an important step, Congress should approve pending free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, and Panama.
President Nestor Kirchner came to power in 2003 with only 22 percent of the vote after his opponent backed out of the run-off. In the years since, however, he has become the most powerful president since Juan Peron.Kirchner inherited a massive international debt, a dismal credit rating, and his predecessor's disdain for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He was helped, however, by rising commodity prices that allowed him to avoid making the politically painful reforms needed for Argentina's long-term prosperity. President Kirchner also gained popularity early in his term by reforming the Supreme Court, increasing wages for lowest earners, and firing off anti-IMF rhetoric, but that popularity was beginning to wane by 2005. Kirchner policies then seemed to morph into the Peronist party's business-as-usual agenda of economic tightening, including the imposition of price controls.Recently, however, he has seen his popularity rise again, thanks in large part to his partnership with Hugo Chávez.
THE CHAVISTA FACTOR
Relations with the IMF, the Paris Club, and international commercial banks have been tenuous since Argentina defaulted on part of its external debt in 2002—at over USD$125 billion, it remains the largest default in history. Many individuals in Europe and elsewhere who had purchased Argentine government bonds lost their life savings. In response, Kirchner turned to Cuba and oil-rich Venezuela for help, forming a strategic alliance through which Argentina could easily access credit and cheaper oil. In January 2006, Argentina paid off its entire $9.5 billion debt to the IMF in one fell swoop. Many observers say that Hugo Chávez had a hand in the transaction. Kirchner has been seeking permission to restructure the $6.3 billion debt it owes to the Paris Club, representing loans from foreign governments, without going through the IMF. As of March 2007, Kirchner was steadfastly holding to his refusal to have the restructuring conditioned by the IMF, but murmurs from inside the Argentine government suggest a willingness to reestablish negotiations when Dominique Strauss-Kahn succeeds Spaniard Rodrigo de Rato as Managing Director of the IMF in November 2007.
Barring a substantial increase in international support, Argentina's reliance on Chávez is unlikely to diminish. Successful talks with the Paris Club and the IMF, however, could gain Fernandez some ability to distance herself from Chávez. There are clues that Fernandez is open to maintaining ties with Chávez, but at a speech in Caracas she displayed a willingness to openly disagree with him. In what may have been a knock on the Venezuelan leader, Fernandez said, "Each and every one of us who has the responsibility of being part of an elected institution in Latin America should not only raise our voices but act in a concrete way against any sign or glimpse of anti-Semitism." Buenos Aires has the largest population of Jews of any city in South America.
WHAT THE U.S. SHOULD DO
U.S. policymakers should do the following:
Senator Fernandez is unlikely to mend relations with the United States. Given the biased electoral process, the likely influence of her husband in a Fernandez administration, and the lack of policy specifics in her campaign, Cristina Fernandez will likely continue Argentina's dependence on socialist Venezuela rather than embrace free market reforms.
The Bush Administration should build strong relations with other Latin American countries, first and foremost by urging Congress to approve pending trade promotion agreements with Peru, Colombia, and Panama.
James M. Roberts is a research fellow for cconomic freedom and growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation. This column is based on an edited version of a webmemo by Roberts, with contributions from Heritage research assistant Caroline Walsh.