Category Archives: Argentina

La Nacion’s summary of Cristina’s speech in Georgetown

For those who are interested, the Argentine newspaper La Nacion has an extensive article summarizing president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s speech and Q&A session at Georgetown. On the whole, not an overly slanted report, with the heaviest hit against Cristina coming in the first paragraphs when the paper quips: “It is a good policy to know how to evade questions.” While the paper is certainly right that Cristina spectacularly evaded some very direct questions — i.e., about press freedom, distorted inflation reporting, minimum income levels in Argentina, Paraguay and reactions to a hypothetical democratic breakdown in Venezuela — if you watch the clips you won’t find anything particularly strange. Getting a direct answer out of many political figures in such a situation can be surprisingly difficult.

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Cristina Kirchner explains things in her own words

Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gave a big speech to the students at the Georgetown University Latin American Centre. She took questions from the students, and the clips can be seen here.

Whether you agree with her or not, the answers she gives to some very pointed questions give quite a bit of insight into the world view in the Casa Rosada. I’m not going to summarize the remarks because they were given on the fly to very pointed questions and thus open to all sorts of interpretation (see the Argentine press, and frankly a good chunk of the English reports).

The clips are in Spanish. Thanks to Prof Bill Smith at the University of Miami for flagging this as something of interest.

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Pointed analysis of Mercosur from former Uruguayan President Sanguinetti

Former Uruguayan president Julio Maria Sanguinetti (1985-1990, 1995-2000) has published a very insightful article about the state of Mercosur on the site.

Sanguinetti starts with a quick review of the bloc, noting that the first eight years from 1991 to 1998 were marked by numerous successes, but when Brazil devalued the real in 1999, the institutional fragility of the bloc became clear. Dispute resolving systems were barely in place and didn’t work. Argentina then shifted to a highly protectionist trade policy within a common market. What little institutional and legal strength Mercosur retained took a serious blow with the opportunistic suspension of Paraguay earlier this year.

The Treaty of Ushuaia was implemented to vouchsafe the democratic nature of member-states after a nearly successful attempted 1996 coup in Paraguay. This is the mechanism that was used by Argentina and Brazil to suspend Paraguay and let Venezuela into the bloc. But, as Sanguinetti points out, the Treaty requires that extensive consultations with the questioned country take place before it is suspended. His problem with the procedures followed in Mendoza is that these consultations did not take place and that massive political pressure was used to silence Uruguayan objections to a clear violation of the Mercosur treaties by Argentina and Brazil.

As intrinsically distasteful as Lugo’s impeachment may have been, Sanguinetti reminds us that it took place through the constitutionally appropriate mechanisms in what amounted to a political trial. It should not have mattered that Lugo was seen as something of a friend by Dilma and Cristina.

A quick Google Translate rendition of Sanguinetti’s last paragraph is worth including for the non-Spanish reading:

“What happened in Mendoza is a setback in the process of regional integration and the international validity of the statutes and the recognition of their underlying principles. In the name of democracy, [Argentina and Brazil] have ignored all the values ​​that underpin it. There are no laws or principles. In the name of solidarity or political enmities, [they are] acting without the constraints of law. Neither has the principle of nonintervention been left standing. From now on, anything goes.”

What Sanguinetti is getting at is a much deeper systemic problem with inter-American affairs and a central remaining challenge to total democratic consolidation in the region. Elections are an important part of democracy, but their significance is limited when you have an attitude in the political class that because they are in charge they can do whatever they want.

The operating concept here is what Guillermo O’Donnell called ‘horizontal accountability‘, the idea that there are rules, procedures and institutions that restrain the arbitrary actions of the state in a clear and predictable manner. There are clear signs from Argentina and Brazil, let alone Paraguay, that elected leaders at all levels have not quite internalized the idea that in a fully consolidated democracy there is a system of checks and balances that restrain executive caprice. Indeed, the big story right now in Brazil is about the mensalão corruption scandal, which charges that political advisers around Lula were running a ‘cash retainer’ system to buy votes in congress to get the get governmental legislation through.

The short-shrift given to regulatory and legal restraints by some political actors is amplified when we turn to the international arena. The open secret in inter-American affairs is that most issues are settled through presidential diplomacy, hence the large number of regional summit meetings. Legal and institutional structures are not put in place to effectively govern bilateral and multilateral relations (for example, what is the institutional and juridical strength of CELAC and Unasur?), and when they are in place, they are either ignored or marginalized. This latter case is exactly what we see happening in Mercosur. We don’t have the bandwith to list all of the unresolved intra-Mercosur trade spats that have blithely ignored the bloc’s internal dispute resolution and juridical mechanisms. Suffice it to say that member-countries have had to either threaten or go to the WTO dispute body to get satisfaction. Sanguinetti’s point, which is particularly problematic for a small country like Uruguay, is that the legal frameworks for important groupings such as Mercosur have become just so much window dressing in the face of presidential want and desire in big countries such as Brazil.

There is also an important foreign policy point in Sanguinetti’s comments. Brazilian diplomats are very clear that the international sovereignty norm is sacrosanct — one state may not intervene in the internal affairs of another state. Yet, this is precisely what has happened in the Paraguayan case. Indeed, the deeper irony is that while the historical case was that the political right pushed hardest for regime change, the tide has now shifted and it is the left that has the most pronouncements and interventions for its neighbours. This has been particularly evident in the Brazilian case where the willingness of Brazilian presidents and presidential advisors to make direct intervention in the internal political developments of other regional countries has been rising since 2003.

Taken its totality, the critique leveled by Sanguinetti goes a long way to explaining why the increasingly technocratic and regulatory sound states of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico have bound together to for the Pacific Alliance rather than tying themselves more tightly to the ever-more politicized groupings such as Mercosur and even the now predominantly political Unasur. Why to the expense and pain of negotiating and signing onto rules and norms when they are unlikely to have any impact?

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Argentina, Brazil, Democracy, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, MERCOSUR, Paraguay, Uruguay

Argentina in another trade spat, now with Mexico

The trade policies put in place by the Kirchner government in Argentina have ruffled quite a few feathers. Earlier in 2012 ongoing tit-for-tat trade squabbles with Brazil caused former Brazilian Ambassador Rubens Barbosa to break with his long tradition of supportive comments on Mercosur to quip that Argentina’s behaviour could well kill the bloc. With bald trade restrictions ruled out by Mercosur regulations, both Argentina and Brazil degenerated into a hyper-orthodox approach to border inspections and adjudications on import licenses that were all but guaranteed to take the maximum period permissible. This barking definitely had bite, with some firms such as potato chip maker McCains choosing to simply close their export-directed plants rather than deal with the sustained disruptions.

Mexico has now jumped into the fray, taking Argentina to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body on the charge that the Kirchner government’s measures applied to the importation of goods “restrict the imports of goods and discriminate between national and imported goods” and “don’t seem to be related with the implementation of any measure justified under the WTO Agreement”.

This now brings to four the countries questioning Argentina’s current import policies. Mexico joins the EU, USA and Japan with measures before the WTO DSB. Brazil is making its own noises bilaterally.

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Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay — the Mercosul implications viewed from Uruguay and Brazil

More details are starting to come out with respect to last week’s Mercosur summit meeting and the decision to suspend Paraguay’s political rights. The online newspaper Mercopress has a series of fascinating reports on Uruguay’s reaction to the whole process, which can be summarized as follows:

Story #1 — Uruguay agreed to Venezuela’s July 31 entry into Mercosur as part of a negotiation to prevent Argentina and Brazil from imposing economic sanctions on Paraguay. Why? The political class staged the disruption so why punish the people, mused Uruguay.

Story #2 — There was not a unanimous agreement between the three remaining Mercosur presidents (Dilma, Kirchner, Mujica) that Venezuela should join the bloc, although Argentina and Brazil contest this.

Story #3 — Brazil and Argentina will benefit most from Venezuela’s accession to Mercosur. Brazil has a large trade surplus with Venezuela (and its firms get paid with regularity).

Story #4 — Uruguay vice president Astori is calling the outcome of the last Mercosur meeting a major blow against the already fragile institutional framework of the bloc.

Story #5 — Uruguay is claiming that it was Brazil that pushed so hard to bring Venezuela into the bloc. (This fits with much of the sustained pressure from various presidential advisors in Brasília.)

Story #6 — Former Mercosur cheerleaders and ex-Brazilian diplomat, Rubens Barbosa is now publicly worrying that Argentina is going to kill the trade bloc. Barbosa is currently head of the foreign trade council of the São Paulo Federation of Industrial Entreprises (FIESP), one of Brazil’s most important business groups.

Story #7 — The opposition in Brazil’s congress is complaining that the Dilma government is reducing Mercosur to little more than a political plaything. The bloc was once a critical part of Brazil’s foreign economic engagement strategy.


Rapid Analysis: Mercosur is not really in any more trouble than it has been for the last several years. The difference with this latest instance is that the internal discord and contradictions are now becoming very public. Ultimately, it will take a political decision from Brazil that trade deals with other countries are critical for things to move in Mercosur. Argentina matters and Paraguay and Uruguay have demonstrated they can exercise a veto, but none of these countries, or Venezuela for that matter, will be willing to block a major shift in Mercosur policy direction if it is something that Brazil really wants.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Argentina, Brazil, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, MERCOSUR, News brief, Paraguay, Trade, Uruguay, Venezuela

Paraguay’s Presidential Change and the Regional Democratic Picture

Reaction to the highly accelerated constitutional removal of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo appears to be correlated to an individual’s job. Although condemned by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, it is hard not to think that they are grateful for the excuse to suspend Paraguay from the trade bloc Mercosur and get on with business — Venezuela’s accession to the bloc, held up by the Paraguayan congress, was approved last week, and talk (perhaps overly optimistic) of a Mercosur-China trade deal is now active after being off the table because of Paraguay’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Over in the Organization of American States, reaction is even more muted, with a very tentative mission of non-South American countries calling the situation ‘calm’ and hoping that the organization will escape more of the sort of attacks seen at the recent Cochabamba general assembly.

While this is a cynical reading, the regional reactions seem to support it. Paraguay had its political rights suspended from Mercosur in symbolic keeping with the bloc’s governing agreements, but this punishment did not extend to economic sanction. Trade continues and, more importantly for Brazil and Argentina, electricity continues to flow from the giant Itaipu and Yacyretá hydroelectric complexes. For his part,  newly installed Paraguayan President Federico Franco has been clear that he does not particularly care about foreign relations and wants to devote his efforts to remedying Lugo’s mistakes. In other words, Franco could care less about participation in Mercosur meetings provided that trade, both legal and illegal, continues.

It is this sort of deeply cynical approach to democracy promotion and protection that has drawn the ire of commentators well versed in the region. The most recent blast comes from Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald, who point blank blames regional leaders such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela for the ‘flexible’ approach to constitutional procedure in Paraguay. He writes: “They have remained silent before so many violations of democratic rights in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in recent years that they have helped create a climate of “anything goes” in the region.” In broad strokes Oppenheimer is right. A more nuanced approach grounded in the region’s history points to an approach that recognizes that sustainable democratic forms must come from internal negotiations. The problem is that this often results in a somewhat blinkered view of democracy, something which has been remarkably prevalent in Brazilian foreign policy over the last twenty years.

The Brazilian daily O Estado de São Paulo has taken more direct aim at the democratic credentials of Mercosur by asking how the bloc can suspend Paraguay and use that as an opportunity to welcome Venezuela into the club. Like Oppenheimer, the complaint from the Estadão editorial board is that a rather self-serving and pragmatic approach to democracy is being taken within the bloc. What we are discussing here is the difference between the strict legality of democracy and its practical applied reality. Arguments such as that by  Javier El-Hage in Americas Quarterly are very clear that there was nothing specifically illegal or extra-constitutional about Lugo’s impeachment. The problem is the impeachment process failed the very important democratic ‘sniff test’. For Estadão this is a particular problem with respect to Venezuela, a country it has long attacked as descending into authoritarianism through democratic means under Chávez. For like-minded critics the decidedly awkward question is how the dominant leaders of Mercosur — Dilma and Kirchner — will be able to reconcile the bloc’s well-established democratic credentials with the sort of political conduct attributed to Chávez by his detractors.

This sort of complaint lies at the heart of the the argument from Sérgio Malbergier, a columnist for another major Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. Malbergier turns the ousting of Lugo into an examination of what sort of leadership role Brazil is going to take in the region and asks whether or not it will do what is necessary to help a country such as Paraguay stay on the democratic path. While not well publicized, there is a very strong history of Brazil intervening quietly, but extremely directly to make sure Paraguay stays on the democratic path. Although Arturo Valenzuela’s account of one of the most serious threats to Paraguayan democracy focuses on the US role, the reality is that Brazil was the central actor during the 1996 coup attempt by General Lino Oviedo against President Juan Carlos Wasmossy. Not only did Wasmossy run to the Brazil’s embassy for succor, he also was quickly flown to Brasília for consultations with the Brazilian president, who directed his military to place strong informal pressure on their Paraguayan counterparts to stand down. Similar pressures have continued over the last fifteen years, varying from closing illicit smuggling routes across the border to pressure contrabanding elites, through to more direct statements of the need to heed the constitutional path and the use of almost vice-regal interventions by Brazilian presidential representatives behind closed doors.
The unstated premise underlying Malbergier’s article is that the scenario in Latin America has changed. A decade ago there were still some questions about democratic permanence in the region. The situation today is different. Maintenance of democratic forms is a prerequisite for any leader seeking to stay in power — just ask Bolivia’s Morales, Ecuador’s Correa and even Venezuela’s Chávez. Thus, while in 2002 it would have been enough to forcefully push for maintenance of democratic forms, the critique from commentators is that a far more muscular approach to supporting operational and applied depth to the forms of democracy is required today. And this is precisely where the response from Argentina and Brazil, the only countries that really matter to Paraguay, falls down. To his credit, Chávez in Venezuela has pushed the point beyond symbolism by creating a real cost to Lugo’s ouster by cutting shipments of subsidized fuel to Paraguay. Kirchner and Dilma have simply excluded Franco from a meeting where he would have had less of a voice than Uruguay, whose protests over the whisking of Venezuela into the bloc were largely ignored.
Lost in this call for direct pressure to maintain substantive democracy in Paraguay is consideration of why this case is any different than a number of other global examples involving the US, EU, Australia and South Africa. Pressure to ‘force’ a country down the democratic path requires massive political will and commitment from the imposing country or region, with the Eastern European example arguably being the only real example of this taking place. The simple reality is that the sort of internal dialogue necessary to support such an interventionist policy has not taken place in Argentina or Brazil. In the Paraguayan case there has been no widespread recognition in neighbouring countries of the impact that democratic consolidation and sustained development in Paraguay would have on the security situation in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Foreign policy, even on a regional level, has remained an economic question. Unfortunately, recent events in Paraguay are unlikely to change this.
–Sean Burges

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Argentina, the UK, and Australian media coverage

For those who missed the June 20th SBS television news coverage of the Cameron-Kirchner encounter at the G-20 meeting in Mexico, take a peek and hang on for the end when the SBS reporter Nick Robinson tries to do his concluding voice over on the fly as Argentine foreign minister Timerman walks out of the building. Clearly Robinson was not delivering the lines Argentina wanted — that Argentina had gone to Mexico looking to stir up the Falklands/Malvinas issue. Timerman actually stopped, pulled on Robinson’s sleeve, and gave him a good finger wagging. Full credit to SBS for keeping what is perhaps a revealing little incident rather than reshooting and editing out the intervention.

— Sean Burges

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