The White House is bracing for the likely electoral defeat of Argentina’s conservative, pro-U.S. government, the latest example of how shifting Latin American politics are complicating President Trump’s agenda in the region, including ousting Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro and stemming the flood of refugees to the U.S.
The diminution of partners for Trump stems from his preference for and reliance on right-wing leaders in Latin America just as they are increasingly falling out of favor with voters amid corruption investigations and resurging guerrilla violence.
The most immediate looming crisis is here in Argentina. President Mauricio Macri, who has had business ties with the Trumps for decades, faces an uphill reelection battle in voting next month. He already finished 14 points behind his chief challenger, Alberto Fernandez, a pro-left populist, in primaries on Aug. 11.
Macri has overseen a conservative, market-friendly government that marked a departure from his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who had an antagonistic relationship with Washington. She is now the vice presidential candidate on Alberto Fernandez’s ticket. (The two Fernandezes are not related.)
During Macri’s term, he became a darling of the Trump administration and of global investors. Argentina was awarded the largest International Monetary Fund loan in history; hosted last year’s Group of 20 summit and other high-level international conferences, and was a front-line partner in the Trump administration’s regional alliance to replace the Maduro government with Venezuelan opposition forces.
Publicly, administration officials said the likelihood of a Macri loss remains a matter of speculation. Privately, several said there was little chance he would pull out a victory and are resting their hopes on Fernandez choosing pragmatism over ideology.
On the expectation of Macri’s defeat, the Argentina peso has collapsed, capital is fleeing, inflation is climbing and the economy is in free-fall, with annual growth below 1%.
In a hint of tensions to come, at the same moment presidential advisor Ivanka Trump and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan arrived here in northern Argentina last week, offering millions of dollars in new loans, Fernandez was elsewhere, complaining about U.S. heavy-handedness in Latin America and the hold that Washington has on Argentina.
“It is not that I want a bad relationship with the United States, but a more mature one,” he said. U.S. demands and conditions, he said, were stunting Argentina’s growth and recovery.
Administration officials are particularly concerned that a Fernandez government will reduce its role in the Lima Group, a coalition of 14 Western Hemisphere countries working to peacefully end the crisis in Venezuela.
Already, the influence of the group was substantially weakened when Mexico, following the inauguration in December of leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, abdicated its leadership role and took a more passive position. Lopez Obrador, contrary to his predecessor, opposes Mexican intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.
“Though [Fernandez] might turn out to be relatively moderate on economic issues, he will no doubt take his foot off the gas on Venezuela policy,” said Benjamin Gedan, who heads the Argentina project at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Should the Argentine opposition win, the White House would lose a critical ally, as the authorities in Buenos Aires would prioritize dialogue with Maduro over diplomatic isolation and sanctions”
Losing both Mexico and Argentina would be a huge blow to the White House, Gedan said. At its height, the Lima Group represented rare unity in the region against Maduro, but that has waned.
U.S. policy toward Latin America through various administrations has frequently been seen as one of negligence or selective support, especially as the region’s democracies that emerged from years of military dictatorship shifted to the left, then to the right and back again.
Trump’s approach has added flourishes: a transactional relationship when there is something to gain for his administration, and outright bullying to drive home his demands, such as the threat to impose tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. or cut off foreign aid to Central American countries.
The problem for Trump is that so many of those governments who, for whatever reason, have been most enthusiastically supportive, now find themselves in political jeopardy.
“Many of these [rightist] leaders have not sufficiently focused their energies on building coalitions and public support for a conservative political agenda,” Andres Martinez-Fernandez, a senior research associate in Latin America, said in an analysis for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Another complication for these leaders is the fact that Trump is wholly unpopular among those countries’ citizens.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a bombastic, pro-military, right-wing former legislator, has been a vocal supporter of Trump, who has in turn embraced the leader sometimes called the Trump of the Tropics. Bolsonaro pledged help with Venezuela and to build a close relationship with Washington after years of leftist leadership.
But barely nine months into his term, Bolsonaro has angered much of the rest of the world for his handling of fierce fires cutting through vast Amazon rainforests. He has declined foreign assistance, citing national “sovereignty,” and ended environmental protections for the land, leading to unbridled devastation, Brazilian experts say.
Ivan Duque, the president of Colombia, is another leader whose relationship with the Trump administration has warmed since he came to office. Duque is also a point man on the fight against Maduro. Sullivan and Ivanka Trump, who were on a three-nation South America trip, also stopped in Bogota, where Duque hosted them to a lavish dinner at the presidential palace. Both Americans bestowed admiring praise on Duque.
At the same time, he was receiving sharp criticism from the United Nations and others for what they said is his sabotage of the landmark 2016 peace deal that ended decades of war with leftist guerrillas. Duque, who opposes parts of the accord, has underfunded many of its provisions that would incorporate the former rebels back into society, critics say, pushing some to announce a return to armed conflict. Duque last week said he would meet such rebellion with “full force.”
The U.N. said Duque’s “iron-fisted” response to the resurgent rebels would have “very negative consequences” in the still-traumatized nation.
Trump’s policies toward Central America have been especially thorny, shaped as they are in large part by his desire to stop migration from the troubled region into the United States.
His most loyal presidents are Jimmy Morales of Guatemala and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras. The two were among a handful of world leaders who voted with the United States in the U.N. in favor of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both have said they will follow Trump’s lead and move their embassies from Tel Aviv to the disputed holy city.
In return, the administration stayed silent while Morales effectively dismantled a highly regarded anti-corruption agency — praised the world over including by earlier U.S. governments — before it could investigate Morales.
Hernandez has been warmly welcomed in the White House, among Republicans in Congress and in other conservative circles. He was named earlier this year in a federal court case as a co-conspirator in a vast, violent drug-trafficking operation allegedly run by his brother, and accused of using $1.5 million in cocaine proceeds to finance his presidential campaign. Hernandez has denied the charges.