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Argentina's political change can influence changes in UNASUR's strategies

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted December 5th. 2015

By a relatively slim margin, conservative opposition challenger Mauricio Macri of the Commitment to Change party won Argentina's presidential election on November 22, bringing to an end to more than a decade of leftist rule and with a promise to open up the ailing economy to investors. Macri obtained 51.3 percent of the vote in the run-off election to 48.7 percent for ruling Peronist party rival 58-year-old Daniel Scioli.

The 56-year-old Macri inherits a fragile Argentine economy in which growth is shored up by unsustainable public spending. Inflation is estimated at more than 20 percent while the central bank is running perilously low on currency reserves. The country is also in default on its sovereign debt.

Despite these negatives, Argentina made enormous economic and social progress during the past thirteen years. Under the Kirchners' presidencies (first Nestor Kirchner and then his widow Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner), poverty fell by about 70 percent, and extreme poverty fell by 80 percent by 2013. And unemployment was reduced from more than 17.2 percent to 6.9 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. However, Scioli failed to defend and capitalize on these achievements during the election campaign.

Macri, who will be sworn on in December 10, has declared that he will involve his government in strenuous negotiations to reach a deal in order to regain access to global credit markets. He has also promised to quickly remove capital controls and trade restrictions instituted by Cristina Fernandez. But if such action is too hasty, it could risk triggering an economic shock that could push the country into recession.

During the election campaign, Scioli had described Macri's pro-market reforms as dangerous, warning he would cut welfare benefits, hike energy tariffs and push millions into poverty.

However, Marci's economic and development programs may not be easy to achieve since his party holds a minority of seats in the national legislature. The Peronist party and its leftist allies holds a bigger share, but they, too, do not have an overall majority. Marci will, therefore, have to form alliances to win a majority in order to enforce his plans. But by going into alliances, he may have to dilute his program to meet the demands of his prospective allies.

His win marks a decisive shift to the center-right and will result in improved ties with the United States and European Union, as well as faster growing countries on the Pacific coast such as Chile and Peru.

The ideological shift in UNASUR

However, Macri's immediate foreign policy priority will be to rebuild Brazil's confidence in a troubled trade relationship and he announced that his first trip abroad will be to meet with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. This decision is understandable considering that forty percent of direct investment in Argentina flows from Brazil. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Argentina is also the main destination for Brazilian investment in Latin America. This investment is mainly in oil, cement, mining, steel, textiles, cosmetics, banks, food, and beverages.

Macri's victory is evidence that support for leftist pro-socialist governments in the Union of South American States (UNASUR) is losing its momentum. Countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that had shown strong opposition to the United States and neoliberal capitalism are facing economic challenges that negatively affect their influence among their own citizens and those of other countries in the continental bloc. And Brazil, seen as the regional leader even though it has been playing a low-key role in UNASUR in recent months, is battered by economic problems resulting from low oil and commodity prices along with allegations of widespread corruption-all of which have severely damaged the popularity of President Rousseff.

Significantly, with respect to wider South American relations, Macri has already adopted a confrontational position by stating that he would request, at the December 21 summit of Mercosur in Paraguay, the enforcement of the trading group's democratic clause against Venezuela, because of the political persecution of opposition leaders and other human rights abuses there. But any such sanction by Mercosur would require support from all members and, thus, will most likely fail. Within UNASUR, the sanction proposal will also surely bring him into direct confrontation with countries such as Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia, which have close political ties with Venezuela

However, the Argentine shift-combined with some growing tendencies in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile to review their role regarding Venezuela-will increase the pressure on the Venezuelan government to find a way out of the country's political debacle. Whatever the results of that country's legislative elections, Argentina's position at the upcoming Mercosur meeting should give a clear picture as to how it will shape its policies with other regional groups such as UNASUR, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). With the balance of power now changed in Argentina, it certainly has now shifted away from the left within UNASUR, on which Venezuela has always depended to deflect hemispheric and international criticisms.

Argentina, as a country with much economic clout in the region, will no doubt influence changes in strategies that UNASUR will apply in the integration process. The country has taken on a leading role in the bloc's humanitarian efforts in Haiti, and has strong bilateral relations at the economic level with other member states. The new administration is not likely to curtain these programs, but is expected to have new inputs in UNASUR's overall economic, social, political and defense strategies.

Guyana-Argentina relations

The Macri administration, no doubt, will continue to expand Argentina's relations with other South American states, particularly those, like Guyana, with smaller economies. Relations between Guyana and Argentina have advanced relatively well ever since the latter established its embassy in Georgetown in 2011. On May 22, 2014, the two countries announced an exchange program on tourism training and management of protected areas to be financed by the Argentine Fund of Horizontal Cooperation. Argentina also has provided cooperation to Guyana's Protected Areas Commission (PAC) with proposed exchange visits of the commission's representatives and those from the Argentina National Parks Administration (APN). The plan would be for the APN officials to provide technical assistance in the development, planning and management of protected areas within the framework of PAC's 2012-2015 action plan.

Then on June 5, 2014, the two countries entered into a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of a consultative mechanism on matters of common interest. The memorandum provided for consultations on all aspects of the bilateral relationship, especially in the areas of political, economic, commercial, scientific, technical, environmental protection, educational and cultural cooperation, through meetings to be conducted at the level of ministers and senior officials.

More recently, on June 17, 2015, the Guyanese agriculture minister and the Argentine ambassador discussed possible areas for collaboration cantered on soil and post-harvest management, animal husbandry, research in agriculture biotechnology, value-added production and marketing.

It is now hoped that the new administration in Argentina, despite its planned cut-back on spending, will not curtail these cooperation activities, but will actively move to expand them.

The question of the Malvinas

With regard to territorial issues, Argentina is especially interested in ascertaining the current Guyana government's position on the Malvinas (Falklands) situation. The PPP government of 1992-2015 was supportive of Argentina's declaration of sovereignty over the islands, as the party did when it formed the opposition in the pre-1992 years.

It will be recalled that on April 2, 1982, when Argentina launched a full scale invasion of the Malvinas, the PNC government of that period was one of the first to express full support for Britain while roundly condemning Argentina. It also called for an urgent return to diplomatic dialogue for the peaceful settlement of any issues and said it recognized the full right of the people of the Malvinas to self-determination as well as to the integrity of their territory.

However, three years later, President Forbes Burnham in an interview conducted by the Venezuelan journalist, Alfredo Peņa, and published on March 4, 1985, in the Caracas daily El Nacional, expressed support for Argentina and clarified his government's position with this explanation during the following exchange:

PEŅA: You, being the President of a country, which until recently was a colony, and is in some way, part of the family of the Third World, why didn't you support Argentina in an act of sovereignty in trying to recuperate a part of its territory which had been taken from it by British imperialism?

BURNHAM: In Lima, Peru, I think it was in 1975, at a meeting of Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers, we supported the right of ownership that Argentina had to the Falkland Islands. And that position, we have retained. When the war between Britain and Argentina took place two years (sic) ago, our position was that we opposed Argentina's using force. That is all. Subsequently, when the matter came up for discussion in the United Nations General Assembly, Britain was flabbergasted to find that we were on the side of Argentina's right. You must distinguish between the right and attempts to exercise that right by force.

It is not yet clear if the above statement made by Burnham in 1985 would have any influence on a future declaration of the Guyana government's position. Recent media reports indicated that, at the fourth summit of the South American and Arab states held in Saudi Arabia on November 11-12, 2015, it entered a reservation on a section of the summit's declaration on the issue of the Malvinas. The specific section of that declaration states:

. . . Calling on Argentina, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to resume negotiations in order to reach as soon as possible a peaceful final solution to the sovereignty dispute referred to as the "Issue of the Malvinas Islands," according to the relevant resolutions of the United Nations, and re-emphasizing that the claim that the islands, (Malvinas Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands), are countries and enclaves applicable to Part IV of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the decisions of the European Union on the Overseas Territories does not comply with the fact that there is a dispute over the sovereignty of the islands;

And also acknowledging that unilateral activities to explore non-renewable natural resources that are currently carried out in the Argentine continental shelf on the Malvinas Islands fall in conflict with the provisions of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 49 and 31;

In this regard, recognizing no right of any party to do business of exploration for unauthorized hydrocarbons, or drilling exploration activities on the continental shelf, and calling on the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to refrain from any military exercises on a land that is subject to dispute on a United Nations-recognized sovereign state;

In this regard, recalling that 16 December 2015 coincides the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of resolution No. 2056 (XX), the first to refer to the issue of Malvinas Islands and refurbished by subsequent resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and its Special Decolonization Committee so far, and expressing deep concern on the fact that, despite the time that has passed since the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 2056 (XX), this long-standing dispute has not been resolved, the leaders and the heads of states and governments join other regional forums, demanding the Secretary General of the United nations to renew his efforts during his current term of office to use the good offices entrusted to him by the General Assembly through the successive decisions to ensure the resumption of bilateral negotiations as soon as possible and find a peaceful resolution of the dispute referred to above.

While it is understandable that the Guyana government preferred not to commit itself to this part of the declaration since it may still be in the process of deciding on a specific position, it is worthy to note that Argentina seized the opportunity to push for this issue to be included in the document in order to buttress international support. Considering this type of Argentina's diplomatic outreach, Guyana also has to employ similar action within international groupings to which it belongs-as was done at the recent Commonwealth conference-to ensure that its right to its territorial integrity is also expressed decisively in similar declarations.

December 5, 2015

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003),
Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)

(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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