Latin America

Argentina “BFF” status questioned as Trump fawns over “like-minded” Brazil leader

President Donald Trump walked off, leaving the Argentine president reaching out and alone on stage.

Mauricio Macri, who in the past was seen as Trump’s best friend in the region, appeared to call out to Trump, who kept walking off the stage as the meeting of the world’s top 20 economies came to a close.

It was a clear miscommunication during a photo opportunity between leaders, but the uncomfortable moment seemed to symbolize an evolving mood in Argentina that Trump is pulling away from the once-favored Argentine leader for a newer, perhaps more attractive one from Brazil.

“People are freaking out, saying, ‘See, Brazil is about to get all this great stuff and all this leverage and we haven’t even tried because we’ve been so committed to these failing multilateral structures. It’s our turn to also to try to jump in before Brazil gets all the good stuff,’ “ said Fernando Cutz, a former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration.

Buenos Aires hosted the G20 economic summit this past weekend, focusing international attention on Argentina and Macri. It gave Macri, who is running for reelection next year, the chance to rub elbows and pose for photos with leaders of the most powerful countries.

But also high up on people’s mind was someone not even there, the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the exciting and controversial far-right leader who is expected to shake up geopolitical order in the hemisphere.

Some anxiety about Bolsonaro is seeping into Argentine political and diplomatic circles, which have watched Trump and his administration fawn over the “like-minded” Bolsonaro in ways it once fawned over Macri.

“I think they’re going to be best friends,” said Julio Burdman, a Buenos Aires-based political consultant and pollster. “Now, they’re going to skip Argentina because, for Trump, maybe Bolsonaro is an attractive partner.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t take office until January, but Trump sent his national security advisor, John Bolton, to Brazil at the start of the G20 to meet with Bolsonaro and discuss cooperation on trade and national security.

It’s the kind of attention that Macri used to receive. Macri was one of the few allies Trump had in the region after his presidential campaign, filled with harsh attacks on Latin American immigrants and Mexico.

Macri was one of the first Latin American leaders to reach out to Trump following the 2016 U.S. election. The two have known each other at least 30 years, Macri said.

“I’ve been friends with Mauricio for a long time, many years,” Trump said Friday at their meeting at the Casa Rosada palace in Buenos Aires. “People wouldn’t know that. He was a very young man, very handsome man. We knew each other very well.”

The Trump administration has supported Argentina, including recently backing a record $56 billion International Monetary Fund rescue plan to pull the Argentina economy out of recession.

Macri sought to install the kind of pro-business, pro-market government that was a favorite for Washington.

U.S. officials in the Obama administration and Trump administration had hoped the Macri government would “promote prosperity at home” and persuade other leaders to “abandon populism,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration, said

“But Argentina’s economic stumbles have undermined its usefulness as a billboard for capitalism,” Gedan said. “Now, Brazil is Washington’s great hope in South America.”

Bolsonaro, a far right leader, won election after his own grueling political battle. His abrasive style, attacks against the establishment and pro-American sensibilities led to him being dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.”

He imitated Trump’s “America first” slogan, promising to put “Brazil first.” He’s indicated Brazil would be less of a powerbroker for the rest of Latin America, including for the trade bloc Mercosur.

Trump was one of the first to call Bolsonaro after his election last month and pledged a “strong commitment to work side-by-side to improve the lives” of those in the United States and Brazil, according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

It’s a dramatic shift considering how long the United States and Brazil have been at odds under leftist leaders.

For years, the U.S. relationship with Argentina, the region’s second-biggest economy after Brazil, helped counterbalance Brazil’s anti-American attitude in the region, said Burdman, who also teaches geopolitics at the University of Buenos Aires. But now as friends, a new power structure dynamic is being shaped by a United States-Brazil alliance.

“My general conclusion is that Argentina is going to be needed less both for the U.S. and both for Brazil,” Burdman said.

Buenos Aires was shocked when when Brazil’s incoming Finance Minister Paulo Guedes said as much after the election: “Argentina is not a priority, neither is the Mercosur.”

He quickly backtracked, but the damage was done. Mercosur had lost some political power.

“There is a lot of talk about that,” said Leandro Serino, a former senior advisor to the Secretary of Economic Policy in Argentina and now policy coordinator of a G20 group that coordinates research and policy recommendations, known as the T20, from think tanks around the world.

Serino said both countries are seeking investment and trade opportunities, but he cited uncertainty about potential trade agreements between the Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union that has now been put on hold until Bolsonaro takes office.

Eighteen percent of Argentinians have a positive image of Bolsonaro compared to 37 percent who have a negative view of the Brazilian leader, according to an Observatorio Electoral survey.

But when it comes to the United States and its influence in the region, a little competition between the two biggest economies could be a good thing, Cutz said.

Hearing Bolsonaro’s remarks about Mercosur, Cutz has urged Brazilian leaders to immediately pursue a free trade agreement with the United States. And that has led to similar calls from Argentinians who do not want to be left behind.

“If there is all of a sudden a competition to see who can sign the first FTA with us, we’re in a very good place,” Cutz said.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez