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Argentina’s political polarization extends to foreign policy, and these days, the biggest litmus test is the Venezuela crisis.

Over the past decade, Argentina’s relationship with Venezuela has lurched from brotherhood to enmity and back again. Under Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003 to 2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007 to 2015), the Chavistas and Peronists were close allies. Mr. Kirchner was the first secretary general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Hugo Chávez’s go-to alternative to the Organization of American States. Ms. Fernández de Kirchner awarded Mr. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, the Order of the Libertador General San Martín, the country’s highest honor for a foreign leader.

That relationship, however, did not survive the election of the center-right Mauricio Macri in 2015.

Mr. Macri, a former Buenos Aires mayor, was a long-time critic of the increasingly authoritarian Venezuelan regime. In the Casa Rosada, he became a founding member of the Lima Group, a coalition of countries promoting a democratic transition in Venezuela. In 2018, he called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Mr. Maduro for crimes against humanity, an ongoing inquiry. The next year, Mr. Macri recognized Juan Guaidó, the opposition head of Venezuela’s legislature, as president, after the Venezuelan congress dismissed Mr. Maduro’s reelection as fraudulent. Mr. Macri also eased the residency application process for Venezuelan migrants, and over 200,000 Venezuelan exiles have settled in Argentina.

For four years, Argentina was one of the fiercest critics of the Venezuelan regime and one of the most reliable partners for the White House. No longer.

Just as President Alberto Fernández has reversed a range of Mr. Macri’s domestic policies, he dramatically altered the country’s approach to Venezuela. In his first months in office, he rescinded his predecessor’s recognition of Mr. Guiadó (and bragged about it), revoked diplomatic credentials for Mr. Guaidó’s diplomatic personnel and reinstated them for Mr. Maduro’s envoys, and lifted a travel ban on regime officials. He has consistently resisted pressure to describe Venezuela as a dictatorship, often drawing criticism at home and abroad. (Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, who represented Mr. Guaidó at the Inter-American Development Bank, condemned Mr. Fernández, saying, “I don’t understand how an Argentine, knowing the history of Argentina’s dictatorship, cannot see things as they are.”)

Mr. Fernández’s approach mirrors the policy in Mexico under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The November election of Luis Arce in Bolivia provided Mr. Maduro with another regional ally. At the OAS, Argentina abstained on a December 6 resolution criticizing Venezuela’s sham legislative elections, and Bolivia and Mexico voted against the resolution. Still, Argentina is out of step with much of the region and many democratic countries worldwide. Its Venezuela policy risks alienating allies at a time when Buenos Aires desperately needs international support, including at the International Monetary Fund.

Pink Tide Nostalgia

Venezuelan migrants in Argentina are hardly admirers of Mr. Maduro, and the opposition often invokes Venezuela when criticizing Peronist statist economic policy. Still, for Mr. Fernández, the domestic politics of Venezuela are hardly straightforward. Many supporters of Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, a longtime friend of the late Mr. Chávez and his successor, never soured on the regime in Caracas, despite democratic collapse and voluminously documented human rights abuses.

That has forced Mr. Fernández to meticulously calibrate his Venezuela policy. As president-elect, he responded warmly to a congratulatory tweet from Mr. Maduro, whom he said shared his commitment to fighting poverty and inequality. But he pointedly reminded the Venezuelan strongman, “la plena vigencia de la democracia es el camino para lograrlo.” In office, Mr. Fernández has remained in the Lima Group, though Argentina no longer signs the group’s communiques.

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Mixed Signals

The result is a series of mixed signals on Argentina’s approach to the hemisphere’s biggest humanitarian crisis, and a chronic source of tension in U.S.-Argentina relations.

Indeed, Mr. Fernández has been walking a tightrope on Venezuela from his first day in office, when Jorge Rodriguez, a senior Venezuelan official, attended Mr. Fernández’s inauguration, prompting a boycott by Mauricio Claver-Carone, President Donald Trump’s senior Latin America adviser, who had flown to Buenos Aires for the ceremony. Mr. Fernández sent a similar signal when he spoke longingly of Mr. Chávez during a videoconference with former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and tweeted Mr. Maduro’s ode to the late Argentine footballer Diego Maradona.

But the return of Peronism has not brought about a complete about-face on Venezuela policy. In July, Argentina endorsed the findings and recommendations of a UN report that condemned human rights abuses by the Venezuelan regime and called for free and fair elections. Argentine Foreign Minister Felipe Solá described Venezuela as “authoritarian without a doubt.” And an influential ally of the president, Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa, called Venezuela “a dictatorship.” The criticism upset leftist hardliners inthe fractious Peronist coalition, including Argentina’s ambassador to Russia, Alicia Castro, who resigned in protest.

Under a Microscope

In some ways, Argentina’s muddled Venezuela policy is par for the course for the diverse Frente de Todos coalition. But the country’s approach to Venezuela has potentially serious consequences far from the domestic battlegrounds where the debate is taking place.

The Trump administration, despite its warm ties to Mr. Macri, did not seek conflict with Mr. Fernández. For its part, Argentina dodged confrontation with Washington on issues such as Mr. Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Argentine steel and aluminum; Mr. Fernández’s support for former Bolivian President Evo Morales; and Argentina’s opposition to the U.S. nominee to run the Inter-American Development Bank. But privately, the United States reportedly conveyed its disappointment with Argentina’s Venezuela policy. That disagreement will not go away after January 20, given President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s record as a human rights defender.

For now, Latin America’s public health and economic crises will likely dominate the U.S. approach to the region. A clash between the United States and Argentina over Venezuela is unlikely in the short term. But Argentina’s indifference to repression in Venezuela will continue to draw uncomfortable scrutiny in Latin America, Washington and European capitals.

Latin America Program

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Argentina Project

The Argentina Project is the premier institution for policy-relevant research on politics and economics in Argentina.   Read more