Open any important newspaper in Argentina and you will encounter several references to President Mauricio Macri’s policy of gradualismo. At the many cafés in Buenos Aires, Argentines participate in lively debates over the legitimacy of the long-term plan to bridge the country’s many asymmetries and re-engage globally. The policy is discussion is everywhere, and so far it appears to be taking hold. Investors, both domestic and foreign, have displayed a newfound eagerness to take advantage of the perceived stability resulting from Macri’s program. However, Macri and his team also hope that their reforms will restore international credibility to Argentina. But this appears less certain, largely because the lack of diplomatic leadership from the Southern Cone country.
Since 2015, President Mauricio Macri has embarked on the uphill mission of rebranding Argentina internationally through a series of gradual reforms. While the program has its virtues in the economic realm, the approach seems unlikely to captivate the world enough to completely overhaul Argentina’s reputation. Establishing a truly global footprint will require Argentina expanding its political engagement beyond its borders. For this, President Macri needs look within his region for opportunities to lead. The first one is Venezuela.
Argentines, President Macri included, are of course very aware of the crisis currently gripping Venezuela. Spend a day roaming the streets of Buenos Aires and you will be hard-pressed not to run into at least a few Venezuelans. Last year alone, an estimated 27,000 Venezuelans took advantage of the country’s open-door policy to escape the crisis at home. While the numbers pale in comparison the amount of Venezuelans living in Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago or even Portuguese-speaking Brazil, Argentina deserves credit for providing Venezuelans with the opportunity to make the country their home, even if many Venezuelans hope it is just temporarily.
President Macri deserves equal praise for his continued strong opposition to and condemnation of the Maduro regime in Venezuela. He has brought the issue to the table at several international venues and spoken in favor of a peaceful and negotiated solution. His actions demonstrate that Argentina is interested in resolving the ongoing crisis in their now-suspended Mercosur partner.
However, other leaders in Latin America have made similar condemnations with nothing to show in terms of action or results. Last year the Organization of American States was unable to reach a consensus to condemn Venezuela due to holdouts from several countries allied with the Maduro regime. Previous attempts to negotiate with Caracas for a peaceful transition of power have also failed. To make progress on the worsening humanitarian crisis and provoke some form of improvement in Venezuela, someone must step up as a regional leader. This is precisely where Argentina can rebuild its reputation: by seeking out regional consensus through engagement with the silent majority in the region, Argentina can lead and help build a regional coalition to apply additional pressure for a peaceful and democratic solution to the current situation.
In addition, Argentina should work with regional partners to develop ways to collectively sanction the Maduro regime while minimizing additional damage to Venezuelan citizens. Economic sanctions have largely been out of the question for this reason, but there may be additional ways to punish the key members of the Maduro government, including restricting their investments and travel. Maduro has used the United States as a convenient scapegoat, blaming the country for Venezuela’s ongoing woes (President Trump played into Maduro’s hands by threatening military action). Promoting a regional effort with Latin American states on the frontline would blunt this tired argument and strengthen the hand of countries seeking to negotiate with the current government in Caracas.
Maduro’s regime is morally bankrupt and unwilling to budge on issues as simple as humanitarian assistance. Finding even small solutions will likely take considerable amounts of time and political capital. Still, if President Macri can position Argentina as a regional consensus-builder with the right dose of gradualismo, he will greatly improve international perceptions of Argentina’s ability to work as a constructive partner in global affairs.
E.J. Richardson is a MA Candidate in Latin American Studies & International Economics at Johns Hopkins University SAIS