AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel
With inflation at well over 100 percent and the country facing impending default, the expectation was that libertarian economist Javier Milei, an outspoken supporter of Israel and opponent of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, would win Argentina’s elections this past Sunday. He had unexpectedly come first in the all-candidate primary elections and led most polls. His leading opponent, Sergio Massa of the ruling Peronist coalition, was also the Minister of National Economy who oversaw the current economic collapse.
Yet when the dust settled, Massa led the first round comfortably, 36 percent to 30 percent, and seems favored for the runoff.
What happened? In short, Massa pulled out all the stops. In Peronist tradition, that meant mobilizing the full force of the state to print money for friendly politicians while starving opposition-controlled localities of funding. Last December, incumbent Peronist President Alberto Fernandez defied an order by the Supreme Court to restore funding to the opposition-controlled government of Buenos Aires that the central government had seized during the COVID-19 emergency.
Massa, however, also received help from outside Argentina. Some of it was to be expected. Milei is close to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and the election rapidly took on the contours of a proxy battle between Bolsonaro and his successor, leftist Lula da Silva. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Jair Bolsonaro, campaigned for Milei and was even present at his headquarters on election night. By contrast, Lula sent more than 20 members of his campaign team to assist Massa, along with a full-court effort to secure enough financial assistance to get Argentina through the election.
Xi Jinping also came to the rescue of what is increasingly one of Beijing’s client regimes in Latin America. China has provided Buenos Aires with a credit line of more than $18 billion this year, with an additional $6.5 billion supplied in the weeks before Election Day. This infusion helped create an illusion of stability that might be lost if the “radical” Milei won.
If it is clear why leftist Brazil and Communist China might intervene on behalf of the Peronists, the arrival of assistance from Washington was less expected and almost impossible to justify from the perspective of American national interests.
When Brazil’s Lula Da Silva proclaimed that Argentina’s democracy was in danger last month, he did so with Joe Biden standing behind him in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Biden’s words, that “the two largest democracies in the Western hemisphere were united in standing up for human rights” came close to an endorsement of Lula’s warnings that “many have given in to the temptation of replacing a failed neoliberalism with a primitive, conservative and authoritarian nationalism.”
If Lula had Jair Bolsonaro in mind, Joe Biden seems to associate Milei with his predecessor, Donald Trump, whom Milei has praised in the past. Biden, who all but openly intervened in Brazil’s 2022 elections to ensure Bolsonaro’s defeat, held back from such direct means this time, if only because he had Lula to do his dirty work. No doubt was left as to the Biden administration’s preferences.
During a visit to Washington, Massa was introduced to Dan Restrepo, a long-time adviser to Barack Obama, who was Obama’s Latin America Director on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and a campaign surrogate in 2008 and 2012. Restrepo, along with former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, appears to then have worked with Massa’s campaign.
While no one involved in helping Massa is directly employed under Joe Biden, the presence of so many senior Obama campaign figures in the orbit of a foreign candidate was likely an indiciation of the approval of Joe Biden’s team. It is just particularly unusual that the foreign candidate they are aiding is the same one being backed by Xi Jinping.
The Biden administration’s backing of Massa and the Argentine Peronists makes more sense in the context of a Latin American policy that is not right or left, but rather populist/anti-populist, or, as Biden himself likely sees it, pro- or anti-Trump.
While Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics were unlikely to have sat well with the Biden team, it was Bolsonaro’s close relationship with Donald Trump that seems to have led the Biden administration to pursue his ouster as a matter of self-interest. In turn, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is a leftist who has overseen the legalization of abortion on a national level. Obrador, however, had a good working relationship with Donald Trump, has criticized Biden’s border policies, and, unforgivably to the White House, delayed recognition of Joe Biden’s 2020 election in deference to Trump, reportedly because of his own experience in Mexico in which his first presidential campaign ended in a disputed count. Biden pushed off speaking with Obrador for months afterward, and has shown open partiality to the opposition. It is clear Biden would love to do to Obrador in Mexico what he did to Bolsonaro in Brazil if the opportunity arises.
While it might mark a form of pragmatism in the short-term to prioritize wider criteria than a foreign leader’s position on the political spectrum, the national interests of the United States do not seem to be the basis for Biden’s preferences in doing so.
Bolsonaro was not only outspokenly pro-American and anti-CCP, but also a supporter of Israel who wished to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem.
By contrast, Lula has called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, signed a cooperation agreement with Beijing, supported the replacement of the U.S. dollar, and opened Brazil to Chinese telecom infiltration through Huawei. Even by the Biden administration’s own standards, Lula is far less supportive of their priorities – support for Ukraine, containing Chinese tech, isolating Hamas – than Bolsonaro would have been.
Yet rather than learning from the experience, the Biden team has doubled down in Argentina. In order to fight the phantom specter of an Argentine “Trump,” they are backing a man who will be dependent on the Chinese largesse that won him the election. They are supporting a Peronist political machine that has shown a willingness to make foreign policy decisions on the basis of who can provide bribes to keep them in power, from covering up Iranian terrorism in exchange for a favorable oil deal to backing China geopolitically for loans.
Even by the Biden view of “defending democracy”, backing Peronism is a bet on the wrong horse. The very presence of a hostile Brazil on his border and the lack of a legislative majority would weaken Milei’s options to make himself a dictator. By contrast, the Peronist machine is driven by self-preservation, not any moral commitment to democracy, and if Chinese financial support becomes insufficient to bribe the voters to support failing policies, Peronism would happily repurpose those funds to suppress the electorate by force.
Argentina’s fate is far from decided. There will be a runoff on November 19th. When combined with the 24 percent who voted for Patricia Bullrich, the candidate of the traditional center-right opposition, Milei would have a comfortable majority.
However, it is unclear whether he will receive that support, or whether it will be a free choice for Argentine voters. When a country is dependent on the largesse of others, you have to be aware of the preferences of your creditors. Argentine voters know they are indebted to China. When Washington and Beijing speak with the same voice, the risk voters might consider is not that of Milei’s policies, but upsetting Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
If Joe Biden honestly cares about democracy, he should make clear that the United States will back the Argentine people’s choice, not Beijing’s. If he cared about America’s interests, he would not support a party in thrall to our enemies.
Unfortunately for those who truly care about democracy, there is no reason to believe he will change course in the next four weeks. The Argentine people, who will lose their own chance to change course, will be the first, but far from the only, victims.
Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.