Democracy, triumphant.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Argentina's New President Won't Be Venezuela's Friend

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Fresh off a bruising campaign that toppled a political dynasty and split Argentina in two, incoming president Mauricio Macri was blunt at a Monday news conference. "If I said I'd do it, we'll do it," he declared when asked if he planned to make good on his campaign promise to bring Venezuela's autocratic regime to task for violating human rights and trampling democracy.

Macri vowed that he'd press neighbors and allies to question Venezuela's claim to be a democracy. "It's clear that what's happening in Venezuela has nothing to do with the democratic commitments that we have pledged to keep in Argentina," he said.

The broader message of the need to safeguard democracy should not be lost on Latin America, a region where authoritarians linger -- in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia -- but a clubby pact keeps democratically minded leaders from raising a fuss.

Consider Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, who was first elected on a vow to speak up when human rights were under assault. She has yet to raise her voice against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who like his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, has strengthened his hand by intimidating the critics he hasn't jailed. Maduro has blocked all outside observers -- save a delegation from the Chavez-inspired Union of South American Nations -- from monitoring Venezuela's Dec. 6 legislative vote, including Rousseff's own envoy.

True, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, recently sent Maduro's government an 18-page letter rebuking it for stifling political dissent and rigging the rules against political opponents. But the organization's Inter-American Democratic Charter has only been invoked twice against truculent countries since its 2001 signing. The one admonishment directed at Venezuela censured not Chavismo's excesses, but enemies of the regime who plotted a 2002 coup against Chavez that later failed. 

Macri's tough stance is remarkable not only because of Latin America's diffidence before strongmen, but also because of the Argentine government's cozy relations with the Bolivarian Republic. Outgoing president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner didn't just look the other way when Chavez, and then Maduro, trampled democratic rights. She struck a strategic alliance with Venezuela.

After a massive debt default shut Argentina out of the international credit market, then-president Chavez swooped in to buy Argentine bonds. When Chavez's calamitous economic policies led to soaring inflation and emptied supermarket shelves, Fernandez came to the rescue with shipments of beef and other food staples in exchange for Venezuelan oil.

In 2007, an airport security officer in Buenos Aires caught a Florida businessman just off a flight from Venezuela's capital carrying a suitcase with about $790,000. The money was reportedly an off-the-books donation from Chavez's government to Fernandez's presidential campaign.

In 2012, Argentina hosted a meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc where countries voted to suspend Paraguay from the group after its legislature ousted unpopular President Fernando Lugo. Paraguay happened to be the only country opposed to Venezuela joining the bloc, and with it out of the way, Venezuela was quickly welcomed into the fold.

Macri has now vowed to put Venezuela's ejection on the table at Mercosur's next meeting. Indeed, the new president -- who takes office Dec. 10 -- will have his hands full, trying to rescue a sinking economy and govern before a largely hostile legislature. But whatever his election means for domestic policy, it seems clear that Venezuela is about to lose its last best friend. In a region where democracy is still at risk, that's something to celebrate.

(Corrects description of Fernandez's campaign in eighth paragraph; it was her first presidential, not her re-election, campaign.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net