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Latin America Won’t Give In to Trump Without a Fight

Usually a rather obscure diplomatic process, the upcoming election of the new president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is becoming anything but. In recent days, several Latin American countries have come out in favor of postponing the vote, now scheduled for Sept. 12-13, until March 2021. The move represents a direct rebuke of the U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which in June nominated Mauricio Claver-Carone, a hard-line advisor to the president on Latin American affairs, to lead the bank for the next five years.

Like much of Trump’s Latin America policy, the nomination was perceived as an affront in the region. And it became clear over the summer that it would not go unchallenged. The first sign of trouble came when five former Latin American presidents (all of whom had friendly relations with the United States while in office) openly opposed Claver-Carone’s nomination, arguing that the IDB presidency should remain in Latin American hands, as it had since the bank’s founding in 1959. That message was reinforced by letters from a slew of former foreign ministers, linked with governments of varied political orientations, from Argentina to Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Peru. Strong declarations from a wide array of influential Latin Americans joined the chorus.

Next, sitting governments began to join in the criticism. To date, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico have joined in insisting the vote be delayed. Peru is expected to do so soon, and Canada and some European governments that have shares in the IDB may get on board as well, taking their cue from the shifting momentum in the region. Other governments are reviewing their options. What binds the diverse group is an interest in defending Latin American interests and autonomy against an overzealous White House and a desire to avoid regional polarization. It remains unclear if the gambit will work, but the likelihood of postponement is increasing by the day.

Although Claver-Carone still commands a majority of the region’s governments behind his candidacy, that is hardly the acclamation the Trump administration was expecting in June, when it made its surprise and unprecedented—the United States has never nominated an American for the post—announcement. In some ways, securing the IDB’s top job should not be difficult for the United States: Latin America is internally divided and economically battered, and most of the region’s governments are either relatively close to or deeply intimidated by Washington. Even nationalists such as Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have acquiesced to Trump’s hard-line tactics and bullying, as demonstrated during his warm and friendly Washington visit last month.

And yet, by pushing forward with Claver-Carone’s candidacy, the Trump administration seems to have crossed several lines.

Claver-Carone, who’s now in charge of Latin America policy at the National Security Council, would not only be the least experienced person to lead the IDB in its 60-year history; he would also be the first U.S. citizen to do so. The tradition of having a Latin American in that job is not mere ritual. Rather, it is a way in which Republican and Democratic administrations alike have strengthened the IDB’s legitimacy and effectiveness. The bank is based in Washington, an American has always held the executive vice presidency, and the United States already holds veto power due to the 30 percent of shares it directly controls. Selecting a Latin American as president has been a way of respecting regional autonomy and giving other governments involved a sense of ownership in the institution.

Further, the White House, without any prior consultation, announced its intention to break this tradition in June, only a few months before the scheduled election of the new IDB president. In doing so, it sidelined the several qualified Latin American candidates already in the race or about to jump in. (For full disclosure, one of the other candidates, Laura Chinchilla, is on leave as co-chair of the board of directors of the Inter-American Dialogue, where we are president and fellow.) After Claver-Carone’s sudden entry, Brazil and Colombia quickly endorsed him, as did 15 other Latin American and Caribbean countries. He has been campaigning for the job from his perch at the National Security Council, mixing U.S. policy announcements with statements about his future plans for the IDB.

Claver-Carone’s strong identification with Trump’s Latin America policy would harm the bank’s capacity to work with governments of different ideological tendencies. His stint at the National Security Council has been almost exclusively devoted to reinstating sanctions on Cuba—an attempt to resume a decadeslong policy of punishment that failed to bring political change to the island—and applying the same tactics to dealing with the Venezuelan dictatorship, with similar results. His narrow lens has distorted U.S. policy toward a highly complex and variegated region.

If anything, the candidate’s combative style and intimidation tactics evoke a bygone era when the Monroe Doctrine was taken seriously. The doctrine dates from the 19th century and became largely synonymous with unilateral U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. The doctrine has been widely rejected and deemed obsolete throughout the region, but it has been revived by the Trump administration. Defenders include former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who hired and worked closely with Claver-Carone and shared his Manichean “you’re either with us or against us” view of the region.

In particular, Claver-Carone seems intent on turning the bank into an instrument to reinforce that division and counter Chinese influence in the region. Since the early 2000s, Beijing has vastly expanded its economic presence there through trade, investment, and multibillion-dollar loans for infrastructure development. Under Trump, and in the context of worsening relations between the two major powers, Washington has stepped up pressure on Latin American countries, urging them to take sides and reduce ties with Chinese actors.

To be sure, deploying more resources to compete with Beijing is a reasonable U.S. objective, but efforts need to respect regional autonomy and recognize China’s status as a key partner for many Latin American countries. Using the IDB as an institution to fight China is unlikely to work and would go against the interests of many Latin American countries, which prefer to promote good relations with Washington while also maintaining vital economic ties with Beijing. In fact, China became a contributing member of the IDB in 2009 and supports some of the institution’s programs.

For the Trump administration, there seem to be only two options in dealing with multilateral institutions: withdraw (as in the case of the World Health Organization) or take them over. However, the IDB is a development bank where genuinely cooperative efforts on a range of topics—including climate change, transparency and accountability, gender, and digitalization—are designed and carried out. Countries that favor a postponement of the vote argue that the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the region and already set it back a decade or more, demands a serious discussion among all member governments about the bank’s role in addressing daunting development challenges and charting a productive path forward. In this line of thinking, deepening conflicts and divisions in the IDB would complicate its efforts to promote economic recovery, and the region would suffer as a result.

Yet the most compelling rationale for postponement is simply practical and is related to the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election. Given Trump’s relatively weak poll numbers and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s rejection of Claver-Carone’s candidacy, it makes little sense to elect an IDB leader for a five-year term in September who is so closely linked to a U.S. administration that may no longer be in office come January. Moreover, if Biden wins and Democrats take the Senate, a Claver-Carone presidency could jeopardize congressional approval of a capital increase, which is vital for the bank to meet exponentially expanding needs in the region.

In a deeply worrying sign of the polarizing style he would likely bring to the IDB, at a press briefing on Aug. 11, Claver-Carone lashed out against countries that are calling to delay the vote, accusing them of trying to subvert the process. His attack generated a strong response from Chile’s conservative government, which favors a postponement but can hardly be accused of having anti-U.S. sentiments or left-wing tendencies. Chilean Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand called Claver-Carone’s remarks “aggressive” and said “they confirm that his election would be clearly inadequate.”

The ball is now in Latin America’s court. It’s up to the region’s governments, and their partners in Europe and North America, to decide if, for the sake of averting a confrontation with the Trump administration, they are prepared to risk even deeper divisions among countries and possibly a weakened and more ideological IDB at such a critical moment. Postponing the vote would require the approval of more than half of IDB member states. Given still majoritarian support for Claver-Carone, this would be difficult. An alternative would be for countries to deny the meeting the necessary quorum, which would happen if countries with 25 percent of the bank’s shares miss the vote. This last option, however, would be highly aggressive and should be avoided if possible. Countries that favor a postponement, therefore, hope to gather more support until even proponents of Claver-Carone accept a delay to avoid more confrontation.

If the vote is postponed, the Latin American governments would then face the challenge and responsibility of coming up with a candidate to assume the presidency of the IDB, who would be voted on by all member countries next March. By then, it will be clear who will occupy the White House over the next four years.

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