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Praise for Chavez, Castro and China does not belong at the head of the IDB

President Biden
Greg Nash
President Biden walks toward the press before boarding Maine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, October 3, 2022. Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden will visit Puerto Rico to examine damage from Hurricane Fiona.

The search is on for a new president of the Inter-American Development Bank. Candidates must have their paperwork in within 45 days of the launch of the search, which is Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. The first candidate announced so far is Ambassador Alicia Barcena of Mexico, currently representing her country to Chile. More importantly, Ambassador Barcena ran “CEPAL” (known as ECLAC) the Latin American economic think tank sponsored by the United Nations.

CEPAL has always had an orientation linked to what has been called “structuralism” in the region, and its views on global development were once influential. As head of CEPAL, Barcena engaged global policy makers, academics, and media. Barcena is almost unknown in the U.S., but she has had an impressive career in the United Nations system, serving in a number of senior roles. Her work at CEPAL has acquainted her with the complex development challenges of the region.

The question is whether she can be the person that can unify a badly divided region.

Her very strong endorsements of the Cuban and Venezuelan dictatorships raise questions as to whether she can play the role that the region needs to promote development and democracy. 

If Barcena wants to have a successful, unifying presidency at the IDB, she needs to thoroughly repudiate the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes’ terrible human rights abuses and the policies of those regimes that create poverty rather than wealth.

Consider the following:

These statements were not the youthful utterances of an idealistic student in the 1970s, but were made in her official capacity in the last 10 years.

Many UN agencies or Inter-American system agencies have Cuba and Venezuela as member states, but almost no leader goes out of their way to praise these regimes, even on the death of dictators. There has neither been a World Bank president nor an IDB president in the last four decades that has praised Cuba or Venezuela the way Barcena did.

The Inter-American Development bank is the most important collective action vehicle for the Western Hemisphere. It spent more than $22 billion last year to address regional challenges and will do the same this year.

The former head of the IDB, Mauricio Claver-Carone, was a Trump appointee and was fired last month. The Biden administration would like a consensus candidate from a center left or (possibly) center right government committed to democracy and development. 

If Barcena wins this election without thoroughly repudiating the Castro and Maduro regimes, she will have an almost impossible time getting a capital increase through a Republican Congress. She surely has the political acumen to win one five-year term; however, if a Republican president wins in 2024, there will be many in Washington that will seek to remove her in the Fall of 2027. 

There is another issue that all candidates will have to address: “What is the candidate’s view on the role of mainland China in the region?” Mainland China has become the largest trading partner to many countries in the region and is a shareholder in the IDB. For the 40 years before 2015, the United States pursued engagement with China, which might be have been described as a “responsible stakeholder strategy.” Since 2015 — and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic — views in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Canada, the United Kingdom and in Europe, all shareholders of the IDB, have increasingly hardened about the Chinese Communist Party.

Barcena, again, has had many positive things to say about Chinese partnership in Latin America, such as in a 2018 speech in which she sounded like a veritable salesperson for China’s Belt and Road initiative, and said: “We maintain an unshakable commitment to strengthening ties between our region and China in all dimensions.” Have those views evolved?

Eight of Taiwan’s “allies” are in the Western Hemisphere and are members of the bank. In a future capital increase, would Barcena notionally support Taiwan’s option to buy shares in the IDB?

The region should want someone who can serve two consecutive five-year terms. If other countries, like for instance Chile or Panama, do not put forward a candidate quickly, Barcena could run unopposed.

The other alternative would be for Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica and seen as the runner up in the IDB’s 2020 election, to somehow get her government to enthusiastically support her. The problem is Chinchilla criticized the current Costa Rican president during his election campaign; thus, there’s a real possibility her country will not propose her as candidate.

The Charter of the IADB does not preclude the possibility that governors can present candidates from any nationality, and there may be other countries that would be willing to propose Chinchilla. 

While Ambassador Barcena should contemplate repudiating her endorsement of the Cuban and Venezuela regimes, it would be in the interest of the United States — and all member countries of the IADB — that other qualified candidates step forward immediately to ensure a competitive election.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS. He is the author of “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power” to be published in December by Bombardier Books.

Tags Belt and Road initiative China Cuba Democracy democracy promotion Economic policy Fidel Castro Hugo Chavez Human rights abuses human rights violations Inter-American Development Bank Mauricio Claver-Carone Multilateral development banks Taiwan Venezuela

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