An upcoming election for a regional bank could hint at how America’s allies are reading the 2020 presidential polls — and a signal of President Donald Trump’s waning clout on the world stage.
At issue: Trump’s pick to run Latin America’s top development bank is forcing countries across the region to decide whether to support the U.S. choice without knowing if Trump or Joe Biden will be the president next year.
The vote on the next president of the Inter-American Development Bank is currently scheduled for September, just seven weeks before the U.S. election. Normally, U.S. electoral politics wouldn’t be relevant, as the bank has historically been led by a pick from a Latin American country — not a U.S. nominee.
But the White House has nominated Mauricio Claver-Carone, the current senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, to lead the Washington-based bank. And Claver-Carone’s reputation as a highly partisan, Trump-aligned candidate has raised questions across Washington and Latin American capitals from Buenos Aires to Mexico City if he would be able to effectively lead the bank if Trump does not win reelection.
“If Trump loses, why allow him to impose his imprint on the region by electing someone that represents the Trumpian vision of the Americas?” said Mark Feierstein, a former national security adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs during the Obama administration. “The bank doesn’t need this distraction when the highest priority in the coming months is to help these countries defeat the pandemic and revive their economies.”
Biden’s campaign has already made clear it does not support Claver-Carone, pointing to criticism he’s drawn from across the region. “Trump’s nominee for the Inter-American Development Bank is like most of his appointees: overly ideological, underqualified and hunting for a new job after November,” a Biden campaign spokesperson said.
While little known in Washington circles, the IDB is a major source of financing for Latin American and Caribbean countries, loaning about $13 billion each year. It funds development projects aimed at combating climate change or better equipping countries to handle natural disasters and public health emergencies. And given the fallout from the pandemic — Latin America currently accounts for about half of the world’s coronavirus-related deaths — the bank is expected to be especially relevant in the next few years.
Some Latin American countries have been more vocal in the push to wait until after the U.S. election. Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and the European Union have already said they support a delay on the bank’s vote, which is currently scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13, partially because of the pandemic. Peru is also expected to push for a delay, multiple former IDB officials and Latin America experts said.
Postponing the election would be a blow to the Trump administration. Former IDB officials, U.S. administration officials and congressional aides said the push for a delay reflects growing skepticism among the region’s leaders that Trump will win reelection, and their fears of being saddled with a bank president who is unable to work with a Biden administration or potentially Democrat-majority Senate.
“We can read the polls and know nothing is for certain come Nov. 3,” a former IDB official from Latin America said. “If Trump is reelected, then that’s another story. But for now, there’s no certainty and we should wait.”
Claver-Carone, for his part, welcomes all the attention around his nomination as a chance to draw attention to the little-discussed bank.
“We’re going to use that sudden interest that has sparked across the board among Republicans and Democrats and put it to work for the benefit of the IDB,” Claver-Carone said in an interview. “The winner is going to be the IDB because now everyone, whether because they like me or they don’t like me, are going to want to be the biggest champions of the IDB.”
Meanwhile, former Republican and Democratic officials alike, including former World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Thomas McLarty, former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, have called for the IDB to delay the election until March. They also want the U.S. to withdraw its candidacy to allow for a Latin American to take the job.
“That is the prudent step. And at that time, the U.S. government, whether led by President Trump or President Biden, should return to the well-established norm that the IDB’s president be a Latin American. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” former Secretary of State George Shultz and five other former officials wrote in an op-ed published last week in major Latin American newspapers, like Reforma in Mexico and Clarín in Argentina.
The U.S. already has significant power within the bank, which is headquartered in Washington, as it has a 30 percent share — meaning it has de facto veto power. Tradition holds that the executive vice president spot in the bank’s leadership is reserved for a U.S. pick.
A group of former Latin American presidents, including Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Caroso, have also called for countries to oppose the U.S. nominee and keep the tradition of having a Latin American leading the bank.
“Now is not the time to further complicate the already difficult episode that Latin America and the Caribbean confronts due to the pandemic and its grave economic and social consequences,” they wrote in June.
Part of their issue with Claver-Carone’s candidacy, former IDB officials said, also hinges on his ability to get Congress to support giving more money to the bank, as it is the largest source of development funding in the region.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has already made clear that Claver-Carone is “the wrong nominee to make the case for such an increase,” noting his unpopularity with key members of Congress. Leahy’s role in allocating money could make it difficult for Claver-Carone to lock in the money he wants for the bank.
“It is important to be aware that this nomination could jeopardize United States support for, and cooperation with, that institution,” Leahy said in a statement in June.
Other influential lawmakers have offered mixed reactions to Claver-Carone’s nomination. Reps. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), members of the House Appropriations Committee, in late July, urged the administration to reconsider, as Claver-Carone’s nomination “breaks from a 60-year precedent that a Latin American serve as President of the IDB.”
Claver-Carone has received strong support from fellow Cuban Americans on Capitol Hill. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a longtime friend and an influential voice in the region, has expressed strong support for his nomination. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), also a long-time friend of Claver-Carone, dismissed concerns about having a Trump-picked official in the position.
Claver-Carone said he spoke to Menendez and vowed to lead the bank without a partisan agenda. “My commitment to him was that I would not get involved in partisan politics and I’m going to meet that commitment,” Claver-Carone said.
He added that he is open to talking to any of his critics, including Leahy. But a spokesperson for Leahy’s office said the senator is familiar with Claver-Carone’s record, “which is well-known, so he doesn’t feel a need to speak to him.”
Multiple former administration officials and IDB officials are doubtful that Claver-Carone could ever work with Latin American officials across the political spectrum or Democrats in Washington.
“The guy is at his core a political operator and attack dog. That personality profile is simply antithetical to the leader of the Inter-American Development Bank, particularly given divided concepts of democracy across Latin America,” a person close to Claver-Carone said.
Claver-Carone is a longtime opponent of U.S. reconciliation with Cuba, a policy Leahy and other Democratic senators supported during the Obama administration. He has been central in crafting the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba and Venezuela, which Democrats criticize as ineffectual and inflexible.
He previously worked at the Treasury Department and as a U.S. representative to the International Monetary Fund. Prior to that, he was a lobbyist leading a political action committee that worked to preserve the U.S. embargo on Cuba, but really gained prominence in conservative Latin America policy circles for his Capitol Hill Cubans blog, where he was pro-embargo on Cuba and argued against U.S. engagement with the communist-run island.
The Trump administration previously failed to secure Claver-Carone as the executive vice president of the bank, as current IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno opposed the pick, multiple people familiar with the situation said. Rubio also failed to install Claver-Carone into the top Latin America job at the State Department, leaving the National Security Council post — which did not require Senate confirmation — as the next-best option.
It’s unclear if the countries currently pushing to postpone the IDB election will be successful.
A former IDB official explained that this push to reschedule the election is unprecedented, but it could happen if countries send a formal letter requesting it. A vote would then be held by the board of directors of the bank; more than 50 percent of the votes would have to favor postponing the election for that to happen. The official said a successful vote to postpone is unlikely unless the current group of countries that oppose Claver-Carone gets his supporters to back a delay.
In that case, the election would still take place as scheduled in September.
The other option opposing countries have is to not show up for the virtual vote in the first place. To hold an election, there must be 75 percent of the region’s member countries to meet quorum requirements.
Right now, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica and the EU nations — if they individually opt to vote — have a large enough combined vote share to deny the U.S. quorum for the September vote. But former IDB officials and Latin America experts say it would be “indecorous” to do so, as one put it, and the best option would be to postpone the election before the scheduled vote.
However, if the vote takes place, Claver-Carone is expected to meet the requirements to win. Claver-Carone is currently up against former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla and Gustavo Beliz, secretary of strategic affairs to the president of Argentina, who worked at the bank for almost 15 years.
The winning candidate, based on IDB rules, must receive a majority of the total voting power of member countries, which is based on each country’s allotted shares in the bank. Brazil and Colombia combined, for example, have 14.5 percent.
Claver-Carone must also receive the majority of the 28 regional member countries’ votes. The White House said he already has 17 countries backing him, although it declined to share the full list. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Haiti and Jamaica are some of the countries that have publicly offered support.
“It’s really his victory to lose. Despite all the drama, he’s the frontrunner,” a former administration official said. “But if the election is postponed, that’s a whole other story.”