#FOREIGNAFFAIRSMonday, July 14, 2014
For The Herald
On July 10, Ms Nancy Soderberg and Mr Robert J. Shapiro arrived in Argentina on a lobbying mission on behalf of ATFA, which stands for American Task Force Argentina. The group claims to pursue a “just and fair reconciliation of the Argentine government’s 2001 debt default and subsequent restructuring.” To this end, AFTA is very active in the US, lobbying Government, Congress and the press, putting forward the case of what some call “holdouts” and others “vulture funds”.
Last week’s visit to Argentina seems to have been ATFA’s attempt to “put a pike in Flanders”. Both Soderberg and Schapiro have very impressive credentials. Undoubtedly their lobbying efforts in the US seem to have been successful. But one wonders if such skills are exportable. In fact, what happened last Thursday seems to be a checklist of what not to do when lobbying in a foreign country. This does not necessarily mean that the Argentine government’s communications in the US were much better. In fact, over and above the legal, financial and political intricacies of Argentina’s debt situation, one wonders if bad communications on all sides have not contributed to make matters worse.
But, back to our visitors. The curtain raiser was a paid advertisement published in some — but not all-national dailies. None of them support the government. First mistake. Rather than preaching to what they think is a converted readership, the money would have been more usefully invested in trying to deliver the message, also, to a pro-government readership.
The second mistake was — to put it bluntly — not limiting the communications effort to the paid advertisement. The objectives of the personal visit are far from clear. Especially because it was limited to having lunch with journalists from the same dailies in which the adds had been published. (By the way, they lost the chance to speak to the pro government and the independent media. This daily included in the second category.) They were not able to meet business or opposition political leaders. Even those who publicly advocate for a quick settlement of the problem, and criticize the government's management of the issue, do so because they want Argentina to avoid the risks of a default. Not out of any sympathy with those creditors. Even if they call them “holdouts” instead of “vultures”. Consequently, nobody wanted a photograph with the visitors. Apparently, those who planned the visit were — parochially — unaware of this.
Third mistake: the outcome, in terms of press coverage, seems equally disappointing. Both visitors are players of certain calibre. However, the press coverage of their meeting with the journalists was far from prominent. Perhaps, even slightly reluctant. The reason might be that the interviewees pre-empted the newsworthiness of their statements by publishing them in the paid advertisements. Argentine editors shy away from duplicating — not too new — messages two days in a row.
The fourth mistake was that the visitors seem not to have planned their key messages too well. Rather than sticking to one or two main points, the message delivered to the journalists over lunch included matters like criticising Kicillof's qualifications or stressing that he needs to get his advisors to accompany him to the meetings. Kicillof's style might be an interesting chit-chat subject. But it does not seem useful to deal with this, when there are more relevant topics at hand.
But beyond the operational issues. There were a number of -more strategic -mistakes. Strangely, the membership of AFTA includes a long list of US organizations linked to the cattle raising business. And — fifth mistake — AFTA chose last week to launch a protectionist campaign in the US Congress against Argentine beef imports. A far cry from its stated mission regarding debt settlement. And a God given opportunity for the Argentine government to claim that AFTA wants to harm Argentina, not to protect unfortunate creditors’ interests.
But perhaps, the “mother” of all these mistakes is that the AFTA people seem to have confused their role as lobbyists with that of politicians. Criticizing Kicillof in public might be useful — locally — at the time of attracting votes and followers. But it does not go far at the time of convincing the Argentine government during a negotiation. Much to the contrary, it might be a setback in as much as nobody in politics likes to be seen as acting under pressure. And, perhaps, this — sixth — mistake is the most serious one. Negotiations between private parties and a government, however tough, are more likely to be successful if carried forward discreetly. True, the Argentine government from the president down, has been less than kind to Judge Griesa, the holdout or vulture creditors and even the US authorities. But, sadly, that is their role, or — if you wish — their prerogative as politicians. They have something to gain or .at least, a loss to avoid, in being vocal. To quote The Godfather: “It is business, not personal”. In the case of the creditors, irritating the other side does not seem to be useful. And if this was a retaliation because they do not like to be called names, then perhaps they are in the wrong business.
A final comment. Perhaps all the AFTA vs. Kicillof confrontation is an elaborate charade in order for both sides to be able to negotiate quietly. If that is the case, the author is more than happy about being of help by taking the whole issue seriously.