Mauricio Claver-Carone overcomes regional opposition to become first American IDB president

The Inter-American Development Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Wally Gobetz / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Trump administration candidate Mauricio Claver-Carone became the first American elected to head the Inter-American Development Bank on Saturday after a campaign from the region to delay the presidential election lost momentum.

Claver-Carone, currently senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the White House National Security Council, was the only candidate formally nominated after others from Costa Rica and Argentina pulled out. He earned votes from 30 of the IDB’s 48 governors, while 16 countries abstained.

Claver-Carone, who is Cuban-American, is known for his hard-line positions on Venezuela and Cuba. Before his post in the White House, he served as U.S. representative to the International Monetary Fund and as senior adviser to the undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He will take over from the current president, Colombian Luis Alberto Moreno, who leaves the bank after 15 years on Oct. 1.

Leonardo Paz, analyst with the International Intelligence Unit at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Río de Janeiro, said that were U.S. President Donald Trump to get reelected, he could use Claver-Carone to steer the IDB agenda in line with U.S. foreign policy priorities for Latin America. Heads of multilateral banks are generally not expected to serve national interests.

“[In] the current U.S. foreign policy to Latin America, I don't think that they think about countries individually. I think they think about problems. When they see everything to the south of the Rio Grande, they see migrants and they see communism,” Paz said.

“Venezuela … they have to deal with the communism, the socialism, the left. So that’s the problem. When they see Central America, they do not see different countries. They see migrants.”

José Mauricio Silva, former IDB board director for Central America, said he was concerned about Claver-Carone’s commitment to what he called the region’s three main priorities: environment, social integration, and sustainable human development.

“The way Claver was elected, it’s going back to a policy of strong intervention and basically going back to the Monroe Doctrine with respect to the region.”

— José Mauricio Silva, former board director for Central America, IDB

 The way the election took place, with no substantive discussion or agreement over the future direction of the bank, didn’t allow the region to properly formulate a collective agenda, he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Claver-Carone a “visionary leader” who has sought to advance prosperity in the Western Hemisphere and a “strong advocate” for democratic institutions and security cooperation.

“In partnership with other countries in the region, the United States looks forward to working closely with him during his tenure as president of this essential organization as it revitalizes economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean,” Pompeo said in a statement.

But that partnership could be strained if Trump does not win a second term in November. Claver-Carone has pledged to serve only one five-year term as IDB president, but Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden publicly opposed his candidacy, with a campaign spokesperson calling him “overly ideological, underqualified and hunting for a new job after November.”

Claver-Carone’s pledge to secure a capital increase for the bank — which would be the first since 2010 — could also be hampered if Democrats take back control of the Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, would become chair of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, which must approve a capital increase. Leahy has said Claver-Carone is the “wrong nominee” to successfully secure more money for IDB.

“The big loser is the IDB,” Silva said. “The role that the U.S. played in this election and what it could imply for democracy in the region is not a good example.”

The leadership change at the bank comes at a critical time for Latin America and the Caribbean, which even before the coronavirus pandemic was seeing slowing growth. The pandemic has caused severe repercussions in a region where much of the economic activity is informal and has been disrupted by lockdowns and quarantine measures.

 Existing inequality is exacerbating that effect, with a new IDB report showing that just a month into lockdown, about 65% of households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution had experienced at least one job loss among family members. In the top fifth, only 22% had.

A controversial election

In depth for Pro subscribers: 'Keys to the Latin Bank': How an American president could influence development at IDB

Some countries in Latin America must consider the politics at play and how leadership could impact future financing from the Inter-American Development Bank.

In nominating Claver-Carone in June, the U.S. broke an unwritten rule that the regional lending institution would be led by a Latin American. While some countries, like Colombia and Brazil, quickly came out in support of the American, objections from others in the region as well as Europe created uncertainty that the vote to replace Moreno would go ahead as scheduled.

U.S. shareholding percentages and publicly declared support from several regional allies made it unlikely another candidate could garner enough votes to beat Claver-Carone, and the U.S. opposed calls to postpone voting despite COVID-19 and the upcoming domestic presidential election. Instead, in lieu of an official postponement, countries opposed to his candidacy considered boycotting the vote to deny quorum.

According to rules of the 61-year-old institution, IDB governors with 75% of the voting power — allocated according to shares held — must participate for an election to go forward. A candidate must earn both a majority of the total voting power and support of at least 15 of the 28 regional member countries of the bank.

That plan to deny quorum appeared to lose steam after Mexico, which had opposed an American heading IDB, decided it would participate in the vote. Argentina, which had supported its own candidate and lobbied for postponement, announced Thursday it would abstain.

There is speculation in Latin America that Claver-Carone may have made various commitments — like the IDB executive vice presidency — to particular nations to secure the votes needed to win, according to Paz. These may also be tied to wider geopolitics in the region, he said.

“The thing is [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro is very keen to please Trump in every way possible,” Paz said, even when Brazil has gotten nothing in return. “We are expecting right now that he will not give the vice presidency of the IDB to Brazil.”

The way the voting shook out represented “a very weak stand” by Latin American countries, according to Silva. He noted that this was the first time the IDB president was not elected unanimously.

“Latin America, it’s divided. You could see that in the voting,” said Silva, who supported delaying the vote.

“The way Claver was elected, it’s going back to a policy of strong intervention and basically going back to the Monroe Doctrine with respect to the region.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.