President Joe Biden on Friday tapped Dallas lawyer Marc Stanley as ambassador to Argentina, the world’s largest Spanish-speaking nation.
It’s a coveted posting for a longtime Democratic fundraising powerhouse. Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, and the ambassador’s residence is a palace.
It’s hardly a low-stakes backwater. Argentina is the one of the hemisphere’s biggest economies, a country wracked by COVID-19 and recession where anti-American sentiment is never far below the surface.
Stanley, who chaired Lawyers for Biden during last year’s election, was among a flurry of diplomatic picks announced Friday. The fact that he’s a Texan may not be enough to escape pushback from the state’s senators, both Republicans – in particular Ted Cruz, whose reelection he worked hard to impede.
Cruz has been blocking dozens of State Department nominees to protest Biden’s refusal to halt Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. And there’s a more personal agenda.
In the 2018 election, Stanley chaired a political action committee that blistered Cruz for sucking up to Donald Trump after the 2016 campaign despite a torrent of attacks that had prompted the senator to brand him a pathological liar.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my country,” Stanley said in a statement. “If confirmed, I hope to build an even stronger relationship between the United States and Argentina.”
Presidents in both parties have sent political allies and career diplomats at times to Argentina, a country of 46 million people. It’s four times the size of Texas and Latin America’s third largest economy after Brazil and Mexico.
Biden’s chief Latin America adviser has visited twice, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was there on Friday for talks on pandemic recovery, an upcoming climate summit, and economic growth and security in the region.
The pandemic has claimed more than 109,000 lives, a per capita death toll among the worst in the world. The United States recently sent 3.5 million vaccine doses.
“It’s a very pleasant place to live….On the other hand, it is diplomatically challenging,” said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, and South America director on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
A recession is in its third year. Early in the pandemic, the country defaulted on a $44 billion debt, and the government is hoping for U.S. help to strike new terms with the International Monetary Fund.
Resentment has brewed for years about high U.S. tariffs on biodiesel exports.
“Things are quite dreary.… The country is in very fragile conditions, economically, and that can always spill over into political and social drama,” Gedan said.
Argentina has defied U.S. policies in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Relations warmed with the election of a pro-American president in 2015, but the leftists returned to power in 2019. Although President Alberto Fernández is relatively moderate, his influential Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a former two-term president, remains hostile.
“It’s a country with a government that isn’t reflexively pro-American, on the verge of some very difficult economic and, potentially, political times,” Gedan said. “It’s at a crossroads and the ambassador would really play a role in nudging Argentina one way or the other.”
Although Stanley lacks diplomatic experience, foreign leaders generally value well-connected emissaries who can sidestep the State Department bureaucracy with direct access to the president.
Stanley chaired the National Jewish Democratic Council for six years. He and his wife, Wendy, have donated at least $1.5 million in the last two decades to Democratic causes, though his bigger impact has been as a bundler for candidates and party committees.
Stanley has hosted fundraising events in Dallas for Biden, Hillary Clinton and Obama and his Facebook feed is sprinkled with photos of him with them and other top tier Democrats.
In the early 1990s he chaired the Texas Public Finance Authority as an appointee of her mom, then-Gov. Ann Richards.
He’s a former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.
His philanthropic work includes a stint chairing The Legacy Senior Communities Inc., a Jewish charitable group that provides continuing care retirement communities and in-home care for Dallas seniors and their families.
In June 2011, Obama named Stanley to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial, serving with former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and former Republican chairman and George W. Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
When Cruz was battling former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke in 2018, Stanley chaired the Fire Ted Cruz PAC, which produced scathing videos directed by Austin-based director Richard Linklater.
“Somebody left something on my door the other day that said, ‘Ted Cruz: Tough as Texas,’” actor Sonny Carl Davis, reprising a role from the 2011 film Bernie, says in one ad. “If somebody called my wife a dog, and said my daddy was in on the Kennedy assassination, I wouldn’t be kissin’ their ass.”
“People know that Ted Cruz is not a very likable person,” Stanley said at the time.
Cruz spokeswoman Erin Perrine said he will continue to block Biden State Department nominations over Russia policy.
“Sen. Cruz will use all leverage and prerogatives he has as a U.S. Senator to get the Biden administration to follow the law and implement Congressional mandates to sanction and stop completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” she said.
Stanley has also tangled with the late billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, GOP mega-donor and Israel hardliner. (Adelson was a key backer of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Stanley shares some resemblance.)
In 2012, Adelson sued the National Jewish Democratic Council after it circulated a petition aimed at deterring Republicans from taking his money, in part by highlighting allegations of prostitution at his casino in Macau. Adelson lost repeatedly in court. But the fight drove the council to fold.
Texas has produced several of the most recent U.S. ambassadors to Argentina. Dallas’ own George W. Bush expressed an affinity for the barbecue and the gauchos – cowboys — during a presidential visit, finding common ground despite the socialist government at the time.
“There are some cultural connections with Argentina that Texans can sometimes exploit for effective cultural diplomacy,” Gedan said.
Obama’s first ambassador in Buenos Aires was Vilma Socorro Martínez, a San Antonio native and civil rights lawyer who had replaced a career diplomat. His second ambassador was Noah Mamet, a political consultant and top fund-raiser for his 2012 reelection.
Republicans filibustered, with support from Sens. Cruz and John Cornyn. But Democrats quashed it a 50-36 party line vote.
Mamet resigned effective the day Trump took office and Trump waited two full years before picking a replacement: Edward Prado, also from San Antonio.
The former U.S. attorney had served as a federal judge for more than three decades, appointed to a trial bench by Ronald Reagan and elevated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by George W. Bush.
Easing Prado out of his lifetime post created a vacancy on one of the nation’s highest courts. Trump replaced him with a conservative three decades younger, a former general counsel to Gov. Greg Abbott – one of dozens of moves Trump made to reshape the judiciary for a generation.
Prado left the post Jan. 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration.