President Barack Obama began a two-day state visit to Argentina on Wednesday that was originally designed as a show of support for newly elected pro-business president Mauricio Macri — but has also highlighted that the legacy of the Cold War in the region stretches far beyond Cuba.
The announcement of the trip sparked an immediate backlash from human rights groups who objected to it coinciding with tomorrow's 40th anniversary of the US-backed military coup. The coup brought seven years of state-sponsored atrocities which left an estimated 30,000 people missing.
Some of the loudest objections came from the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo who fear that President Macri will stop prosecuting members of the military for abuses during the dictatorship, and remove the fight for justice from the central role it had during the last administration.
There was also an open letter earlier this month penned by human rights activist and artist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.
"You must know that your country has many pending debts with our country and with many others," Pérez Esquivel told Obama in the letter in which he listed past and present US "complicity" such as military training for Latin American soldiers at the School of the Americas. "If you do not intend to announce reparations, or ways of avoiding more suffering, your visit will unfortunately be seen by the majority of the Argentine people as a provocation."
The White House responded to the pressure by announcing a plan to declassify US military and intelligence records relating to the military dictatorship, requested by the government.
Tomorrow morning Obama and Macri will visit the Parque de La Memoria to honor the victims of the dictatorship. Then, Obama will head to Bariloche with his family, a vacation spot that Eisenhower and Clinton both visited during their stays here. This distance from Buenos Aires is expected to ease the tension of his visit to the country on this important anniversary and national holiday, the National Day for Memory,Truth, and Justice.
"It's an extended hand to the human rights groups that have criticized US support of the dictatorship here," said Andrés Repetto, international political analyst for Argentine TV channel C5N. "It's also an extended hand to Macri, a win-win."
Macri beamed as he shook Obama's hand ahead of private talks today at the presidential offices in the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires.
"This visit has a special meaning. It's a symbol of friendship in a moment when Argentina is making a change," Macri said at a press conference after the meeting which produced agreements on combating drug trafficking and money laundering, and promises of improved trade relations. "This is the beginning of a mature, constructive relationship to improve the lives of our people."
Obama repeated his pledge to declassify intelligence documents related to what he called the "dark period" of the dictatorship and talked up Marci's presidency. "I'm very encouraged by his efforts to combat drug trafficking, reduce organized crime, and to make Argentina's streets safer," he said. "These are all areas where I think we can be very effective partners."
This trip is the first state visit to Argentina by a US president since Bill Clinton met with Carlos Menem in 1997.
At the time Menem's foreign minister, Guido di Tella, famously described the bilateral ties as a "carnal relationship." Menem's administration appeared to be at the whim of the US government, sending Argentine troops to fight in the Gulf and enacting US-recommended policies to dismantle economic protectionism.
Macri's government has sought to dispel fears that its search for closeness with the US means that those days are coming back.
"We don't believe in carnal relations," foreign minister Susana Malcorra told the Council of Foreign Relations in February. "We believe in serious, predictable, mature relations."
The promise of maturity comes after a chilly 12 years during which Argentina was governed first by President Néstor Kirchner, and then by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who sought to supplant closeness with the US by looking for intimacy with countries such as China and Russia.
Repetto considers Obama's visit a success for Macri's administration in terms of improving Argentina's foreign affairs image.
"[Obama's visit] is the trophy. For the US it's an opportunity to have an ally that can generate changes in the region," he said. He was speaking particularly about increasing Latin American pressure on Venezuela's populist left-wing government headed by President Nicolás Maduro.
Macri's reconnection with the US during his first three months in office has been aided by his pro-business policies, such as the elimination of the import and foreign currency restrictions enacted under former president Fernández.
But these same policies are also generating problems for the president at home, according to economic analyst Alejandro Rebossio, author of Estoy Verde, or I'm Green, a book about Argentina's obsession with the US dollar. Since Macri's election, the Argentine peso has lost around 50 percent of its value, making traditional products like Argentine beef and wheat more expensive, and around 30,000 government employees have been let go.
Macri has agreed to keep certain restrictions in place for sensitive sectors that compete in international markets, a strategy that may be influenced by his career as a businessman working for his father's construction and auto manufacturing company under what Rebossio calls "hyper-protectionist policies" of the mid-80s.
"For now, Macri doesn't have a philosophy of destroying the Argentine industry like Menem," said Rebossio. Menem pegged the Argentine peso to the dollar during the 90s and eliminated almost all efforts to regulate private business. His policies led to the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina, the largest default in its history.
Under Fernández, 13 million residents of Buenos Aires received a subsidy that kept their monthly electricity bill artificially low. The Macri government claims that the subsidy will remain in place for the poor but, because of the lack of reliable statistics, no one is sure how many people that will include.
Without the subsidy, electricity bills are expected to skyrocket as high as 500 percent, according to Rebossio. This puts more money in the government's pocket and decreases the national deficit.
"Ending the subsidy lessens the country's deficit, and foreign investors are watching that carefully," Rebossio said. "A country with a big deficit isn't a good investment. This makes Argentina more attractive."
In an effort to become even more attractive, and to the chagrin of many Argentines, Macri's government reached a deal this month with its remaining debt holdouts, commonly called vulture funds, 15 years after Menem's default. The $4.65 billion agreement is a drastic change in strategy from the last administration.
Around 75 percent of companies holding Argentine debt from the crisis reached a repayment agreement with the government in 2005. A further 18 percent reached a deal by 2010. The remaining seven percent, including Elliott Management led by Paul Singer, a US hedge fund manager, refused these repayment agreements and instead sued Argentina in a New York Federal Court. Singer's patience was rewarded this month. The Wall Street Journal estimates he will be paid roughly 10 to 15 times his original investment.
"This agreement is disgusting for Argentina and for the rest of the world," said Rebossio, the economic analyst. "This remaining seven percent are going to be paid much more than what they held originally. But, if we believe that the people in congress represent the Argentine people, they voted yes."
It adds up to a dramatic shift and a high-stakes gamble for Macri as he underlines the good relations with the US are central to his government's efforts to attract more foreign investment.
But as the visit unfolds it is clear that the relationship carries with it the weight of history.
"Here we had carnal relations, we sent troops to a far away war in the Gulf, we were isolated," said Repetto, the political analyst. "Now we have a very adolescent relationship with the US, a love-hate relationship."
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