(IPS) After a decade of bilateral tension, the presidents of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, and the United States, Barack Obama, resumed the friendship between the two countries, which could lead to a free trade treaty and a “universal” alliance.
“The United States stands ready to work with Argentina through this historic transition in any way that we can,” said Obama, in the first official visit by a U.S. president to this South American country since 1995, on Wednesday, Mar. 23 and Thursday, Mar. 24, after his historic three-day visit to Cuba.
Former president George W. Bush (2001-2009) visited in 2005, but to participate in the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, where the United States’ dream of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was buried.
“We see (Obama’s visit) as a gesture of affection, friendship, at a time when Argentina is embarking towards a new horizon and new changes,” Macri said Wednesday in a joint press conference in the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.
“Please feel at home,” said the centre-right Argentine president, in office since December, setting the tone for the new relations between Buenos Aires and Washington, which he said would be “mature, intelligent, and constructive.”
During the visit, several agreements on security, cooperation in the fight against the drug trade, and investment were signed, in a show of the new era.
By contrast, relations with Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) of the Front for Victory – the left-leaning faction of the Peronist (Justicialist) party – were marked by clashes. In an interview ahead of his visit, Obama said Fernández’s “government policies were always anti-American.”
The tension between the countries peaked during the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata.
“We have to remember that on that occasion, Argentina actually said ‘no’ to the FTAA,” political scientist Juan Manuel Karg, of the University of Buenos Aires, told IPS.
But now Latin America’s third-largest economy and the United States have not only launched a new era of friendship but are seeking to knock down barriers to negotiate, for example, a bilateral free trade deal, as Obama indicated.
“One of the main things made clear was the United States’ interest in Argentina, and in Latin America as a whole, in the search for free trade agreements,” said Karg.
Argentina is a member of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc, along with Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Macri clarified that in order to reach an eventual bilateral agreement, it would be necessary to “strengthen Mercosur” before considering “a broader accord.”
“Despite its limitations and the slow pace of the progress it has made, Mercosur is still the most powerful economic bloc in South America, which rejected the FTAA not many years ago, in a context of the search for autonomy and integration among equals,” former foreign minister Jorge Taiana (2005-2010), now a lawmaker and the president of the Mercosur parliament, Parlasur, told IPS.
“The change of government in Argentina and the difficult political and economic situation in Venezuela and Brazil undoubtedly point to a change and a renewed presence of the United States, which wants to have a larger influence in regional decisions again,” he said.
In Karg’s view, “there is a possibility that Argentina will sign a free trade agreement with the United States in the medium term.”
But he said it could be a broader agreement, if there are changes of government in Brazil and Venezuela, or “a flexibilisation in Mercosur, with the aim of making Argentina a fulcrum between that block and the Pacific Alliance (made up of Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico),” which also have agreements with the United States.
In 2015, Argentina had a 4.7 billion dollar deficit in trade with the United States, with imports totalling more than 7.6 billion dollars and exports nearly 3.4 billion.
But now Obama, who was accompanied by a large business delegation, promised to expand investment, given Argentina’s new openness.
“A country that reduces tariffs, opens up to imports, strikes down export taxes, and frees up the market becomes more attractive to foreign investors,” the director of the Southern Cone edition of the Le Monde Diplomatique newspaper, José Natanson, commented to IPS. “I think foreign direct investment will increase.”
“I believe that what we see in this case is obviously a change in the Argentine government’s foreign policy, one of the areas where the difference is the most marked, with respect to ‘Kirchnerism’,” he said.
Under Kirchner and Fernández, a priority was given to relations with partners like China and Russia.
Macri, on the other hand, promised to “insert Argentina in the world.”
Since Macri took office, Argentina has also been visited by the prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, and French President François Hollande.
“With Obama’s visit, Macri has reasserted his interest in privileged ties with the United States, which harks back to the 1990s, when the government of Carlos Menem had a privileged relationship with that country,” Taiana said.
The former foreign minister said the new government’s renegotiation with the “vulture funds” also helped smooth things over.
“Argentina put up resistance to this before, but now Macri decided to pay back the vulture funds. This removes the biggest discrepancy between Argentina and the United States,” he said.
Obama praised Macri’s “constructive approach,” which he said would “stabilise Argentina’s financial relationship internationally” and “heighten Argentina’s influence on the world stage in settings like the G20 (group of advanced and emerging economies).”
But for Obama, who called for Argentina and the United States to become “universal allies,” the alliance could also stretch to the promotion of “civil liberties, independent judiciaries, government transparency and accountability” and even the fight against terrorism.
Referring to the recent attacks in Brussels, “Obama was very emphatic” when he said he would call on U.S. allies “to take measures against the Islamic State,” said Karg.
“By becoming a privileged partner of the United States at this new moment in history, Argentina also has to assume what it means to be an ally at a ‘universal’ level, and especially during a moment of geopolitical turmoil,” he said.
Human rights forced itself onto the agenda
The second and last day of Obama’s visit was Mar. 24, the 40th anniversary of the coup that ushered in Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which left 30,000 people “disappeared.”
In the face of protests by human rights groups because Obama’s visit coincided with the anniversary of this dark page in Argentine history, the president decided to spend the afternoon in the tourist city of Bariloche in the country’s southern Patagonian region.
But before flying there, he reiterated his pledge to declassify new intelligence and military archives that can shed light on U.S. support for the Argentine de facto regime.
And the last activity on his official agenda was a visit to Remembrance Park, to pay homage to the victims of Argentina’s “dirty war”.
At the memorial, surrounded by photos and names of the victims of forced disappearance, he criticised the role played by his country in supporting dictatorships in Argentina and other countries in the region, which he described as “those dark days.”
“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for. And we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here,” Obama said.
“We cannot forget the past,” he said, before stating “when we find the courage to confront it, and we find the courage to change that past, that’s when we build a better future.”
Taiana said “I think this is Obama’s way of trying to show a change in U.S. policy with respect to the repression and its past commitment to the dictatorship.”
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes