US President Barack Obama will visit Argentina on the 23rd and 24th of March. From the US government’s outlook, the central objective for Obama’s visit is the restoration of a damaged bilateral agenda over the previous decade. In the years of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández administrations, there was, especially after the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata in November 2005, a gradual deterioration of US Argentine relations was reflected in the absence of bilateral contact between the presidents of the two countries. In both Néstor Kirchner’s and Cristina Fernández’s administrations, the few convergent issues between the two countries – nuclear non-proliferation, human rights promotion- coexisted with openly divergent topics like reciprocal protectionist trade barriers, the legal dispute with the holdouts in New York; and the signing of the Memorandum to resolve the AMIA terrorist attack cause between the Argentina and Iranian governments. In his last year in office Obama is set to travel to Argentina to re-initiate contact with one of a major country within the Southern Cone, to ease the historic friction seen in bilateral relations, and strengthen the US presence in the region. This presence was weakened in the 2000’s by the growing Chinese presence in the Southern Cone and the emergence of regional cooperation mechanisms not controlled by Washington like UNASUR, ALBA and CARICOM.
One of the most controversial aspects Obama’s visit is that the trip coincides with the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup on March 24, which has been widely criticized by leftist groups with links to human rights protection. This is a bad and unintended coincidence: Obama wants to extend the political reach of his trip to Cuba and make contact with a Southern Cone country previously unvisited by him. For many sectors within the Argentine left, the Obama administration represents a country that has been complicit in human rights violations committed by the military regime in the 1970s and neoliberal socioeconomic adjustment plans from 1975 onwards. This view has its share of truth, but is also guilty of oversimplification. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ambassador in Buenos Aires Robert Hill were bad partners in those human rights violations. But this was not the case of Ford successor’s in White House, the Democrat President Jimmy Carter, his secretary of Human Rights Patricia Derian, and many US legislators who adopted measures condemning Argentina’s military dictatorship violations of human rights. Obama, fully aware of the multiple external and internal problems associated with the United States, the greater degree of autonomy acquired by the countries of the Latin American Southern Cone in the 2000’s and the importance of regional partners, will discuss an agenda of issues of selective bilateral cooperation with Macri’s government. The coinciding of Obama’s visit with the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Argentina seems to be a conscious one and has potential to serve as an opportunity to demonstrate their personal commitment to human rights’ cause.
From the new Argentine’s government outlook, Obama’s visit can open a window of opportunity to capitalize on the favorable international expectations that generated the change of government in Argentina and the initial steps taken by the Macri administration: the reported end of the tax on exports (retenciones) and the agreement with the holdouts. Obama’s trip to Argentina can be an additional good sign for foreign entrepreneurs and other actors linked to the international capital that see, with cautious optimism, the economic measures taken by the new Argentine government.
As the current Argentine ambassador in Washington Martín Lousteau said, Macri’s government seeks to build a pattern of “mature relationship” with the United States, equidistant from the foreign policy of extremism in alignment and confrontation. In other words, Macri’s administration’s intention is to build an agenda for selective cooperation with the United States. A bilateral agenda where issues of cooperation existing between US and Argentina in the Kirchners era (nuclear non-proliferation, the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism) will be deepen without the strong alignment adopted during the two Menem administrations. An agenda where issues of divergence between the two countries will exist without the aggressive and confrontational tone of the Kirchner administrations. Macri claims against Obama by the effect of protectionist measures affecting exports of lemons from Tucuman and other regional production, while seeking to build a bond of cooperation around common themes of the US-Argentine agenda: human rights and democracy promotion, nuclear non-proliferation, and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and climate change.
To conclude, it is incredibly dangerous to draw too optimistic of a conclusion on the impact of Obama’s visit to Argentina, however an overly pessimistic conclusion would be equally counterproductive. This visit will be not magically attract US investment to the Argentine market, but will be help to remove existing trade and investment barriers and start the construction of a selective agenda of bilateral cooperation. It not will be a return to Argentine alignment with the United States of the 2000s, as argued by many domestic leftist groups. If we look at the speeches and actions taken by Macri’s foreign policy officials, they are seeking the diversification of external partners, not folding to a certain select group of countries.
By the way, the end of the Obama presidency, the arrival of two possible less pragmatic candidates than Obama at the White House (Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump by Republicans), the crisis of our principal regional partner, Brazil, the existence of US and Argentina’s protectionists barriers are storm clouds on this bilateral cooperation. Like the title of former Beatle Paul McCartney song, the future of selective cooperation bilateral agenda will be a long and winding road.
Obama’s visit may be the beginning of the end for the existing ambivalent bilateral relationship, with many moments of tension and few of mutually beneficial cooperation. It could be the starting point of a mature relationship or not. It will depend on the imagination and the degree of good or bad will demonstrated by the numerous state and private actors involved in the complex Argentine-US relationship.