Obama is coming! Obama is coming! Yes, that’s all we’re talking about because he’s the first US President to make a visit to the country in 19 years (not counting George W. Bush’s presence at the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, which wasn’t technically a State visit). As a new era of bilateral relations is to begin, The Bubble walks you through the history of US-Argentine relations from Argentine Presidents Menem to Macri. If you’re thinking to yourself, “What about everything before the ’90s?” we’ll get into that in another Bubble article soon.
Argentine-US bilateral relations have typically been like a pendulum swinging from love to hate from one administration to another, and sometimes even within a single administration.
During the 19th Century, the country prioritized its relations with Great Britain and Western Europe, particularly on the economic front, largely ignoring the rest of Latin America and rejecting the US’s pan-American ideology.
The US, for its part, applied a diplomatic strategy of “dominance and discipline” to Latin America throughout the 20th Century. US diplomat and strategist George Kennan, who came up with the “containment” doctrine seeking to block Soviet influence as a way to avoid communism “spreading” globally, considered it paramount that Latin America be kept away from any communist sentiment or pressure from the Soviet Union.
Thus, during the Cold War and the widespread proxy wars that were fought in its wake, the US provided strategic support to military juntas in various Latin American countries under the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Operation Condor. To this day, there remains a good dose of anti-US sentiment for these historical reasons.
Onto a case-by-case analysis under the country’s most recent presidents.
Carlos S. Menem (1989-1999)
The most famous description of US-Argentine relations under Menem came from Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella, who referred to them as “carnal relations.” Yes, as in the two countries making love. Di Tella staunchly defended the phrase but admitted 10 years later that “it was stupid” to say that.
According to scholars Roberto Russell and Juan Tokatlian, the Menemist administration perceived the previous rejection of the US as intrinsically harmful to Argentina and thus aligned itself with the US “due to a mixture of [the State’s relative] weakness, the need [for political power and economic resources] and opportunity.”
Argentina’s shift in foreign policy was well received in the US: the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies, dismantling the Condor II missile and Argentina’s early involvement in the Gulf War of 1990 improved bilateral relationship. In addition, Argentina ramped up its presence in international forums such as the United Nations (the 1994 reform of the Argentine Constitution includes an excerpt taken directly from the UN Declaration of Human Rights). Its active participation in peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid, particularly the formation of the humanitarian force of the White Helmets, were seen as moves that improved Argentina’s international image and forged more trust between the two countries.
Despite converging on several issues such as human rights, drug trafficking and nuclear non-proliferation, the two countries often clashed on subjects such as the US embargo on Cuba, the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the creation of the International Criminal Court.
Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001)
Former President Fernando de la Rúa is best remembered for leaving the country in a helicopter when Argentina plummeted into economic and social chaos in the 2001 crisis (case in point, five Presidents took office and resigned in the week following de la Rúa’s exit) and in fact, this crisis implied a turning point for US-Argentine relations.
Let’s back up a bit. During former President Menem’s administrations, Argentina’s GDP grew but the country also incurred a huge amount of debt. In the ’90s, Argentina maintained its famous “AR $1 to US $1” exchange rate. Despite the government’s efforts, the dollar appreciated, Argentina’s exports became less competitive and then the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. All of this implied a depletion in Argentina’s foreign reserves, forcing the country to eventually abandon the 1 to 1 currency. Because the debt was incurred in US dollars, it became increasingly difficult to pay the debt.
While the Clinton administration helped Argentina out, George W. Bush’s administration was less sympathetic and decided to refrain from continuing to financially support Argentina via the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While Clinton had backed a US $20 billion package, under Bush the IMF halted all financial support in November 2001. A month later, Argentina defaulted on its debt of US $132 billion.
Among the myriad of consequences of the crisis was the perception that the US had betrayed Argentina by not helping it out in its time of need.
Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007)
Former President Néstor Kirchner came to the presidency at a time when nobody could have envied his position. As far as the US was concerned, the era of the Menemist “special relations” had came to a definite end: between Argentina’s perceived “betrayal” of the US, Kirchner’s staunch human rights agenda (in which the US did not stand favorably) and his explicit rejection of the IMF and neo-liberal policies that led to the 2001 crisis, there was little on which the bilateral relations could improve.
Hostility toward the IMF and the US was most apparent in the 4th Summit of the Americas (ALCA) of 2005, held in Mar del Plata. The talks failed to reach a regional trade deal but most importantly, various leaders showed reluctance and even outright rejection of the pan-American policies that had previously been applied by the region and spearheaded by the US. The criticisms began with Kirchner’s speech as host of the summit and culminated in former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s infamous chant of “ALCA… ALCA… Al carajo!” (“ALCA… ALCA… fuck ALCA,” with the added advantage that in Spanish it comes out as a pun).
“It is not about ideology, not even about policy, it’s about facts and results […] the results of the prescriptions that we criticize are those that were seen reflected in the [2001 crisis] and the fall of several democratic governments of the region,” said Kirchner.
“Simply to sign an agreement will not be […] a direct path to prosperity […] In this sense […] I continue to believe that in terms of regional leadership, [the US], its nation, its country has an inescapable and inexcusable responsibility [for] the context of asymmetries that has brought so much instability to the region.”
Remember Kennan’s policy of “dominance and discipline?” That’s precisely what Kirchner slammed, with Bush sitting right in front of him, as you can see in the video.
“[The US’s] role as a world power is undeniable. This is not [an opinion], it is a reality. We believe that the responsible exercise of that role must necessarily consider that [previous] policies that were applied not only brought misery and poverty […] but also increased regional institutional instability that brought down democratically elected governments amidst violent popular reactions, an instabilisy still being suffered by our brother countries.”
Let’s just say that the relationship kind of went downhill from there.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015)
With the arrival of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, bilateral relations took a turn for the worst, with the head of state adopting an even more hostile tone in multinational forums such as the UN. Cristina also forged closer ties to Chávez as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA), an intergovernmental organization that seeks the union of Latin America and the Caribbean under Simón Bolivar’s ideology of one “Great Nation.” The move was inherently anti-US as the organization rejects what it perceives as “US imperialism” in the region.
This general tendency did not change with the arrival of Barack Obama’s administration in 2008. Last week, US President Barack Obama gave an interview on CNN Español in which he talked about US relations with Latin America, basically criticizing Cristina and showing optimism for US-Argentine bilateral relations under President Mauricio Macri.
“I saw President Fernández frequently at the G-20 or similar events. We had a cordial relationship but with respect to her politics she was always anti-American [with a] rhetoric that probably dates from the 1960s or 1970s and not from reality,” he continued.
Mauricio Macri (2015 – Present)
You may be thinking, “But Macri has only been in office for 100 days!” Even so, the Cambiemos administration has made some significant changes to differentiate itself from the previous administration. Lifting the restrictions on the dollar (the cepo), reaching an agreement with the holdouts and explicitly calling for better relations imply a 180 degree shift in foreign policy regarding the US. The current ambassador to the US, Martín Lousteau, described the relationship as a “teenage” one and said that it was time for it to basically grow up.
Speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations last month, Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra stated that the two countries need to “sit down” and “broaden the agenda” as well as make Argentina a more predictable player in the international sphere.
“We don’t believe in ‘carnal relations.’ We don’t believe that that is mature in any — with any country and by any country in the world. We believe in serious, predictable, mature relations, where we agree, I’m sure, on many aspects of our common agenda, and we may agree to disagree on others. I think as long as we tell each other where we disagree and we don’t surprise each other, that is fine,” Malcorra said.
“The US is the largest power in the world. One cannot deny that relating to the US is very important. We will have common interests most of the time, and we will live with our differences when that has to happen,” she continued.
Those, at least, are the objectives. With Obama’s visit inaugurating a new stage in US-Argentine relations next week, the reality is yet to be seen.