Obama Plays the Long Game in Latin America
On Thursday, March 24, the 40th anniversary of the last Argentine coup d’état, a large crowd filled Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with shouts of “nunca más,” “never again.” They were referring to the U.S.-supported Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 and the repression that characterized it: the imprisonment, torture, and murder of political opposition on a mass scale. “Never again,” then, to such oppression, and “never again” to the overthrow of democracy—the last coup was the sixth in Argentina’s brief history. But President Obama’s visit to Argentina, the first such U.S. presidential visit to the country in decades, added another shade: “never again” to U.S. interventionism in the region.
For activists like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and H.I.J.O.S., two groups that represent the relatives of those killed or forcibly disappeared under the dictatorship, the timing of the president’s visit was an opportunity to demand action and request an extensive declassification on the U.S. involvement in the junta’s activities. For newly inaugurated Argentine President Mauricio Macri, it was an occasion to put to bed the rumors that he was just another right-wing millionaire looking to prevent past right-wing leaders from being brought to justice. And for Obama, the anniversary was an occasion to put the memory of American imperialism in Latin America behind the region.
It seemed like each party got what they wanted. First, the Obama administration granted the request for declassification. “I hope this gesture also helps to rebuild trust that may have been lost between our two countries,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Macri at the Argentine executive mansion, Casa Rosada. “That’s a principal message that I have not only for Argentina but for the entire hemisphere.” Then, on the day of the anniversary, Obama and Macri visited Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park), where 20,000 victims of the junta are memorialized on a long wall near the Río de la Plata that serves as the final resting place for many of them. In his remarks at the memorial, Obama acknowledged the Ford administration’s support for the Argentine junta, but he also praised the U.S. shift toward defending human rights in Argentina under the Carter administration thanks to diplomats like Tex Harris and Patt Derian.
Still, for many Argentines, these wounds are too fresh to be fully healed—let alone by an Argentine president they don’t yet trust. Gastón Chillier and Ernesto Semán detailed human-rights concerns with the Macri administration in an op-ed in the New York Times on the day of Obama’s visit to Argentina, a visit they say “is already an endorsement” for Macri. They write that the new administration has implemented measures “that have weakened the rule of law on the pretext of security, economic freedom and the war on drugs,” such as empowering police to crack down on protesters and using national emergency status to shoot down unidentified planes suspected of drug trafficking.
Argentines are also unlikely to trust any American president. “There is a sense of déjà vu in all of this,” Graciela Mochkofsky wrote in The New Yorker. “Sixteen years ago, another outgoing Democratic President, Bill Clinton, announced the first-ever declassification of diplomatic records relating to the Argentine dictatorship.” Like Clinton, Obama took advantage of a neoliberal, centrist turn in Latin America to promote U.S.-friendly economic policies. Like Clinton, he used human rights as a sign of goodwill.
These concerns, however justly founded, mainly testify to the political polarization Obama was tasked with navigating. According to Argentine polling organization Poliarquía, 64% of Argentines who voted for President Macri view the U.S. positively, while only 24% of those who voted for his opposition (left-wing Kirchner loyalist Daniel Scioli) do—and Macri only won last year’s presidential runoff vote by 2.5 percent. Obama needed to recognize the past without prematurely setting up Macri as a human-rights hero, disrespecting Argentines’ justifiable skepticism, or seeming opportunistic. While he was never going to be able to satisfy all parties, Obama handled the situation with grace.
To start, Obama got the demeanor right. For instance, his remarks in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative town hall were fairly routine, full of classic multiculturalism—Americans need to tune in to the “global community,” he said, expressing a desire for better foreign-language education in the U.S.—but to the young Argentines who participated, like Esteban Rafele, the president was a “rock star.” Throughout the trip, Obama made endearing cultural references: he tried the Argentine infusion mate; name-dropped famous Argentines like Pope Francis, soccer player Lionel Messi, and writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar; now-infamously danced the tango; and even appealed to the “frontier spirit” of American cowboys and Argentine gauchos alike. These seem like small, irrelevant details, the basics of how any president should try to build camaraderie while abroad. Compared to the larger policy shifts at stake, they are.
But style points matter in any political transition, and Argentina’s current one in particular. Taos Turner observed in the Wall Street Journal that while former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave colorful, hours-long speeches railing against critics, Macri meets often with opposition. As he told Turner, “This is a government that doesn’t think it has all the answers.” The way Macri carries himself is much more akin to Obama’s own manner, and marks something of a departure from the personality-driven, often blustery politics of the now-faltering Latin American new left. By tacitly endorsing this administration with such a fraternal visit, Obama is sending a signal of support to the protesters capsizing the new-left political establishment across South America. Follow Argentina’s political lead, and American partnership—with all of its economic benefits—could be headed your way.
If human rights dominated the ceremonial part of the visit, economic partnership was at the heart of the policymaking part. Obama and Macri signed agreements to cooperate on trade and investment with an emphasis on agricultural exchange, as well as crime, security, public works, and facilitating tourism. The agreements affirm Macri’s turn toward the center, a massive economic policy shift that has Argentines feeling equal parts nervous and hopeful. In Macri’s incredibly active first days as president, Nick Miroff detailed in the Washington Post, he lifted the previous administration’s currency controls and export taxes while cutting electrical subsidies, leaving Argentina with a dramatically devalued peso, high food prices, and even higher utility bills. “Macri and his team of economic advisers, many of whom bring Ivy League pedigrees and Wall Street résumés, insist that these shocks are one-time bitter pills to fix a badly distorted economy,” Miroff explained, but Argentina is not in the habit of trusting American-style economics. After a bitter end to the failed protectionism of the Kirchners, however, any change is welcome.
Obama’s visit underscores two major victories for Macri’s administration, and Argentina as a whole. First, American corporations, while suffering in the short-term, are now more confident about long-term success in their business dealings with Argentina in the wake of Macri’s reforms. Meanwhile, Macri’s proposed settlement with Argentina’s American creditors is poised to finally put an end to the 15-year saga that spun the country into default. The result in both cases is a desperately needed influx of foreign currency that will, if all goes according to plan, stem the inflation that plagues the Argentine economy. By improving Argentina’s relationship with the U.S. as well as its finances, Macri’s administration aims to reestablish the country’s place in world markets and declare it “open for business.”
One crucial step, as James M. Roberts and George A. Margulies indicated in a Heritage Foundation report, will be mending Argentina’s tense relations with the International Monetary Fund, blamed somewhat inaccurately for the 2001 crisis that destroyed the Argentine economy. The memory of that 2001 crisis, and the neoliberal, U.S.-friendly era that preceded it, is cause for caution as Argentina gives free-market liberalism another go. But Taos Turner noted that circumstances are significantly improved since the 1990s, and friendlier to success on both sides this time around. “Obama visits an Argentina that is much more than beef and soy. It produces nuclear reactors, satellites, and is a top cultural content exporter.” If, as Nick Miroff wrote, Argentina serves once again as a bellwether for U.S. relations with Latin America, the turn toward free-trade cooperation in the region could prove a major source of economic growth on both ends of the continent.
It’s a smart pivot for the U.S., which is why it isn’t the only country making it. According to CNN Money, China has stepped up its economic activity in the region, lending nearly $30 billion to Latin American governments last year and investing an additional $35 billion in infrastructure projects. By getting rid of the cudgel of past imperialism and taking advantage of an openness to trade, Obama is paving the way for the U.S. to be an influence in a region its history and ideological stubbornness kept it out of—without necessarily incurring the financial liabilities that China is. The Argentina visit is the kind of smart, long-game diplomacy the United States needs more of.
All of this speaks to the short-sightedness of the criticism Obama faced for the optics of his Latin America trip. Photo ops at a baseball game in Cuba and tango dancing in Argentina juxtaposed poorly with the mourning in Brussels, no doubt, but the Brussels attacks and discussion of ISIS as a “top priority” dominated Obama and Macri’s joint press conference anyway. Further, the Pentagon’s announcement that the U.S. had killed top ISIS commander Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli while Obama was in Latin America this week ought to have put paid to the criticism. (“I guess Obama can tango and chew gum at the same time,” Julia Ioffe quipped.)
Ultimately, the U.S. media’s constant focus on ISIS during Obama’s various remarks was taken as yet another reminder to Latin America that the region will always play second (or third, or fourth) fiddle on the world stage. “Like it or not, Argentina is not part of a priority agenda for the U.S.,” Argentine economist Mercedes D’Alessandro tweeted. She continued, “The priority today in the world is what happened in Brussels and terrorist threats. Obviously, in Argentina there is another priority.” Obama rid the United States of one outdated ideological obstacle this week in Latin America, but the country is holding on to so many that it may not notice the lost weight.
Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.