Obama’s other Latin America trip

Starting on March 20, President Obama will be traveling to Cuba and Argentina. The historic trip to Cuba, a culminating point in the U.S.-Cuba normalization process and the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years, is certainly momentous and has already drawn a good deal of attention. But President Obama’s visit to Buenos Aires and meetings with newly-elected President Mauricio Macri are also momentous for a very different reason. Whereas normalization of relations with Cuba removes (among other things) a stumbling block to improved U.S. relations with Latin America, rapprochement with Argentina offers the prospect of rebuilding a mature working relationship with a country that was once one of the most important U.S. partners in the hemisphere.

“Carnal relations” no more

Argentina and the United States invested heavily in good relations after the end of the Cold War. This included working together on support for emerging democracies in the region and a shared economic liberalization agenda. The United States also pointed to Argentina as a regional model for democratic civil-military relations. Argentina became a global thought leader on issues related to human rights, launching a pioneering truth and reconciliation commission that became a model for other emerging democracies such as South Africa. Argentina also contributed to international security through extensive participation in international peacekeeping. And the United States recognized the value of its collaboration with Argentina by naming it a major non-NATO ally, a distinction reserved for exceptionally few countries such as Israel and South Korea. Argentina responded with a foreign policy of “automatic alignment” during the 1990s, so much so that former Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Torcuato di Tella once famously said that he sought not just close relations with the United States, but “carnal relations.”

Argentina-U.S. relations soured quickly after the 2001 financial crisis (when Argentina defaulted on $93 billion in external debt), leading to a nearly unmanageable political crisis that produced five presidents in a matter of weeks. Right or wrong, Argentines saw betrayal in the decision by the George W. Bush administration to refuse to support a bailout package for a close ally—unlike what the United States had done for Mexico in 1994 or supported for Brazil through the International Monetary Fund in 1999. 

Under the Peronist governments of Eduardo Duhalde (2002-2003), Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), relations with the United States grew distant. The two countries disagreed on economic models, on democracy, on human rights, even on coordinating responses to regional humanitarian crises. In a way, this was a return to a traditional pattern of distance from the United States that characterized Argentinean foreign policy for much of the 20th century, but that under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner acquired a much more hostile tone as she grew ever closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestras Américas (ALBA). 

Relaunching Argentina on the global stage

Newly elected President Mauricio Macri, a center-right businessman, represents an unusual choice by Argentine voters to lead a country whose politics have been dominated by the Peronist party for 70 years. Indeed, Macri has made a number of sure-footed moves in his first 100 days, taking the first steps to restore economic growth by ending a fixed currency exchange regime and resolving a long-running feud with hedge funds hoping to profit from their purchases of Argentina’s defaulted bonds for pennies on the dollar. This has renewed incentives for Argentina’s traditionally productive agroindustry to resume exports and offers the prospect of Argentina returning to international capital markets for loans to support new investments. Regionally, Macri has distanced himself from once-allies in the Bolivarian block, particularly from Venezuela over the deterioration of democracy and human rights in that country. 

Newly elected President Mauricio Macri, a center-right businessman, represents an unusual choice by Argentine voters to lead a country whose politics have been dominated by the Peronist party for 70 years.

But it has not all come up roses. Macri faces criticism at home: Some of it is merely political maneuvers, particularly from disgruntled elements of the Peronist movement that are still embittered by their loss; but there are also real domestic concerns over the impact of rising inflation and other economic pain from recently implemented adjustment measures. In a recent speech, Macri laid out the problematic inheritance from 13 years of Peronist rule and how much still remains to be done, including reforming a bloated government bureaucracy, reducing massive deficits, restoring eroded institutions, and containing high inflation. To do so, he will need the support of the more reasonable elements of the Peronist opposition, both in the legislature and among provincial governors, which means that Macri has to be careful to manage and contain Argentina’s natural bent for polarized party politics.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship?

President Obama’s trip is a critical opportunity to support positive change in Argentina and re-launch a relationship with a key swing state in the region. The foreign policy of the Macri administration is designed to end the international isolation, political and economic, that Argentina sunk into during the Kirchner years. Argentina is adopting a more independent posture in the region, both because of domestic troubles in its close partner, Brazil, and the decline of the ALBA alliance. This opens the door to greater collaboration with the United States, initially in the areas of tourism, agriculture, and energy. In addition, President Macri’s willingness to dissent from other South American presidents on the importance of democracy and human rights in the hemisphere is a welcome contrast to the reflexive regional solidarity that the United States so often encountered in the past decade.

Given Macri’s complicated political situation at home, President Obama will have to proceed judiciously during his trip. The timing of the visit has already produced an acrimonious political debate in Argentina (it coincides with the anniversary of the 1976 military coup that was at first quietly supported by the Ford administration). Moreover, despite enthusiasm in Washington for a return of good relations with Buenos Aires, few in Argentina would want to see a return to a foreign policy of “automatic alignment” with United States that prevailed in the 1990s.

President Obama would be wise to make President Macri the co-star of the show in Buenos Aires.

So President Obama would be wise to make President Macri the co-star of the show in Buenos Aires. While it is admittedly difficult for any U.S. president to share the spotlight, Obama can best support Macri at home by helping him engage Argentines in difficult conversations about the tough road ahead to renewed economic prosperity—but one that can be smoothed through improved Argentina-U.S. collaboration. 

More fundamentally, Obama’s visit marks a victory for the policy of U.S. strategic patience vis-à-vis the region’s rejectionist regimes. The Bolivarian alliance, once the subject of much hand-wringing in Washington, is falling apart in due course as the global economy turns less favorable and domestic policy failures become obvious, producing growing voter dissatisfaction and—as occurred in Argentina—changes at the ballot box. 

Moreover, the Obama visit to Buenos Aires is a welcome example of the United States leaning forward to take advantage of new opportunities to build better relations in the region rather than reacting to events. President Obama should take advantage of recent U.S. policy successes in the hemisphere to speak plainly in Buenos Aires about more than just bilateral relations. This is a moment to focus on the important contribution to global order that a prosperous, peaceful and democratic Americas can make, and the great potential that Argentina and the United States have to work together to achieve this vision.