The most memorable moment may be Barack Obama dancing Tango. On a slightly more serious note, the real significance of the US president’s visit to Argentina this week lies in the fundamental shift in Washington’s thinking on Latin America.
Obama’s journey to Cuba represented the end of the Cold War in the Americas – 25 years late maybe and much needed for that reason, but by definition yesterday’s story. Argentina, under its new government, establishes the narrative today and tomorrow, in a sub-continent moving away from populist ideologues towards leaders prioritising pragmatism and progress.
The manner in which this visit was cobbled together, over the past few weeks, speaks volumes about the way the Obama administration views Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, as a key partner and ally.
‘We’ve all been very impressed by what President Macri has been able to achieve in his first 100 days,’ Obama said after their working session at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. ‘He’s moved fast with an agenda of reform, on the economy, on accountability, on transparency, setting an example to others in Latin America… Argentina now reassumes its natural role as a leader in the region.’
To which Macri replied, confidently: ‘Your visit has a special significance for all Argentines, coming as it does at a time of such change in our country.’
Macri has shown, even in the first few weeks, that he wants a dramatically different future for a country that has been ruled for so long by the Peronist party machine. This left him a legacy of deficit, debt and rampant inflation, not to mention a reputation for being economic with the truth about almost everything, alongside its anti-Yankee voice.
The peso has been devalued, export taxes on the country’s vital agri-industries have been lifted, and a deal is in the works to settle outstanding debts from Argentina’s historic default in 2001. On the political front, Macri made it abundantly clear from day one of his tenure that he wanted nothing to do with the dictatorial regime in Venezuela, and that he was tearing up his predecessor’s controversial, secret pact with Iran.
‘Argentina is taking the economic medicine needed long ago,’ to quote one of Obama’s advisers. ‘Politically, Argentina is returning to the real world, and showing that it wants to live by the rules, be a normal country, that’s the phrase Macri’s people use. What’s not to like?’
Obama is welcoming that change of direction, be it economic, be it political. To quote one senior White House Correspondent, hearing the off-the-record briefings on Air Force One: ‘The president is making clear that President Macri is a leader we can do business with.’
Behind that, of course, is realpolitik seen from Washington. Brazil is now mired in a crisis, born of political corruption but with devastating economic consequences, and is no longer the heavyweight player in the region. The days of President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela seem numbered. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, the country’s populist president, surprisingly lost a referendum designed to keep him in power for the next decade.
And elsewhere, Washington diagnoses a broadening coalition of pragmatists, in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and now Argentina. ‘Right now Macri is the lead player, and the president came to reinforce that in person,’ says one veteran US ambassador in the party this week.
Significantly, Obama praised the manner in which Macri’s government is seeking to settle with holdout creditors in the United States. ‘A resolution of that will do much to stabilise Argentina’s relationship with the rest of the world,’ he said. Privately, the Obama administration is promising to help Macri’s government return to international capital markets, if a final deal is made.
Business will follow from this visit. Obama brought a formidable team of CEOs with him, specifically from the key sectors of energy, agri-business and petrochemicals, plus General Motors and Ford, all of them with a keen eye on investment opportunities under this new government, with the promise of $15bn in relatively short-term investment, creating more than 18,000 jobs. At the same time, Obama’s advisers are discussing ways to help boost trade and Argentina’s access to the US market.
And as in Cuba, Obama confronted the past, the president declassifying documents detailing the role the United States played when Argentina’s military seized power this week back in 1976. Indeed, before leaving with his family for a glimpse of Patagonia, Obama commemorated with Macri the very day of that military coup, a moment always of national remembrance here.
David Smith, OMFIF Advisory Board member, represented the UN Secretary-General in the Americas 2004-2010.