Most of the attention on President Obama’s upcoming trip to Latin America is focused on his March 21-22 historic trip to Cuba, the first time a U.S. president will set foot on the island since 1928. But for U.S. interests in the region, the more important trip is to Argentina, which he will visit after Cuba.
The opportunity to work with the Southern Cone country on common issues such as the support of human rights in the hemisphere represents a real window of opportunity for collaboration in the hemisphere, but that window may close quickly.
Obama’s visit to Cuba will crown the restoration of diplomatic ties after five decades of Cold War politics and celebrate the relaxation of travel and trade restrictions. Yet despite Obama’s intention to improve the lives of the Cuban people, the Cuban government has already made it clear that Obama should not meddle in the country’s internal affairs. The most that the Obama administration could have ever accomplished on U.S. policy towards Cuba seems to be behind Obama, not in front of him. All things considered, symbolism rather than substance is likely to be the visit’s name of the game.
But, right after Cuba, Obama will go on a two-day visit to Argentina—a country that, in the near future, appears to be the most receptive and consequential partner to U.S. interests in the region. Brazil is in the midst of a political and economic crisis with no end in sight. Venezuela is living in a permanent state of economic, political and institutional crisis. Mexico’s agenda with the United States is multidimensional, but it seems to be drowning in drug trafficking and security concerns. And the U.S. record in fighting the drug war in Colombia is far from clear, despite billions spent throughout decades of support.
That leaves Argentina, the third largest Latin American economy and the country that, with the recent change in government, has explicitly signaled interest in cooperating with Washington on issues ranging from trade and investment to the environment, drug trafficking and citizen security.
After twelve years of diplomatic disengagement with the White House in favor of deepening ties with China, Russia and Venezuela, Argentina is now led by a center-right president—Mauricio Macri—with a strong preference for bringing Argentina back into the orbit of the Western world as soon as possible.
Immediately after taking power in December, Macri set about crafting Argentina’s re-engagement with the West during a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos (a forum no Argentine president had bothered to attend in ten years). While there, Macri held meetings with actors ranging from executives of Coca-Cola and Facebook to the one-time bête noir of the previous administration, the IMF, and even with U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden.
Far from a public relations tour, Macri made a number of key announcements at Davos, signaling a real change in Argentine foreign policy. First, the new president announced that Argentina will now welcome IMF evaluations on the country’s economic performance—something that hasn’t happened since the early 2000s. Second, Macri declared that Argentina will cooperate closely with the United States in fighting drug trafficking. Third, he claimed that his government was ready to settle, once and for all, Argentina’s defaulted debt with the so-called “hold outs” or in Kirchner-speak the “vulture funds.” Fourth, Argentina’s new government promised to extensively review all bilateral agreements signed with Russia and China during the last decade, particularly a number of secret clauses known only by former President Cristina Kirchner and, arguably, her inner circle. Finally, and crucially for U.S. hopes of generating regional pressure for meaningful reform in Havana and Caracas, Macri has chosen to denounce human rights violations on the part of Venezuelan President Maduro’s government.
These shifts represent a marked departure from Argentina’s foreign policy under Kirchnerismo. As a matter of policy, under the 13 year-reign of the Kirchners the government had refused to comment on the human rights situations in Cuba and Venezuela.
What does all of this mean for the United States?
The first thing American policymakers need to keep in mind is that the recent pendulum swing in Argentina’s foreign policy fits neatly within a historical pattern in Argentina. Since the advent of democracy in 1983, Argentina swung from working against U.S. Central American policies in the mid-1980s to fighting alongside American forces during the first Gulf War in 1991. Then it swung from spearheading efforts together with the United States to negotiate and implement a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in the late 1990s, to working vociferously against it since 2003. And, now, the country is swinging back, yet again, from close relations with Russia, China and the Bolivarian axis, to what seems to be a cooperative stance toward the White House and American interests in the region more broadly.
Each of these shifts in policy occurred based on deliberately calculated interests by the government in power. But they were easy to implement because, in the making of Argentina’s major foreign policy decisions, presidents get to make policy as they see fit—unconstrained by the influence of other domestic actors. Data show, for example, that Brazil and Chile have policy preferences regarding the United States that are not significantly less polarized than those in Argentina.
But in Brazil and Chile, presidents are in the habit of making of foreign policy with their ministries of foreign affairs and other domestic actors. In Argentina, they are not. This was the case during the government of Raúl Alfonsín in the 1980s, during that of Carlos Menem in the ‘90s, and during that of the Kirchners’ at the turn of the twenty-first century. Every time a new Argentine president comes into office, he or she implements a new foreign policy free of input and interference from other interests. What that means is that whenever Macri leaves the Casa Rosada, his foreign policy preferences are likely to leave with him.
It is too early to tell whether Macri will be re-elected in 2019. In the Argentine context, even completing his first term would be a historical accomplishment; he would be the first non-Peronist president to do so since the return of democracy in the early 1980s.
On foreign policy Macri appears to be a trustworthy negotiating partner. Already since Davos, the government has reached a final agreement with the “hold outs,” and Macri has kept up the pressure on human rights violations in Venezuela. But the president would do well to allow other actors such as Congress and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meaningfully influence the making of the country’s most important foreign policy decisions. Giving them a stake in the country’s new foreign policy direction would help institutionalize the new agenda and increase Argentina’s international credibility during future negotiations.
The United States, for its part, should seize this opportunity to work closely with Macri in the handling of hemispheric issues. U.S. policymakers would also do well to keep in mind that the time is now, and that the window of opportunity for making the most out of its relationship with Argentina is not likely to be open forever.
Mariano Bertucci is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University.