Obama's visit to reset US ties with Argentina

US President Barack Obama (in white shirt) and, at his left, Cuban President Raul Castro at an exhibition game between the Cuban and US baseball teams in Havana on Tuesday. The US leader travelled to Argentina after his historic Cuban visit.
US President Barack Obama (in white shirt) and, at his left, Cuban President Raul Castro at an exhibition game between the Cuban and US baseball teams in Havana on Tuesday. The US leader travelled to Argentina after his historic Cuban visit.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

As well as boosting trade, trip may help US make amends for backing past dictatorship

BUENOS AIRES • US President Barack Obama yesterday arrived in Argentina to reset diplomatic relations and strengthen trade ties with a country that was part of South America's left-wing bloc until pro-business President Mauricio Macri took power in December.

Mr Obama's two-day visit marks a rapprochement after years of sour relations and is a sign of support for Mr Macri's investor-friendly reforms aimed at opening up Latin America's third-biggest economy.

Mr Obama and his family landed in Buenos Aires shortly after 1am and were met by Argentina's foreign minister, Ms Susana Malcorra, before being whisked away to the US ambassador's residence.

The US leader was scheduled to hold talks with Mr Macri ahead of a joint press conference yesterday. He would also lay a wreath at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, where Pope Francis has celebrated Mass, and meet young entrepreneurs before attending a state dinner.

French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also recently visited Argentina, quick to reach out to a South American leader whose predecessor forged closer ties with Venezuela, Iran and China.

WELCOME

It's good that Obama is visiting. Closing ourselves off in a Chavez-like system was not the way to go.

MR CLAUDIO MAZZAKALLI, a locksmith, referring to Venezuela's former socialist president, Mr Hugo Chavez.

"It's good that Obama is visiting. Closing ourselves off in a Chavez-like system was not the way to go," said Mr Claudio Mazzakalli, a 32- year-old locksmith, referring to Venezuela's former socialist president, Mr Hugo Chavez.

In his first 100 days in office, Mr Macri lifted capital and trade controls, slashed bloated power subsidies and cut a debt deal with "holdout" creditors in the United States. US officials say Mr Obama has been impressed by the pace of reform.

Yet Mr Macri still has to grapple with double-digit inflation, a yawning fiscal deficit and a shortage of hard currency.

Luring foreign investors is a cornerstone of his strategy to revive the spluttering economy, and Mr Obama arrives with a large business delegation in tow.

Left-wing political parties have promised protests during Mr Obama's visit, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the coup on March 24, 1976, that installed the "dirty war" military junta.

Some are wary of too warm a detente with Washington, an early supporter of the bloody 1976-1983 dictatorship. "The timing of the visit is a provocation," said Mr Miguel Funes, 39, a lawmaker from former president Cristina Fernandez's Front for Victory party.

The US initially backed the dictatorship, which killed up to 30,000 people in a crackdown against Marxist rebels, labour unions and leftist opponents. Many were "forcibly disappeared" - a euphemism for kidnapped and murdered - and hundreds of children were stolen from their imprisoned parents.

The US announced last week it would declassify documents from its military and intelligence agencies related to the dictatorship, a move aimed at soothing criticism over the timing of the trip. Mr Obama will also honour the victims of the dictatorship today before flying to Patagonia.

Mr Carlos Guglielmi, a bank worker, welcomed the thaw in relations but said his main concern is Mr Macri's economic reforms. "It's good that Macri has Obama's support. But what he needs is the support of the Argentine people," said Mr Guglielmi.

"If he governs only for the rich and keeps cutting state spending, his popularity won't last."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Obama's visit to reset US ties with Argentina'. Print Edition | Subscribe