Old Buddies and Same Old Stories: Argentina and US relations in the Trump Era (July 2017)

Mónica Farías, University of Washington

On January 25th 2017 the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, issued Executive Orders 13767 and 13768. The former commands Customs and Border Patrol to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.” The latter enhances immigration officers’ power to initiate deportation proceedings. Two days later, on January 27th, Trump issued EO 13769 suspending the refugee program as well as the entry to the United States of America of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

On the very same day, Trump’s Argentine counterpart, President Mauricio Macri, issued Decreto de Necesidad y Urgencia 70/2017 (DNU - Decree of Need and Urgency) that reformed Argentine immigration statutes, lowering the requirements for the deportation of foreign residents while expediting the deportation process. This simultaneity could very well be just an unfortunate coincidence but what should call our immediate attention is that the content of these measures—the xenophobic targeting and racialized stereotypes that they mobilize—are strikingly similar.

According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Macri’s DNU 70/2017 reinstates the same criteria that existed under the 1976-1983 Argentine dictatorship. Under the Law 22.439, also known as the Ley Videla (after de facto president of Argentina Jorge R. Videla) in place until 2004, undocumented immigrants were denied access to social services such as education and health care, both free and public in Argentina, and the right to legitimate legal defense. At the time of its implementation Congress had been dissolved and national security doctrines “justified” the establishment of a system of control and sanction of the immigrant population. But what can possibly justify a measure like this under a democratic government, where it is the prerogative of the Congress to legislate on immigration issues? According to CELS, DNU 70/2017 was neither justified on the basis of need, nor of urgency.

“Immigration” was not a central issue of Macri’s political campaigns neither as Mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, nor for President of Argentina. Yet, Macri’s xenophobia is not new. During his tenure as the Mayor of Buenos Aires (2007-2015), he and members of his administration made several remarks linking immigration from neighboring countries with delinquency of all kinds, from petty crime to illegal occupation of land and drug trafficking. Furthermore, Macri, just like Trump, won his campaign and has built his policies by tapping into deep-rooted fears and grievances. For instance, his campaign tapped into middle class discourses about a lack of law and order in an urban space increasingly perceived as dangerous and ungovernable.

This is not the only similarity between the two presidents. Macri’s association with Donald Trump goes back to the 1980s when he and his father tried to close a deal with him in New York. In a 2005 interview Macri said of Trump and himself: “we remained buddies. Every time I go to New York, I visit him, and I have lunch with him and his wife” (Página 12 2016). That said, Macri did not support Trump’s candidacy and instead bet on Hillary Clinton’s continuation of Obama’s diplomatic and economic policies. Yet, the morning after the election, Macri congratulated Trump on twitter, arranged to have a phone call that took place on November 14th and tried to secure a visit to the United States.

In a public opinion poll undertaken a few days prior to the announcement of DNU 70/2017, the pollster Poliarquía (http://poliarquia.com/encuesta-nacional-sobre-politica-migratoria/) reported that the level of approval for at least two of the measures—the banning of immigrants with a criminal record and “deportation express” procedures—surpassed 80 percent. But this is not new, either. In Argentina, migrants have been scapegoated for the lack of jobs and the critical economic situation at multiple points throughout the 20th century (Grimson 2001, 2006; Guano 2003). For instance, in 1902, the Ley de Residencia (Residence Law) legalized the deportation of immigrants without trial. Also, in media and daily conversations immigrant populations – especially those from Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia – are hysterically attributed with responsibility for Argentina’s current misfortunes.

Argentina hasn’t built barriers to block the movement of people, at least none so ominous as a barbed wire fence hundreds of kilometers long and several meters tall, but it has nonetheless taken steps towards increasing control over its borders. For instance, an Office of Borders was created soon after Macri took of ce in 2015 to assist in regulating borders perceived as “too permeable,” and the Minister of Security, Patricia Bull-rich, travelled to Israel in late 2016 to purchase sophisticated surveillance equipment (La Nación 2016). Regardless of Bullrich’s assertion that no wall will be built, these measures, as well as the political construction of discursive wall of “us” and “them”, are equally aggressive. This chauvinist rhetoric obscures increasing tax-cuts for the wealthy, the state’s massive roll-back from its regulatory role, mercantile approaches to education, housing, and health, and the conflation of business and political interests. As with Trump, Macri’s positioning of immigration as “a problem” does the political work of diverting attention from the real problems that shape and constrain people’s daily lives.

Argentina’s recent history contains multiple examples of a president obsequiously courting the United States, either in search of economic or material support, or to sim- ply indulge the illusion of being part of the “first world.” For example, in the 1990s, Carlos Menem sought to secure the support of the US as an economic partner through the “dolarization” of the economy and pursued a second round of “modernization” by mimicking its conspicuous consumption practices. Menem’s servile positioning can be summarized by his Secretary of Foreign Affairs’ statement to the Inter-American Development Bank in 1991: “We do not want platonic relations [with the US] but carnal ones.”

The increasing influence of right wing, xenophobic, and chauvinist political options needs to be studied in the light of the failure of neoliberal globalization to deliver upon its promises of generalized economic prosperity (Bessner and Sparke 2017). Within this dynamic, the close history of (inter)dependence between Latin America and the US cannot be overlooked. These are obviously struggles about national political projects and cultural identities that determine what kind of country and for whom, struggles fought daily in the streets and elsewhere, sometimes at a very high price.

At the 2005 Mar del Plata Summit a group of Latin American Presidents “buried” the Free Trade of the Americas agreement. During Macri’s visit to the United States in April of 2017, the Argentinean President smiled passively, unable—or perhaps incapable—of reacting when Trump said, “one of the reasons he’s here is about lemons ... and I’ll tell him about North Korea, and he’ll tell me about lemons.” The reference was to President Macri’s desire to access the US market for Argentinean lemons that had been granted by former President Obama but then halted when Trump took power. The image of a servile and petitioning Macri, so humiliating and degrading for the Argentinean people, reminds us of the subordinate position that Argentina at times has had in relation to the United States, and even more humiliating, it demonstrates the eagerness with which our political representatives accept it.

We ought to ask then, what does this renewed “close” relationship mean for Argentina and, ultimately, for the whole of Latin America. What, besides the promise of future economic agreements, direct investments, and support to enter the OECD, does an approximation to the Trump administration afford Argentina? The DNU 70/2017 emboldens and empowers those who deploy false dichotomies such as “us and them”; it encourages those who would like to see precarious settlements bulldozed to leave room for new condos and urban renewal projects. It is not hard to see how the revitalization of the relationship with the United States of Donald Trump is empowering for Macri and his political coalition, and will continue to empower those sectors of Argentinean society that believe in a country ruled by and for the few, a country that hides its business-oriented political agenda behind xenophobic and nationalist discourses. The similarities with the current political project in the United States are striking.


Bessner, Daniel, and Matthew Sparke. 2017. “Nazism, Neoliberalism, and the Trumpist Challenge to Democracy.” Environment and Planning A 49 (6): 1214-1223.

Granovsky, Martín. 2016. “La increíble historia de Franco y Mauricio con Trump en Nueva York: los negocios, la mafia y el poder.” Página 12, November 13. https://www.pagina12.com.ar/2785- il-capo-di-tutti-capi

Grimson, Alejandro. 2001. “A Hard Road for Argnetina’s Bolivians.” NACLA Report on the Americas 35 (2): 33.

———. 2006. “Nuevas Xenofobias, Nuevas Políticas Étnicas en Argentina.” In Migraciones Regio- nales Hacia la Argentina. Diferencias, Desigualdades y Derechos, edited by Alejandro Grimson and Eliza- beth Jelin, 1–16. Buenos Aires: Prometeo.

Guano, Emanuela. 2003. “A Color for the Modern Nation: The Discourse on Class, Race, and Education in the Porteño Middle Class.” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 8 (1): 148–71.

Patricia Bullrich Viajó a Israel: Recorrió Unidades del Ejército y Evaluó la Compra de Drones y Radares. 2016. La Nación, November 16.. http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1956811-patricia-bullrich- viajo-a-israel-recorrio-unidades-del-ejercito-y-evaluo-la-compra-de-drones-y-radares

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