Tango in the Backyard: Notes on Barack Obama’s Visit to Argentina (July 2016)

Christin Bernhold, University of Zurich

Right after his historic visit to Cuba in March 2016, US President Barack Obama continued on to Argentina, where he met newly elected president Mauricio Macri. During his stay, the biggest Argentinian news agencies kept people informed on world-shaking questions: What particular watch was the US-president wearing (La Nación 2016)? Has there ever been such a well-dressed first lady (La Nación 2016a)? Isn’t it amazing that Obama made such a good figure putting on his tango-dancing feet (Clarín 2016)? Crucial issues concerning this presidential meeting – such as the signing of a “Trade and Investment Framework Agreement” or talks about advancing free trade and Argentina’s “ties to the international financial system” (The White House 2016a) – were hardly discussed in Argentina’s mainstream media but rather presented affirmatively, praising and acknowledging the long-waited visit from the North.

Beyond the superficialities of state rituals and gossip mongering, the first US presidential visit to Argentina in eleven years provided ample food for thought for critical geographers. This perspective aims to highlight Obama’s presence at the Río de la Plata against the backdrop of present US influence on shaping economic and political landscapes in its historic “backyard”. The visit can be explained by Macri’s recent election in December 2015, which not only brought back a market-radical president to Argentina, but also one who appears to be a receptive partner for US geopolitical priorities. As Obama underscored, “the United States stands ready to work with Argentina through his historic transition” (The White House 2016b).

Before Macri’s election, bilateral ties increasingly weakened under the governments led by Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Even if neither of them fully scrapped Argentine neoliberal accumulation, both attempted to limit the US role in shaping public policy and fostered regional integration instead. It was during Néstor Kirchner’s presidency that then US president George W. Bush failed to talk several Latin American leaders into the Free Trade Area of the Americas, known by the Spanish acronym ALCA. Bush’s stay at the Summit of the Americas taking place in Argentina in 2005 was over soon after Kirchner called the Washington Consensus a fiasco and Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez proclaimed, “ALCA, ALCA al carajo” (ALCA go to hell) (La Nación 2016b). Later, Cristina Kirchner refused to abolish retenciones (taxes on exports of primary goods), expanded social programs, moved to counter the monopolization of the media, and pushed investigations into the Argentine civil-military dictatorship (1976-1983). She also opposed US hedge funds in a high-profile debt dispute: during the state bankruptcy in 2001, 93 percent of the government bondholders had agreed on debt relief. So-called vulture funds bought the remaining seven percent of the virtually worthless bonds and demanded a high multiple of the price they originally paid. In June 2014, US Judge Thomas Griesa upheld the suit. Nevertheless, Kirchner refused to pay, criticizing the exploitation of her country. Anyhow, enthusiasm for “Kirchnerism” had faded: even if many Argentinians truly have experienced an improvement of their social situation, stagnating social development coupled with charges of corruption helped the political right organize a comeback.

Before its ascension to power in 2015, Macri’s coalition Cambiemos (Let’s change), announced an envisaged rapprochement with the USA. Together with his economics minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay, an ex-JP Morgan Banker, Macri pushed a new bill through the chamber of deputies that allows billion dollar payments to US hedge funds and enables the new round of indebtedness these payments made necessary. During his visit, Obama praised this “constructive approach that President Macri has taken” (The White house 2016b). A Bloomberg news article entitled “Wall Street Is in Charge in Argentina (Again)” was not meant ironically (Millan 2016).

To the delight of agribusiness multinationals, the new government immediately removed retenciones on agricultural exports (those on soy have been lowered). It lifted currency controls, reduced the welfare state, re-enabled media monopolization and announced wage growth beyond the inflation rate. Meanwhile, its “zero-poverty” announcement has run into the reality of more than a hundred thousand lost jobs. According to the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), nearly 33 percent of Argentines live without the resources to afford a basket of basic goods, up from 29 percent before Macri took office in December (Pagina12 2016). Macri’s strategies to fix this situation include strengthened ties with the US: “Let me stress the importance of increasing trade between our two countries”, he said to his guest. In response, Obama praised Macri as if he were a star pupil: “I’m impressed because he has moved rapidly on so many of the reforms that he promised – to create more sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and to reconnect Argentina with the global economy and the world community” (The White House 2016b).

That “world community” apparently refers to United States allies, given that Argentina, rather than being completely disconnected, has been part of regional integration projects. Macri though seeks to redefine Argentina’s integration, currently arguing for a suspension of Bolivarian Venezuela from the trade alliance Mercosur. Venezuela has long been a thorn in the side of the US for trying “to counter American influence throughout Latin America” (Obama 2008). Macri already ended Argentina’s participation in the multi-state TV channel teleSUR, launched by Hugo Chávez in 2005.

Regional disintegration would also weaken Brazil, whose efforts to become the node of a regional block had reduced the influence “not only of the United States but of the entire North” on Latin America (Wallerstein 2008). But most importantly, Macri underscored that he is in favor of Argentina’s adhesion to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of the aims of which is curbing China’s economic impact in the corresponding area. According to Obama, the US “can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules (…)” (The White House 2015).

As the way history is dealt with always mirrors the assessment of the contemporary making of social and political landscapes, it is not very surprising that the commemorative discourse maintained during the visit was held compatible with the presidents’ economic and geopolitical agendas. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the civil-military coup in Argentina, Obama and Macri, held a ceremony in the Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park) and the Obama administration agreed to declassify further US government documents relating to the coup. The seven-year dictatorship was part of Operation Condor, a US-backed cooperation between several dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s. It aimed to obliterate any socialist “threat”, and rolled up the socioeconomic landscape to what David Harvey calls the “restoration of class power” (Harvey 2005). As is well known, tens of thousands of dissidents were killed and tortured – or “disappeared”. For relatives’ organizations, US imperialism is as much to blame for their lost children as the Argentinian joint venture of politicians, economic actors and the military itself (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo 2016). Over the past decade, a public culture of remembrance was developed in Argentina, underscoring this civil support for the brutal change of the political economy. Obama and Macri, however, did neither directly address the role of the U.S. in sponsoring state terror nor these drastic sea changes, from which today’s democratic neoliberalism keeps benefiting.

Geographers can contribute to the discussion and analysis of the economic and geopolitical interests of the USA in shaping Latin American geographies. Washington hopes that the radical sea change in Argentinian policy won’t be an isolated case. Obama’s recent travels to South America can be seen in the light of the weakening of several “disagreeable governments” that followed a regional integration approach or strengthened relationships with China rather than cooperating with and benefiting the US. Now, doors are opening for a shift to the right and a re-strengthening of US-influence on public policy in the region: In the most important ALBA-state, Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro is facing a parliament with a clear majority of the opposition. In Brazil, after being suspended, President Dilma Roussef faces a fierce battle to maintain her presidency with a virulent right-wing opposition that wants to push through radical free-market policies. Washington’s interests in Latin America go way beyond Argentina. It remains to be seen, if Obama will next dance samba in Brazil.

i One exception was the daily newspaper pagina12.

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