An Argentine non-issue

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 22, 2011


The diplomatic incident over the seizure by Argentina of undeclared military equipment brought by members of the United States armed forces who travelled to participate in a training program for the Buenos Aires police has reminded the rest of Latin America of the reasons why President Obama will not be visiting Argentina when he travels to the region later in March.  The incident also confirmed that President Fernández will be seeking re-election later in 2011 while, at the same time, worsened the reputation of her government abroad.


For the rest of Latin America, the irritation over the episode expressed by the government of Argentina is difficult to comprehend.  Insofar as the facts have been known to the public, there does not seem to be sufficient ground for a diplomatic confrontation. True, American personnel should have filled the paperwork more diligently. But sloppiness should not be equated with an incontrovertible evidence of conspiracy nor is the military equipment involved sufficiently sophisticated to suspect a potential terrorist infiltration in the United States armed forces. There are easier ways to secure access to that equipment in Argentina than to have it illegally brought inside an American military plane.


Under normal post Cold War circumstances, any Latin America government would immediately receive the unwavering support of the rest of the region if the United States were interfering in domestic affairs. In the most recent military coup in the region, in Honduras in 2009, Washington behaved as a repeat offender on parole. The White House was especially careful to denounce the coup and called for the immediate restoration of democratic order. In more recent quarrels with Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the U.S. has also shown special restraint to avoid eliciting accusations of intervention and imperialism. For many governments in the region, the accusations made by Argentina against the United States were difficult to believe. In recent years, the United States has generally behaved as a good—even it at times distant—neighbor.  Since none of the most respected democracies in the region came out in support of Argentina after the incident, the credibility of the accusation has weakened and the official position adopted by the United States government strengthened.


In addition, the fact that the Argentine government has made such a big deal over the lack of accuracy in the paperwork submitted by the American crew is a bit ironic. Strict adherence to rules and regulations is not one of the many strengths and admirable attributes that Argentina has shown over the years. Recent budget controversies between the executive and legislative offer a drastic contrast with the zealotry shown in enforcing rules and regulations in this particular incident. The widely accepted belief that the Argentine government has tampered with inflation figures in recent years—and the extensive use of alternative inflation indicators used by financial institutions and international observers—has also weakened the credibility of the Argentine government. Blowing a small incident out of proportion to create an artificial feud with the United States has further eroded the already frail international reputation of Argentina as a country with appropriate separation of powers and working checks-and-balance provisions.


One can also suspect that President Cristina Fernández has used an old Peronista practice. Since President Juan Perón campaigned against U.S. ambassador Spruille Braden in 1946, taking an anti-American stance—and denouncing American imperialism—has been a successful strategy for Peronist leaders to gather support and weaken opponents. Because the U.S. government officials also read history books, it was unlikely that the State Department would fall for such a trap this time and be dragged into an open diplomatic confrontation with the government of Argentina that could only benefit Cristina Fernández in public opinion polls. Understandably, U.S. government officials demanded the immediate return of the seized equipment. American authorities defined the incident as grave. Yet, contrary to what many in Argentina expected—apparently including some in the government—the U.S. State Department chose not to escalate the conflict. The incident is unprecedented and grave, but President Obama and Secretary Clinton have more important things to worry about. Thus, they did not get involved in the crossfire of words.


The decision by President Obama to skip Argentina in his next trip to the region is said to have infuriated high officials in the Fernández administration. With the proximity of the elections, the incident over the undeclared military equipment was seen by many as an attempt by the government to kill two birds with the same stone, by taking revenge for being passed over in the presidential visit and by using the incident to boost nationalist feelings and increase support for President Fernández. However, it does take two to tango. The United States chose to downplay Argentina’s complaint while the rest of Latin America showed little interest in hearing—much less showing solidarity with—the grievances of the Fernandez government against the United States.