Getting along with your ex-partner

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 15, 2011


The U.S. Government sees Argentina as an ex-spouse. Years after a nasty divorce, Washington is ready to start calling Argentina a friend again. However, the Casa Rosada should not misinterpret the message.


Under Menem, “carnal relations” between both countries—as former foreign affairs minister Guido Di Tella defined them—led Argentina to strongly support the U.S. in the war against Iraq in 1990. No other Latin American country was as enthusiastically behind the new world order then promoted by Washington as Menem’s Argentina.


The 2001 crisis led to a nasty divorce between Washington and Buenos Aires. As Argentina struggled to recover from the crisis, American policies were perceived in Argentina as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In Washington, Argentina’s new regional friends—particularly after Néstor Kirchner became president—were seen as deepening the rift between both countries. The U.S. and Argentina formally parted ways when Buenos Aires embraced Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, especially after the Mar del Plata summit in 2005.  


In today’s Argentina, Peronism has reinvented itself in opposition to the run-away (and often corrupt) globalization championed by Menem.  In fact, Peronism has gone back to its historic protectionist roots.  Inward-oriented growth has replaced neoliberalism as the road map of choice. Washington consensus policies have been replaced with a state-led growth strategy.  


After her presidential reelection victory, Cristina Fernández seemed ready for a new start in bilateral relations with the U.S. The request by the White House for a bilateral presidential meeting in the G-20 summit was widely presented by the Argentine government as evidence that the U.S. was also ready to move past the issues that separated the two countries in recent years.  After the meeting, President Fernández’s entourage conveyed the message that President Obama expressed admiration and respect for what Argentina had done under her and her late husband's tenure. In fairness, Obama did say that he and Sarkozy needed to learn from Cristina in that she handily won re-election, but he had no praise for the economic policies championed by Fernández.


A few days later, reality kicked in when the U.S. Government voted in the Inter-American Development Bank against a loan for infrastructure development in Argentina. In recent years, the U.S. has opposed Argentina’s access to international lending on grounds that pending debt issues with the Paris Club remain unsolved.  Because standing CIADI (International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes) rulings against Argentina in favor of foreign investors expropriated in Argentina have not been honored by the Kirchner-Fernández governments, the U.S. consistently votes against lending money to Argentina in international development agencies. After the most recent occasion, the U.S. politely explained that the historic friendship between the two countries should not be jeopardized by these decisions.  However, that vote signals that relations between the former partners are yet precarious and mutual trust has not been fully reestablished.


Part of the apparent misunderstanding behind the Argentine government perception that all past is forgotten and that American declaration of renewed friendship will lead Washington to put behind those pending issues has to do with precedent such a move would have for the reputation of the U.S. government around the world. Even if it wanted to send a friendly message to Argentina, the U.S. cannot just forget those pending issues because it would set a very negative precedent to the rest of the world.  The Argentine government seems to have failed to realize that bilateral relations are observed by third parties.


The lesser enthusiasm on the part of the U.S. to embrace Argentina as a friend again has to do with the relations the U.S. strengthened and deepened in the last decade in the region. In addition to the historically strong links with Mexico, where history, immigration and border issues require the two countries to work in coordination, the U.S. has further strengthened relations with Colombia. The recent legislative passage of a pending free trade agreement has confirmed the special place Colombia has in the U.S. agenda. True, drug trafficking makes Colombia such a priority for the U.S. That is certainly not a cause to feel envy about. However, the fact of the matter is that while Argentina stayed distant from the U.S., Washington made new friends in the region. Free trade agreements signed with Chile, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Central America consolidated relations with countries that were more distant to Washington than Argentina in the 1990s. Even Brazil has been identified as of recent as America’s most important friend in South America (though that relationship has yet failed to materialize into significantly stronger links and cooperation).


In trying to restore working relations with the United States, Argentina should not be confused or disappointed. As former partners who seek to build new relations after a complicated divorce, Argentina and Washington must do so understanding that it will take time for trust to be rebuilt and for the past to be fully put behind. Fortunately, because there was true friendship before there were problems, there is hope ahead, as long as anxiety is kept under control, patience is exercised and expectations are kept low.