By Maria Agostina Cacault, 2011 Americas Project fellow from Argentina
A week before President Barack Obama’s arrival in Argentina, the visit had already made major news. Everyone pondered the agenda and the meaning of the trip. It was during this time that I received an email from the U.S. Embassy notifying me that I had been selected to participate in one of the major events that Obama would attend in Argentina: a town hall meeting. The meeting, which was for entrepreneurial leaders, was a central part of his itinerary since there he would engage with civilians.
The visit was big news not only for the importance of the visitor, but also due to the meaning behind it. The last time an American president had visited Argentina had been more than 10 years ago, when President George W. Bush attended the Fourth Summit of the Americas in 2005. Before the Fourth Summit’s official inauguration, a people’s “anti-Summit” led by thousands of protesters and by then-President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was held in a nearby soccer stadium. Chavez spoke against Bush’s proposal to advance the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and called for alternatives to the Fourth’s Summit’s neo-liberal agenda. Bush’s visit unleashed a path of tensions in bilateral relations between the United States and Argentina that persisted throughout the "kirchnerista cycle" (the 12 years in which the Kirchners ruled Argentina).
Furthermore, the first decade of the 21st century saw a series of leftist governments come to power in Latin America (Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Kirchner in Argentina). These governments sought to integrate all Latin American countries — a concept called the "Patria Grande" — and marginalize the United States. Embarking with this frame of mind, the relationship between our country and the country up north became, in the words of Felipe de la Balze, the secretary general of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI), "distant and formal.”
But in the first 100 days of President Mauricio Macri’s new government, Argentina took a turn in foreign policy, which was crowned with Obama’s visit. Macri leads the Propuesta Republicana Party (PRO), which rose to power just over 10 years ago as a result of the economic-political and social crisis experienced in 2002. This change of government, which has a conservative tint, breaks from Argentina’s two-party system. Its new foreign policy, which includes features like being pragmatic, pro-market and pro-North, is useful to the United States and returns a foothold in a hostile region in which powers like China and Russia were beginning to have an important influence. Today, Argentina stands as a new "gateway" to South America, where leftist governments are losing strength. At the same time, for Argentinians this represents "a window": the opportunity to make ourselves visible to the world.
Obama’s visit launched new bilateral relations in which traditional diplomacy was widely displayed with the signing of agreements in economics, energy, climate change, multilateral cooperation, global health, democracy, human rights, security and defense. Furthermore, we witnessed a new way of addressing civil society through foreign policy, which the U.S. State Department calls "public democracy." This was displayed in two events: the town hall meeting and a tribute to victims of state terrorism.
While the Obama administration had been exhibiting a different approach in addressing Latin America, such as recognizing mistakes the U.S. had made in the region, it was unthinkable to hear an American president admit a mea culpa on the United States’ role in Latin American dictatorships. In the case of Argentina, during a ceremony at Parque de la Memoria commemorating the 1976 coup, Obama said, “You are the ones who will ensure that the past is remembered, and the promise of ‘Nunca Más’ is finally fulfilled.” This repudiation of the dictatorship was accompanied by a commitment to declassify military documents and intelligence relating to that dark period. It also included recognition of President Jimmy Carter’s role as a diligent human rights activist. “(Carter) understood that human rights is a fundamental element of foreign policy. That understanding is something that has influenced the way we strive to conduct ourselves in the world ever since,” Obama said.
But the most significant event was the town hall meeting, which I attended along with young entrepreneurial leaders under 40 years old. Obama mastered the audience with his informal manner and flawless interaction with the public. In his brief speech, he quoted renowned Argentinean writers — Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar — told of his experience drinking traditional Argentinian mate and explained the purpose of his trip to our country. He also praised the Pope (who was key in the U.S. changing its relationship with Cuba) and stressed the importance of young people and new technologies. Obama also opened the floor to questions, but not a single hand was raised. Seeing a president with his disposition is not an experience one can easily forget. This new approach of public diplomacy — although common practice for Americans — is innovative to Latin Americans.
We hope this re-launched relationship between Argentina and the United States involves safeguarding mutual respect, expanding business opportunities and ensuring human rights. In the 21st century, being part of the international stage is imperative due to globalization; the key is to integrate in a constructive manner and for the benefit of our people.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.