- JLAG Perspectives:Tango in the Backyard Notes on Barack Obama’s Visit to Argentina
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-awaited visit from the North.1
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 JLAG Perspectives commentary 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 this 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 [End Page 147] (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 7 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...