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Argentines Ask If US Tack Is Worth the Cost

High-profile ambassador to Argentina sparks debate over whether Washington exerts too much influence in the country on issues like government corruption and the armed forces

RELATIONS between the United States and Argentina are the closest they have been in decades, but paradoxically are also a source of irritation for many Argentines. "The United States has become a semi-auditor," complains Carlos Bruno, a private economic consultant in Buenos Aires. "[US Ambassador Terence] Todman is known here as the virrey," he says, referring to the Spanish viceroys who once ruled Hispanic America in the king's name.

Social scientists and politicians in Buenos Aires cite a widespread belief among Argentines that the US, via Mr. Todman, is playing too large a role when it comes to the country's hottest issues: government corruption, the armed forces, the drug trade, and economic policy. Todman's high-profile stance on such issues has made him a focus for debate.

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Recent rapprochement

"Dignity has its effectiveness, too, in international relations," says Andres Fontana, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of State and Society, a think-tank here. "We are not an American backyard."

In the past, Argentina and the US have often been at odds over human rights and other issues. During the years of military rule, the junta resented US inquiries regarding the disappearances of thousands of Argentine citizens. And when the junta sent troops to the Falkland Islands in 1982, the US sided with Britain in the war. The country's return to democracy in 1983 removed human rights as a sticking point, but President Raul Alfonsin hewed an independent path, seeking to play a leadership role among d e

veloping nations.

But President Carlos Menem, who took office in July 1989 as a Peronist leader, surprised everyone with a new tack toward the US. Last year Mr. Menem sent two warships to join the allies in the Persian Gulf, the only Latin American nation to do so. This year, Argentina supported the US in a United Nations vote to investigate human rights violations in Cuba, breaking a long tradition of voting with other Latin nations.

Menem's government also last month cancelled the Air Force's Condor II ballistic missile project under pressure from the US. Argentina is weighing whether to break from the nonaligned movement.

For Argentines, this switch is hard to digest. They have "tended to see themselves as a natural leader of South America and there was a certain rivalry with the US," says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat, now professor of Latin politics at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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"Argentina has suddenly decided the best they can do is throw themselves in the with US," Mr. Smith says. "Now, if I were an Argentine, I would find this very irritating and deeply disturbing."

Amid such concern has come Todman, whose unapologetic representation of US interests, has become a "kind of lightning rod" for nationalist feelings, Smith says. The ambassador may also receive more recognition because he is a black man of stature in a largely white society.

It remains to be seen whether such negative popular feelings, played out in the press, will damage political relations. Some Argentines believe Todman's pressure on the Argentine Air Force to destroy its $200 million Condor II project has stirred anti-US sentiment among the military.

"US policy predisposes the Army against [it]," says Mr. Bruno. "The policy takes power away from them, by decision of the US ambassador."

Although the threat of a military coup appears to be waning, there have been four rebellions in four years, and political scientists concede that civilian rule is still relatively fragile.

'Automatic alignment'

When President Bush visited Argentina in December, he made clear the country would get no special treatment for sending ships to the Persian Gulf. Even so, many Argentines think they deserve something for becoming friendlier with the US.

"If expectations are not satisfied, anti-American feeling could return," says Federico Storani, a national deputy for the opposition Radical Civic Union party and vice-chairman of the National Congress's lower chamber committee on foreign relations. Mr. Storani, like many Argentines, believes Todman has prodded the government into "automatic alignment" with the US.

Worse, he adds, the US last month offered to sell subsidized wheat to Brazil, a key Argentine trading partner. An Argentine embassy spokesman in Washington says sale of US wheat to Brazil is one of several items to be discussed under a new economic agreement between the US and countries of the Southern Common Market. (See story below.)

An internationally known and dynamic career diplomat who served as ambassador to Spain from 1978-83 and to Denmark from 1983-89, Todman is said by Argentine critics to have become an alter ego to government officials. Stories abound that Todman pressed for the military to fight drug traffickers, though to do so would be unconstitutional, and that he pushed for Condor missile equipment to be taken to the US to be destroyed. A Western observer says both claims are untrue, and there has been no direct subs t

antiation of them.

A participant at a recent conference where Todman spoke suggested that he may well be a convenient scapegoat. Political observers here say this may have happened in the brouhaha that emerged out of a corruption scandal earlier this year.

In December, Todman wrote two government ministers complaining that corruption was one reason US companies hesitate to invest in Argentina. In the letter, he mentioned that a government official had asked the Swift-Armour meat packing company for a bribe in return for permission to import some machinery. The letter was leaked to the Argentine press. Although it mentioned no names, Menem's estranged wife's brother later resigned as presidential adviser.

Despite such clamor, some Argentines are glad to see a less nationalistic approach to Argentine foreign policy.

Economic demands

Given the strategic interests of the big powers, Roberto Russell, an international relations expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, a graduate studies program in Buenos Aires, says Argentina "has to have very good relations with the US, because foreign policy is defined essentially by economic needs."

Professor Russell and others say the US, via its ambassador, is an important guiding force as the country finds its way to a freer economic and political system.

"Do you want a guy [a US ambassador] who just gives a party on the 4th of July, or do you want someone who takes an interest in what goes on in this country?" asks a Buenos Aires businessman.

US analysts say Todman's agenda appears standard - to promote US economic, political, and security interests, in other words, "normal state-to-state relations," Smith says. At least some Argentine officials agree, saying the press corps has blown his activities out of proportion.

"Some people think that because we have normal and friendly relations a bonanza will come as a consequence," says Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella, in an interview. "[But] a bonanza will come as a result of the economic measures we are taking internally."

Of relations with the US, he says they "are the same as with Spain or any European country and this is a novelty in Argentina. It's very polemical. But it will be taken for granted in a few years."

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