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Argentina's welcome for Obama showcases warming relations

President Macri, elected last year on a pro-business platform, is making swift strides to repair long-strained relations with the US. Obama is the first US president to visit Argentina since the 1990s.

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A supporter of US President Obama holds up a sign and gestures for the cameras before Obama's arrival for his visit to Argentina at Buenos Aires' international airport, early March 23, 2016.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

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President Barack Obama arrived here today amid signs that his newly elected Argentine counterpart, Mauricio Macri, is working hard to repair long-strained bilateral ties that reached a nadir a year ago.

Mr. Macri's predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, took a hard line against US investors holding Argentine debt, accusing them of trying to destabilize her administration. Ms. Kirchner, a left-leaning populist, also called out Washington for its past support of dictatorships in Latin America.

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By contrast, Obama, the first US president to visit in nearly two decades, will hear a different tune. Since taking office in December, pro-business Macri has shifted Argentina towards the political center. He’s sent his security minister to Washington to meet with the Drug Enforcement Agency and revived bilateral cooperation on investigating financial crimes. Officials say Macri wants to improve the country’s standing with the West and to attract foreign investment to a sputtering economy. 

Argentines appear to be on board with the shift: repairing ties with the US could help tackle issues like drugs trafficking and high inflation. But there is also resistance to a pendulum swing from anti-US left to pro-US right that goes too far. 

“There needs to be a diagonal approach,” says former Foreign Minister Adalberto Rodríguez Giavarini. “It’s not about accepting without protest the wishes of the other side. You have to work in the national interest, too.”

'Shutting the door?'

Many here remain suspicious of US meddling in Latin America. In the 1990s, former President Carlos Menem fostered close ties with the US and liberalized a statist economy before a financial crisis in 2002 that plunged millions of Argentines into poverty. The crisis scarred Argentines on the benefits of aligning with the US and taking its economic advice. Kirchner distanced Argentina from the US and pushed back against the “imperialist North.” 

In his first 100 days in office, Macri moved quickly to settle the debt dispute with US investors, pending Argentine congressional approval. He also eased trade restrictions and scrapped currency controls. Hundreds of US business leaders are following Obama to attend a conference organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina. 

Obama is due to meet with Macri on Wednesday morning before he speaks to young people at a cultural center and attends a state dinner. On Thursday, he will honor victims of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship before flying with his family to Bariloche, a tourist city in Patagonia. 

“It seems brilliant to me that [Obama] is coming here,” says Imelda Paz, a retired businesswoman in Buenos Aires. “What good is it shutting the door?”

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But some Argentines feel there’s a way to keep the door open without sacrificing too much to the US. “We shouldn’t isolate ourselves completely,” says Luis Rodríguez, who studies business management at a university here. “But neither should we reach the point where the country is conditioned by foreign interests.”

The government says it sees a path between the Menem era and the antagonism of the administrations of Kirchner and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who preceded her.

US President Obama greets Argentina's Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, as he arrives with his family at Buenos Aires' international airport March 23, 2016.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

‘We are all Americans’

In Cuba Tuesday, Obama sought to move the region away from historical ideological struggles, saying "we are all Americans." Still, Argentines like Mr. Rodríguez are wary, particularly of regional free-trade agreements, saying they could threaten national industries and jobs, an echo of the anti-trade views expressed by US presidential candidates.

That was the same pushback George W. Bush received in 2005 when he sought to revive talks over a proposed Americas free-trade zone at a regional summit in Argentina. Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister, hinted recently that Argentina may eventually push for a trade pact between Mercosur, a South American economic bloc, and the US.

“Argentina needs to start growing again,” says Dr. Leandro Morgenfeld, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires who studies US-Argentine relations. “The government is shifting the ideology of its foreign policy so that investments flow in," he says.

"But, in many respects, it feels like we are headed toward a relationship of subordination.”