Once you touch down in the charming capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires, you’ll probably think you caught the wrong plane and ended up in an European city. You’ll be greeted by gritty majestic buildings inscribed with lots of graffiti, including erroneous stabs at the English language that are hastily sketched by street ruffians. The inscriptions on the city’s run-down architectural masterpieces include the commonplace saying heard all over Latin America: “Yankee Go Home.”
If you’ve been to Argentina, you probably understand why President Obama was warmly welcomed in communist Cuba, but was only tepidly received in this charming South American country. If you look at public opinion polls, it’s safe to say that Argentina is among the most anti-American countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Ten years ago, when I was a bright-eyed young exchange student in Buenos Aires, I quickly discovered that America was an off-limits topic of discussion. It was 2005, when it was posh to affix a Canadian maple leaf on your backpack to avoid unpleasantries. The general consensus in Argentina is that the United States has consistently been responsible for the country’s economic and political problems.
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Argentina is perhaps the only country in the world that was a rich and developed nation that became poor again. Since World War II, Argentina has been a political and economic basket case, where every period of stability has been cut short by an acute crisis. A Brutal dictatorship, runaway inflation, and banking crises are among the horrendous events that everyday Argentines have endured in their lifetimes.
Unfortunately, the US’ public relations problem in Argentina is heavily based on political decisions made a long time ago. We have a mixed-record that includes the backing of a dictatorship that started what they call a dirty war in Argentina. During the dirty war, thousands of people were tortured, killed, kidnapped, or disappeared never to be seen again.
The Obama Administration announced just before his trip to Argentina that the previously sealed records on American involvement in the dirty war would be released. The country will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the military coup that led to the dirty war during Obama’s visit. That, of course, has caused some controversy. While military dictatorships were commonplace all around Latin America during the same era, the memory of these tragedies strongly persists in the Argentine psyche.
Perhaps the most hot-button issue in Argentine politics is how friendly the political elite acts toward America and American-style capitalism. That’s because most Argentines are extremely skeptical of US-involvement in their country. In the 1990s, Carlos Menem pursued a free-market, pro-American agenda that ended in a financial crisis.
The early 2000’s crisis that left millions of people in poverty ushered in the Kirchner era (husband and wife Nestor and Cristina Kirchner both occupied the presidency). The Kirchners were decidedly Anti-American, and sought closer ties with Russia, China, and Venezuela.
They also brought the economy perilously close to collapse. Their bad habit of printing money to finance generous subsidies produced some of the highest inflation rates in the world and a vibrant black market for US dollars. The broken line in the graph below exists because no one knows exactly what the inflation rate was in those years, because statistics were heavily doctored by the Kirchner administration.
Fortunately, for free-market enthusiasts, the Kirchner era is over, and Mauricio Macri was elected president recently. Since his election, he’s been advancing a free-market agenda that’s caught the attention of global investors, reversing much of what the Kirchners did. President Obama is visiting because of the political changes, and hopefully relations between our two countries will continue to improve.
President Macri faces a great deal of challenges, including convincing the Argentine people that market liberalization is a good idea for his country. His economic adjustments are likely to be painful for the common folk, and extending the red carpet to President Obama will likely become a political liability.
Argentina desperately needs economic development for a brighter future. Macri’s ability to stabilize the economy is inevitably tethered to America’s reputation in Argentina. If Macri can succeed, perhaps the Argentine people will turn the page on our rocky relations in the past and look forward to a more stable and prosperous future. Contrary to popular wisdom on the streets of Buenos Aires, increasing political and economic stability in Argentina aligns with American interests. One can only hope this is a start of a new and better era for Argentine-American relations.
David is the Editor of Bold. He's especially passionate about millennial economic empowerment. A former local news reporter, David is originally from the Little Havana area in Miami, and later became a pioneer resident of the Disney-inspired town of Celebration, Florida. David holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.