Is Mauricio Macri’s Argentina ready to tango with the U.S.?

March 31, 2016
President Barack Obama dances a tango during a state dinner hosted by Argentina's President Mauricio Macri at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, March 23, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

President Barack Obama dances a tango during a state dinner hosted by Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina is trying to catapult itself out of the international wilderness to which it was consigned after adopting a capricious, Chavistic foreign policy and failing to pay its debts or adhere to democratic norms.

Argentina’s reemergence comes at a crucial moment when Brazil, mired in scandals that may topple its government, seems to have relinquished any possibility of becoming a regional partner for the United States.

The new Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, celebrated his first 100 days in office this weekend, at the end of a mind-bending week in which he made his first presidential appearance before a major foreign audience — the World Jewish Congress, at an extraordinary plenary session that included the presidents of Paraguay and Uruguay and 47 ambassadors — hosted the first visit by a U.S. president in nearly 30 years, and observed the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup d’état that led to seven years of state-sponsored murder.

As if that were not enough, this was the week an appeals court ruled that the “suspicious death” of Alberto Nisman was to be handled as a possible homicide by the federal bench. Nisman, a federal prosecutor, in December 2014 charged then-President Cristina Fernández with covering up evidence that Iran had been involved in bombing a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. He was found, days later, with a bullet lodged in his brain.

Macri addressed the WJC gathering, as is his custom, with no tie, briefly saying what the Western world wants to hear. “Argentina is back in the world and stands ready to join in all battles for human rights, and against terrorism.”

In one of his first acts as president, Macri abandoned Fernandez’s memorandum of understanding with Iran that created a joint commission to investigate the cause of the 1994 attack that killed 85 people. The once-secret deal lay behind Nisman’s accusation.

In all, Macri has not been given much time to catch his breath. He wants to accelerate the economic, political and cultural rehabilitation of Argentina and bring it back into the global family of nations. But the challenges he faces are colossal and could be seen even at the state dinner held in honor of the visit by President Barack Obama last week.

The event was held at the Kirchner Cultural Center, popularly known as “the blue whale.” It is a cavernous, nine-story structure that, in a different era, served as the Palacio de Correos (Postal Palace). Thanks to what is officially a $20 million investment (though reports put the actual number as high as $177) from the Fernandez government, it was recently transformed into a “pharaonic monument to herself,” in the words of Santiago Kovadloff, Argentina’s preeminent public intellectual, and an attendee at the gala. (Formally, it is named for Néstor Kirchner, Fernandez’s husband and predecessor as president, who died in 2010.)

The most remarkable aspect of the Obama soirée in Buenos Aires was not the taut presidential tango that went viral, but the prominent contingent of opposition leaders attending the glittering event.

To say that this is anomalous in Argentina does not do justice to the shrewdness of Macri’s guest list. For the past dozen years of Fernandez’s rule, such events gave little space to the opposition.

Fernandez operated as a mini-state unto herself, with her own personal mythology and rules. Favors and punishments were erratically apportioned till by the end, and the ceremonial aspects of state resembled nothing so much as a one-woman burlesque. The writer Uki Goñi, one of his nation’s foremost chroniclers, describes the state of affairs thus: “Argentines are a universe unto themselves. They live in a world where they make up their own rules, then reinvent them, then twist them around, and in any case end up ignoring them, flaunting them absolutely.”

But back to the state dinner. “An enormous spectrum of the nation’s entire political leadership was there,” Kovadloff says. “Macri included the Kirchnerites, the dissident Peronists, of course friends of the government… it was exceedingly festive and pleasurable. I’d say the main feeling was ‘we did it.’ Not only that we were meeting this president, but we did it.”

We did it.

For Kovadloff and many Argentinians who voted for Macri rather than for Fernandez’s appointed heir, the gala represented the end of an era of intertwined webs of financial corruption and moral turpitude, wacky foreign policy and sordid presidential conduct.

Nicolás Lucca, the author of a devastating account of the Kirchner/Fernandez epoch, writes “the most remarkable failure of recent years has been cultural. We lost by a mile and didn’t even realize it had happened.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, who met with Macri, is buoyant. “I think he is superb,” he said. “He’s telling us that there’s a new wave coming here in Argentina and he is making it very plain that he is pro-American and pro-business and pro-democracy and pro-justice. It is a very different statement than what his predecessor made.”

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