Argentine-U.S. Relations: Things Can Only Get Better

By Federico Merke*

Argentina elections

Argentine presidential candidate Mauricio Macri. Photo Credit: Nico Bovio and Guillermo Viana GCBA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Foreign policy remains largely uncharted territory as Mauricio Macri (Cambiemos) and Daniel Scioli (incumbent Peronist Frente para la Victoria) head into the presidential runoff on November 22, but they both are likely eager to get over Argentina’s rough patch with the United States.  Foreign policy has rarely been a big campaign issue, and this time there are probably reasons behind the silence.  The mainstream Argentine media portray the candidates as representing two different political and economic stances on domestic policies, with only nuanced differences on foreign policy.  Macri is seen as more friendly to the outside world in general and to the U.S. in particular, but he has been reluctant to play up his “anti-Bolivarian” views.  Scioli has the same incentives as Macri to restart a dialogue with Washington, but he has not wanted to highlight this difference between himself and his party’s standard bearer, outgoing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK).

Argentina’s relations with the U.S. are at a low point in which nothing really good or really bad takes place.

  • The impasse started early in CFK’s administration. Just two days after her inauguration on December 10, 2007, U.S. federal prosecutors claimed that five foreign nationals in the so-called “suitcase scandal” were attempting to deliver funds to CFK’s presidential campaign.  The President maintained that the United States manufactured the scandal to punish her for maintaining close relations with then-President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
  • Washington was clearly irritated again in 2011 when Argentine authorities seized the cargo of a U.S. Air Force plane that was delivering supplies for an authorized police training program. Argentina’s foreign minister accused the United States of smuggling weapons and “drugs” into the country.  In 2013, CFK reached an agreement with Iran to set up a truth commission (which was never established) to investigate the bombings of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 – alienating Jews in the U.S. and Argentina, but giving her a boost among her domestic constituency.
  • Terrorism, human rights, and nuclear proliferation have brought the two countries together, albeit with little publicity. But Venezuela, Cuba (the U.S. embargo), trade (tough license and import restrictions on both sides), and Iran have been divisive issues.

Because the twists and turns in the bilateral relationship have revolved around scandals, rhetoric, and domestic political maneuvering – not driven by either deep ideological differences or substantive material interests – CFK’s successor will be free to shift gears.  Thus, in a sense, it does not matter who wins on November 22; a new chapter will begin in Argentina-U.S. relations.  Macri no doubt will be more enthusiastic than Scioli in declaring a new beginning, but the latter exhibits a pragmatic tone and intention to attract investment and promote trade, including by resolving the confrontation over “holdout debt” plaguing ties with the U.S. financial community.  Both candidates are aware that the ongoing litigation in New York complicates access to international credit.  Both also understand that the memorandum with Iran represented a major step backwards and thus will probably change course on this matter.  Scioli and Macri exhibit contrasting styles and might look at the world through different lenses, but they both will have the opportunity – and probably the desire – to develop a more constructive relationship with the U.S. 

November 19, 2015

*Federico Merke directs the Political Science and International Relations Programs at the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires.

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