U.S.-Argentina relations may be key election issue
By KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina's future relations with the
United States will be a hot topic in coming weeks between presidential
runoff rivals with
sharply different views on the subject.
Former President Carlos S. Menem, who led Argentina from 1989
to 1999, was a loyal ally and Bush family friend who championed U.S.-backed
reforms that spread throughout Latin America in the 1990s. He narrowly placed first in Sunday's presidential elections, and will face provincial Gov. Nestor
Kirchner in a runoff May 18.
Kirchner blames Menem's free-market policies, corruption during
the sale of state businesses and runaway debt for wrecking Argentina's
economy after he
left office, and charges that Menem embraced pro-U.S. policies at the expense of relations with key neighbors such as Brazil.
Both finalists are members of the storied but troubled Peronist
Party, but Menem's pro-U.S. views aren't widely shared by his party or
by the general
Opinion polls throughout Latin America show growing anti-Americanism,
partly because the economic reforms of the 1990s did little to improve
life for the
masses. But in Argentina, the polls suggest that citizens also reject closer foreign policy ties to the United States.
In a Gallup poll published Feb. 3, 9 out of 10 Argentines opposed
their country's participation in the coalition that invaded Iraq. Twelve
years earlier, under
Menem, Argentina sent a token force to join the U.S.-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops back out of Kuwait.
Felipe Noguera, an Argentine political consultant, said Menem
looks "at Argentina as part of the world, recognizing the U.S. leadership
in the world and the
fact that it would be a good idea to be on good terms with the U.S." Kirchner, he said, favors a return to past Argentine nationalist policies that favor a
state hand in the economy, government work programs and a view that "we need to close down and look within."
Menem welcomes a U.S.-proposed free-trade agreement for all of
the Americas by 2005. Kirchner is willing to anger Washington by giving
priority to forging
closer ties with Brazil and deepening regional trade in South America.
Argentina's current caretaker president, Eduardo Duhalde, rebuffed
requests to join the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. A sworn
enemy of Menem,
Duhalde handpicked the little-known Kirchner as his desired successor.
Kirchner governs the oil-rich but sparsely populated Santa Cruz
province in Argentina's far south. He is a political newcomer whose foreign
policy views are
Although he has avoided criticizing Washington, he vows to keep
the economic team and program put in place by Duhalde, who angered Washington
January 2002 by confirming Argentina's plan to default on $151 billion in government debt. Duhalde also devalued the currency and froze citizens' bank
deposits, forcibly converting dollar savings into pesos at unfavorable rates.
Most of Argentina's foreign investors and creditors would prefer Menem over Kirchner.
More recently, Duhalde angered Washington this month by ending
Argentina's decade-long support of U.S. condemnation of Cuba's human rights
before a special United Nations rights panel. The policy shift, seen as a ploy to win votes for Kirchner from left-leaning voters, came as even Cuba's
staunchest defenders criticized Cuban President Fidel Castro for jailing dozens of prominent dissidents recently and summarily trying and executing three
Washington's next ambassador to Argentina, Lino Gutierrez, is a conservative Cuban-American and staunch foe of Castro.
Menem doesn't hide his desire for Argentina to get back in the
United States' good graces despite the political risks. A friend and golfing
partner of the
Bush family, Menem predicted Sunday that when he is returned to office, "Argentina will again be positioned among the 10 or 15 great powers of the
A century ago Argentina was one of the world's richest nations,
but its economy contracted by 12 percent last year and 60 percent of the
lives below the poverty line.