The Miami Herald
Mon, Apr. 28, 2003

U.S.-Argentina relations may be key election issue

  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 free-market
  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
  largely unknown.

  Although he has avoided criticizing Washington, he vows to keep the economic team and program put in place by Duhalde, who angered Washington in
  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 record
  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 population now
  lives below the poverty line.