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Unresolved Issues from the Latin American Summit

Alfred S. Hopkins, World Press Review correspondent, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Updated Jan. 14, 2004

Protesters at the Latin American summit in Monterrey
Antiglobalization protesters at the Latin American summit in Monterrey, Mexico, play with fire (Photo: Jorge Uzon/AFP-Getty Images).
Married couples will often fight over spilled milk while essential issues, such as fidelity, are pushed under the bed. That seemed to be the case in early January in the wake of the diplomatic tug-of-war that erupted between Washington and Buenos Aires on the eve of the Latin American summit in Monterrey, Mexico.

Important issues are at stake: the structure of a free trade association for the Americas, Latin American countries’ enormous foreign debts, the barely veiled intention of the Bush administration to improve its image with Latinos as the U.S. presidential elections approach, U.S. concern over recent events in Bolivia, and the ever present issue of Cuba.

It is no secret that in refusing to back U.S. policy in Iraq and in resisting some aspects of Washington’s economic recipes for the area, Argentina and Brazil—the key members of the emerging Mercosur trade bloc—have been rubbing Washington the wrong way. Yet Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s basically neoliberal economic policies have won strong praise from financial power centers while Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s more daring manifestations of economic independence have been stoically absorbed in Washington.

But just a week before the summit meeting in Mexico, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega openly expressed his displeasure with Argentina after President Kirchner neglected to meet with Cuban dissidents on a recent trip to Havana and bemoaned the “leftward drift” in Latin America. Noriega’s remarks on this and a number of other sensitive issues, notably Argentina’s repayment of its foreign debt, sparked controversy in the Argentine press. The Jan. 8 edition of Buenos Aires’ center-left Página 12 acidly pointed out that his comments were in response to a question from George Landau, the U.S. ambassador to Chile at the time of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military coup against the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Some Latin American officials mistrust Noriega and Landau for their role in shaping U.S. Latin American policy during the 1970s and ’80s, when, in the context of the Cold War, the United States preferred pro-U.S. dictators in Latin America to leftist presidents. As the Jan. 13 edition of Buenos Aires’ conservative La Nación noted, Kirchner and the rest of the Argentine delegation to the summit, with the exception of Finance Minister Roberto Lavagna, had been detained or imprisoned under the 1976-82 dictatorship in Argentina.

Kirchner swiftly reacted to Noriega’s charges. While launching a housing project in a slum, he joked that “we will win by knock-out” in his Jan. 13 meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. He also added that Argentina would not become a “doormat” for the United States, a clear criticism of previous governments that many Argentines believe went too far to please Washington.

Others went further: “I believe Noriega’s statements were very violent, aggressive, and disrespectful of the principle of self-determination,” legislator Alicia Castro told Página 12 on Jan. 8. “Noriega is a coup monger who has supported coups in Latin America. What the U.S. wants is a unipolar world under its governance, to become the world’s police, and to tell every country what to do.” Government spokesman Alberto Fernández asserted that “Argentina does not deserve such discourteous treatment...since Kirchner became president, Argentina has tried to rebuild a serious relationship with the United States, different from that of previous years.”

Other spokesmen from the Argentine government initially speculated that the Bush administration would attempt to soften Noriega’s outspoken criticism, but Secretary of State Colin Powell backed up his deputy’s statements, saying that while Noriega had perhaps irritated “some” Argentine leaders, he had spoken clearly and directly.

At the Monterrey meeting, according to the Jan. 14 edition of Buenos Aires’ independent Clarín, Kirchner won a few points with Washington by strongly backing U.S. calls for tougher policies against corruption and terrorism, but he also raised eyebrows by asking for a sort of Latin American version of the Marshall Plan. “The American continent needs the help of the United States,” he said, stressing that Latin American countries need substantial reductions to their debt obligations. “America must look at the Americas,” he declared. “We have been subject to pressures, lack of definitions, and delays on the part of international organizations that appear not to understand our need to grow in order to pay our debt.”

Referring to Noriega’s complaints that Kirchner had failed to support democracy in Cuba by neglecting to visit Cuban dissidents, Kirchner pointedly told summit leaders, “We are very much aware of how important democratic stability is in the region because we ourselves have suffered under military dictatorships,” according to a Jan. 14 report in Clarín.

As Clarín pointed out, the Cuban issue is of inverse significance for the U.S. and Argentine governments at home: open alignment with the United States on Cuba would erode Kirchner’s domestic support; softening the U.S. stand on Cuba would alienate Cuban exiles in the crucial electoral state of Florida.

The Argentine press has seen this as more than a diplomatic spat. The United States is also wary of the strong influence Argentina and Brazil wielded in the recent popular uprising in Bolivia against President Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada. Bolivian presidential hopeful Evo Morales, a peasant leader and active participant in the rebellion, reacted to the verbal clash between Buenos Aires and Washington by saying, “After hearing the Argentine president, I would like to congratulate him, because Latin America cannot continue being the backyard of the United States.” In a statement reproduced in Página 12 on Jan. 9, he added, “I very much respect those presidents who are in contact with the people and approve of the indigenous movement, because it is clear that what is taking place in Latin America is that the indigenous movement has become a nightmare for North American imperialism.”

The Jan. 8 visit of a group of U.S. congressmen, led by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and accompanied by Pat Roberts, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was widely reported in Buenos Aires. According to the Jan. 9 edition of Página 12, the key subject of discussion was Argentina’s objection to U.S. agricultural subsidies—considered a key stumbling block in the negotiations over free trade.

In the event, little progress was made in negotiations on the structure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. On Jan. 13, La Nación essentially took the Argentine government’s line: “It does not seem reasonable that the United States should present itself as the champion of free trade when it does not pursue policies that would bring greater equilibrium and equality to its own trade relations.”

Likewise, negotiations over Argentina’s $88 billion in defaulted government debt got nowhere. The Jan. 12 Clarín reported that private creditors say they would be willing to consider reducing Argentina’s debt by 35 percent. Kirchner is asking for 75 percent of Argentina’s debt to be forgiven. The United States, Clarín reported, is seeking a compromise reduction of 55-60 percent. Two days later, after Kirchner met with Bush, Clarín reported that no compromise had been reached.

The Jan. 13 La Nación linked Noriega’s comments to the failure of the debt negotiations. “Washington was initially the strongest backer of the two agreements with the IMF signed in Argentina in 2003; at the end of last year...following talks with [U.S. Secretary of the Treasury] John Snow and Lavagna, Washington once again played a key role in paving the way to an agreement. What took place in the meantime? Noriega spoke....”

For all the remaining sources of disagreement, the summit concluded on a cordial note. Kirchner and Bush were seen sharing a private joke. Nobody won by a knock-out, but everyone expressed their satisfaction with the summit’s results.

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