Obama Visit Affirms Argentina’s Shift Toward Center

March 23, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — The last time an American president visited Argentina, he got caught in the maw of a rising leftist movement in Latin America.

In 2005, when President George W. Bush sought to push through a free-trade agreement for the Americas, he was skewered by Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, in a speech at a soccer stadium. Néstor Kirchner, the Argentine president, lectured Mr. Bush about regional policies promoted by the United States that had caused “misery and poverty.” The free-trade accord was ditched.

A decade later the backdrop to President Obama’s visit, beginning Wednesday, could not be more different. Mr. Chávez and Mr. Kirchner are dead, the momentum sapped from their leftist movement; and Argentina’s new center-right government is pursuing cozier ties with Washington.

“This is a historic opportunity for a new relationship, a new chapter,” Marcos Peña, the chief of cabinet, said at a briefing with reporters last week.

Mr. Obama’s decision to come to Argentina now — straight after his visit to Cuba, where the Communist government is slowly opening to market forces — signals Washington’s backing for a shift to the center, foreign policy analysts say. He may also be seeking to firm up the United States’ position in the region, where China has been establishing a foothold.

“Obama is working like a sort of pendulum,” said Carlos Escudé, a foreign policy adviser to the government of President Carlos Saúl Menem in the 1990s. “He’s going to the Communist regime that is transforming itself, and then he’s coming to the new right-of-center regime.”

Mr. Obama’s trip is also a show of support for President Mauricio Macri, who took office in December and has made market-oriented policy changes as he seeks new flows of foreign investment to reinvigorate a sluggish economy.

Mr. Macri, the scion of a wealthy family and a former mayor of Buenos Aires, is also repositioning Argentina internationally, distancing the country from socialist Venezuela, courting global business leaders, and welcoming his counterparts from Europe and the United States.

These moves reverse the strategy of his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Her nationalist policies often hindered trade and investment, and she reveled in pitting herself against Argentina’s business establishment and the United States, preferring to cultivate ties with Russia and China.

“If anything should befall me,” Mrs. Kirchner said in a 2014 speech criticizing a judge in New York who had scolded her government for its behavior in an international debt dispute, “look to the North.”

“Mrs. Kirchner committed the error of winning political ground domestically at the cost of losing ground internationally,” said Dante Caputo, a former foreign minister, referring to how such comments energized her supporters.

Mr. Obama’s advisers say he sees in Mr. Macri the potential for a productive relationship after a period he labeled “anti-American” in a recent interview with CNN.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity to work with the Macri administration,” said Mark Feierstein, the top Western Hemisphere official in Mr. Obama’s National Security Council.

Mr. Macri has made counternarcotics a tenet of his administration. Patricia Bullrich, the security minister, has already been in Washington to meet with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration; and government agencies that investigate money laundering revived bilateral cooperation this week after relations had soured under Mrs. Kirchner.

In other areas, Mr. Macri moved to end the prolonged debt dispute by reaching an agreement with litigating hedge funds in New York, although the deal still requires approval from the Argentine Senate. He also wants to increase bilateral trade, which has stalled in recent years, and lure American investors to Argentina’s renewable energy sector. (On Tuesday, Dow, a company based in Michigan, announced that it would invest in a wind farm.)

Talks are underway, too, to ease restrictions on Argentines traveling to the United States. Last month, the United States stopped its policy of opposing loans to Argentina from the World Bank. Susana Malcorra, the Argentine foreign minister, said at a news conference this week that a new free-trade agreement between Mercosur, a South American bloc, and the United States, could be a medium-term goal.

While these stronger links between Argentina and the United States are being cheered in the business community, many Argentines fear Mr. Obama’s visit means Washington may assert new influence here.

“We hope the government of Macri knows to serve the permanent interests of our country, not govern according to ideological criteria,” Axel Kicillof, an economy minister under Mrs. Kirchner who is now a lawmaker, said in an interview.

In Havana on Tuesday, Mr. Obama urged the region to “leave behind” these attitudes that focus on ideological struggles. “We are all Americans,” he said in Spanish during a speech.

But the attitudes have deep roots. Tensions in Argentina have endured since at least 1946, when a State Department official tried to foil Juan Domingo Perón, who would become a three-time president. Questions also remain about Washington’s role in the early stages of Argentina’s “dirty war,” when thousands of people were abducted during a military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.

In the 1990s, Mr. Menem, who put in place free-market policies, aligned Argentina more closely with the United States. But that decade ended disastrously with an economic crisis that plunged millions into poverty.

“It’s the same imperialist manual as always,” said Elena Pensa, 28, a music therapist here who works with cerebral palsy patients. “We’ll lose sovereignty. They’re giving away our country,” she added, echoing worries that a clique of policy makers who used to work on Wall Street may be too pliant to American interests.

Fewer than half of Argentines have a favorable view of the United States, according to a study published last year by the Pew Research Center in Washington.

Mr. Peña, the chief of cabinet, said the government would seek to thread a needle between what Mr. Menem’s foreign minister, Guido Di Tella, described as “carnal relations” and the hostility of Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner.

But experts warn that could be a tough task. “We have never found an equilibrium,” said Roberto Russell, a professor of international relations at Torcuato di Tella University here.

Mr. Obama, who will be accompanied by a delegation of business leaders, is set to meet with Mr. Macri late Wednesday morning at the presidential palace before speaking to young people at a cultural center. He and Michelle Obama will attend a state dinner in the evening.

On Thursday, he will take a day trip with his family to Bariloche, a lakeside tourist city in Patagonia visited by Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Obama will formally order the declassification of United States military and intelligence files that could shed light on human rights crimes perpetrated by Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship. And on Thursday morning he will visit a riverside memorial park here that honors thousands of people associated with leftist ideology who were systematically kidnapped and murdered during the dictatorship. Thursday is the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the dictatorship to power, and the timing of Mr. Obama’s visit had infuriated prominent human rights activists.

Despite some antagonism, many Argentines look favorably toward an era of renewed cooperation with the United States and accompanying market-oriented policies.

“We’ve been in a political cesspit; people were so disillusioned,” said María de la Paz Fernández, 67, a janitor who immigrated here from Spain as a child. “I hope this is for the good of the country.”