WASHINGTON — When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford added a stop in Argentina to his trade mission to Brazil last June, the side trip should've raised eyebrows because he was undertaking a trade mission that the U.S. government was unwilling to make.
Although Sanford described the visit in a statement Thursday as "an entirely professional and appropriate business development trip," Argentina has been a financial pariah since it defaulted on its international debt after its decade-long effort to peg its currency to the U.S. dollar collapsed in late 2001. Argentina effectively told its creditors it was their fault that they'd lent to the nation and declined to pay or restructure much of its foreign debt.
Sanford said Thursday that he'd repay South Carolina taxpayers for the $8,000 cost of his trip to Argentina.
The Commerce Department halted high-level trade missions to Argentina after Argentina reneged on its debts. A Commerce Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly, confirmed that Sanford's visit contradicted federal policy.
While he was in Argentina, Sanford met a former Argentine vice president whose administration had a falling out with Bush administration and had drawn close to Venezuela, a Cuba ally and a U.S. foe.
Sanford, not the U.S. Commerce Department, contacted the U.S. Embassy for quick help in setting up meetings with Argentine officials as he was modifying his trip to Brazil. Sanford was able to meet with Daniel Scioli, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina's manufacturing and agriculture base.
Scioli (pronounced she-OH-lee) was vice president until 2007, and he used that post to win election as governor of the country's most important province. He's a former offshore powerboat racer who lost his right arm in a boating accident.
A Spanish-language press release, dated June 26, 2008, and still on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, said that Sanford and Scioli "shared ideas and opinions about how to expand commercial exchange and investment in their districts."
Argentina didn't agree to pay its debt to the Paris Club, made up of the 19 richest nations that provide loans to developing countries, until last September. In a Sept. 2 statement, the State Department called Argentina's willingness to repay "an important first step" toward creating opportunities for investors to return to Argentina.
It's not clear how Sanford, whose state generates 1.5 percent of all U.S. exports, arranged a meeting with the governor of Argentina's most important agricultural state. A Scioli aide declined comment, saying the Argentine governor's team didn't want to deal with a distraction with imminent provincial elections in Argentina.
Sanford's office wasn't answering calls from reporters on Thursday.
Sanford's tearful news conference on Wednesday suggests that trade wasn't the opportunity the South Carolina government sought in Argentina. Sanford has said the business trip was a legitimate effort to boost farm interests, but U.S. farmers are among those most hurt by Argentina's refusal to pay off its debts.
A group called the American Task Force Argentina continues to press for resolution. Among members it lists on its Web site are farm groups such as the American Corn Growers Association, the Independent Cattleman's Association of Texas and the Cattle Producers of Washington.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow South American news at McClatchy's Inside South America