Years of tense US-Argentina ties began to ease with a desperate search for a lost sub

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, and Argentina’s Defense Minister Oscar Raul Aguad shake hands in Buenos Aires, Argentina Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Mattis is on an official visit to several South American countries.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, and Argentina’s Defense Minister Oscar Raul Aguad shake hands in Buenos Aires, Argentina Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Mattis is on an official visit to several South American countries. AP Photo

With the Argentine defense minister declaring gratitude for Pentagon aid in last year’s desperate, failed search for a lost submarine, Jim Mattis became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit this country since 2005 — signaling a warming in U.S.-Argentinian military ties that were mostly severed for more than a decade of left-wing political leadership.

“We have come back to the road we should never have left,” declared Argentine defense minister Oscar Aguad before meeting with Mattis and his staff.

Afterward, Mattis said the two sides had committed to resume joint exercises and other collaboration, including unspecified U.S. military support to help provide security for the G20 Summit here Nov. 30 to Dec. 1. Argentina’s role as host of the upcoming meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies illustrates Argentina’’s “growing leadership role on the global stage,” Mattis’ spokeswoman, Dana White, said in a statement afterward.

A warming of relations in general began in the Obama administration after Mauricio Macri became president in December 2015 following more than a decade of leftist, isolationist leadership by former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner. It continued with Macri’s visit to the White House last year where President Donald Trump greeted the former Argentine businessman and one-time golfing partner as an old friend.

Still, the Buenos Aires stop on Mattis’ first trip to South America, after Brazil and before Chile and Colombia, was seen as a significant step in rebuilding a military partnership that had all but disappeared in the Kirchner years. Argentina stopped sending troops to U.S. education programs, including exchanges, and ceased hosting U.S. troops in joint exercises for years.

U.S. military and Latin American experts watched warily as financially needy Argentina let the Chinese military build a $50 million space satellite mission control station in Patagonia on a lease agreement that demonstrated Beijing’s expanding role in the Hemisphere.

“I wouldn’t say it’s threatening,” said Jason Marczak, a Latin America policy expert at the Atlantic Council, “but the military base shows the increased ties that Beijing has, both commercial and military in the region, and it’s a wake-up call to the United States of the importance of not turning away from Latin America, and finding new ways to promote greater military cooperation.”

Frank Mora, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere from 2009 to 2013, said on the eve of Mattis’ trip that the Chinese space station, which began operating in March, “should be of concern.

“What is that about? Is it an intelligence facility? Why in Argentina?” He added it “should be of more concern than the trade deals. People freak out and say, ‘Oh the Chinese are trading, the Chinese are investing.’ We should be competing in that space, we should be investing rather than freaking out. However, a satellite base is a different story altogether.”

Soon after he departed Washington on Sunday, however, Mattis appeared to conflate the two questions by warning that foreign investments in the region could carry hidden dangers for democracy and national security.

“There’s more than one way to lose sovereignty in this world; it’s not just by bayonets,” he told reporters.. “It can also be by countries that come in bearings gifts and large loans” that pile up “massive debt on countries, knowing they will not be able to repay it, or large projects where people don’t get the jobs for them. Other countries bring in their own workers.”

Wednesday, Mattis acknowledged that the space satellite “came up” in his talks at the defense ministry but remarked, “that it is part of sovereign Argentina.”

Mattis’ was the first visit to Argentina by a U.S. Defense chief since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited in March of 2005 and declared the relationship “continues to strengthen.”

“We focused on what we can do working together as they go through very difficult economic times,” Mattis said. “Both sides are very open to a stronger military-to-military relationship in complete transparency, so there cannot be any doubt about what’s going on — nothing secret going on. It’s all looking very good.”

Macri, a successful businessman in the construction, finance and car manufacturing sector, was one of the first Latin American leaders to reach out to Trump following the November election. The two had a business and golfing relationship that predated either man’s presidency.

“He’s been my friend for many years,” Trump said, when Macri visited the White House 16 months ago. “We’ve known each other for long, prior to politics.”

But the restoration of US-Argentine military ties have lagged behind the personal relationship. Macri, whose government is pushing to increase the role of the military along the northern border, a sensitive move, didn’t meet with Mattis this week. Between the Dirty War and the Kirchner years, Argentinians still have a distrust of the military.

A woman places flowers by a cut out image of the ARA San Juan submarine on the fence at the naval base in Mar de Plata, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. The Argentine navy says an explosion occurred near the time and place where the submarine went missing on Nov. 15, leading some family members of the crew to give up hope of a rescue. Esteban Felix AP Photo

Then a national tragedy late last year created an opening. An Argentinian submarine with 44 sailors on board, the ARA San Juan, disappeared in the South Atlantic on Nov. 14. Britain, Russia and the United States sent help.

The Pentagon scrambled state-of-the-art equipment “as fast as we could get there,” Mattis recalled Sunday at the beginning of his four-nation tour of South America. “We did everything we could with the best technology in the world, the same technology, the same level of support if a U.S. submarine had gone down off Virginia.”

He also cited the episode at Brazil’s War College Tuesday as an example of enduring ties.

“We want to be your partner of choice, especially if trouble looms — when refugee flows across your borders must be addressed, when a shipping disaster happens in a South American navy and a submarine goes down, when threats to your sovereignty or way of life manifest.”

The Argentine defense minister highlighted the episode, too, in welcoming Mattis to Buenos Aires. The U.S. was “the country that contributed the most to the search for the submarine,” Aguad told journalists. “Such a gesture shall never be forgotten.”

In the course of the visit it was disclosed that an American firm, Ocean Infinity, Inc., had signed a contract with the Argentine government to resume the search for the lost sub. The Houston-based firm was devoting five of its six autonomous underwater vehicles to collect high resolution seabed data.

The contract was “on a success only basis,” spokesman Mark Antelme told McClatchy Wednesday, describing the contract publicly for the first time. “If we don’t find it, we don’t get paid — as in we carry the economic risk.”

“We would expect to commence operations in early September and for the sake of all involved in this tragedy hope that we can help locate the submarine,” Antelme said. “As ever, there can be no guarantee of success as the exact location is unknown, as are the circumstances around her loss.”

SEA, a firm founded in Caracas with a Miami point of contact. also bid for the project but was not chosen, an Argentine government announcement shows.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed how many autonomous underwater vehicles that firm Ocean Infinity Inc. devoted to collecting data for the Argentine government. The firm sent five vehicles. It also incorrectly listed Donald Rumsfeld’s title when he visited Argentina. He was the secretary of Defense.