While President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba next month will get more attention, his stop in Argentina afterward may be almost as momentous and, at least in the short term, more consequential.
On a four-day trip through Latin America, Obama will travel to Buenos Aires on March 23 to meet new Argentine President Maurico Macri, who has pledged to end a decade and a half of financial and political isolation from the United States.
“Argentina is once again open for business,” Miguel Braun, Argentina’s secretary of trade, told a group of potential investors and other interested officials at an international forum Tuesday hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
The Macri administration has already made several moves to open its markets, including slashing export taxes on agricultural and other products. He’s talked of easing import restrictions.
Braun’s presence in Washington, the first visit by an Argentine official since since Macri’s inauguration in December, was another step. He’ll meet with officials from the State and Treasury departments, among others, as well as appearances aimed at drumming up potential business.
A conservative former mayor of Buenos Aires, Macri is seen as part of a shift back to the center for South American politics, the first change in the so-called “pink tide” of left-wing Latin American governments that largely shunned U.S. interests in favor of more inward-looking state-driven economies.
Following Macri’s election, the right-of-center opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition in Venezuela regained control of that country’s National Assembly for the first time in 16 years.
In Brazil, there have been calls to impeach leftist President Dilma Rousseff. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has publicly worried about opposition leaders in his country winning greater electoral power. Over the weekend, Bolivian voters apparently rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in office.
It’s been more than 25 years since the last state visit by an American president to Argentina, Latin America’s third-largest economy, after Brazil’s and Mexico’s. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama and Macri will discuss how to increase diplomatic, economic and other forms of cooperation.
“We believe this is really a new beginning and a new era in our relationship with Argentina,” Rhodes said, “and it mirrors the sentiment we see across the region, particularly since our Cuba opening, where there’s much more receptivity to working with the United States.”
Argentina’s welcome for the United States and the broader global economy is a dramatic shift from the previous policies of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, that isolated Argentina from the global economy.
On Tuesday, Braun described himself as a traveling salesman touting the “fantastic opportunities” for investment in agribusiness, energy and technology. But Argentina needs entrepreneurs, infrastructure upgrades and capital, including $230 billion in the energy sector over the next 10 years.
He’ll meet Wednesday with the State and Treasury departments. He’ll also talk with the United States trade representative and officials from the National Security Council.
On Monday, he met with Apple executives who, he said, told him that their best-selling app was a program written by an Argentine.
“It’s like a Trivial Pursuit kind of game,” he said.
He expressed confidence that Argentina will be able to make peace with angry creditors who are owed billions in bonds that Argentina defaulted on 14 years ago, a dispute that has locked his country out of international lending markets and discouraged foreign investment.
Fifty percent of imports come from U.S. companies that are based in other parts of the world, he said. The Macri administration wants those companies to bring their production facilities to Argentina.
Braun said he’s also interested in pursuing trade pacts through Mercosur with Europe, Canada and the United States and that Argentina is open to joining the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“We hope to be part of the Trans-Pacific agreement . . . eventually,” Braun said. “It’s going to take some time.”
Braun emphasized the changes will be gradual with an emphasis on making sure they’re sustainable. He hopes by introducing change gradually, Argentina can attract long-term investment, and not short-term interest that often increases volatility.
“We’ve seen that many of these deep adjustments end up not being sustainable,” Braun said. “We want to avoid the perpetual pendulum movements in Argentina.”