Barack Obama cheered on streets of Buenos Aires

Meeting with Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri marks end to years of sour relations


US president Barack Obama met Argentina’s new centre-right leader Mauricio Macri on Wednesday on a visit to reset diplomatic relations and strengthen trade ties after years of tension between the two countries.

Thousands of people cheered Mr Obama’s motorcade as it made its way along Buenos Aires’s tree-lined boulevards, handing the US leader a friendlier reception than that received by his predecessor George W Bush, whose presence at a Summit of the Americas in 2005 was met with protests and snubbed by the-then president Nestor Kirchner.

Mr Obama and Mr Macri shook hands warmly at the Casa Rosada presidential palace before heading into talks.

Mr Obama’s two-day visit marks a rapprochement after more than a decade of sour relations and is a sign of support for Mr Macri’s investor-friendly reforms aimed at opening up Latin America’s No 3 economy.

US officials have been keen to promote Mr Macri as a leader in a region where for the past 10 years a socialist bloc turned its back on the United States and once high-flying leftist governments now face corruption scandals and economic weakness.

Mr Obama’s visit represents “a 180-degree turn in relations between Argentina and the United States”, the Clarin newspaper said in a headline.

Under the sunny skies of a crisp southern hemisphere autumn day, Mr Obama was also due to lay a wreath at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral and meet young entrepreneurs before attending a state dinner.

France’s president Francois Hollande and Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi also recently visited Argentina, quick to reach out to a South American leader whose predecessor forged closer ties with Venezuela, Iran and China.

“It’s good that Obama is visiting. Closing ourselves off in a Chavez-like system was not the way to go,” said Claudio Mazzakalli, a 32-year-old locksmith, referring to Venezuela’s former socialist president, Hugo Chavez.

In his first 100 days in office, Mr Macri lifted capital and trade controls, slashed bloated power subsidies and cut a debt deal with “holdout” creditors in the United States. US officials say Mr Obama has been impressed by the pace of reform.

Mr Macri still has to grapple with double-digit inflation, a yawning fiscal deficit and a shortage of hard currency.

Luring foreign investors is a cornerstone of his strategy to revive the economy, and Mr Obama arrives with a large business delegation in tow.

‘Dirty War’

Left-wing political parties have threatened protests during Mr Obama’s visit, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the coup on March 24th, 1976, that installed the “dirty war” military junta.

Some are wary of too warm a detente with Washington, which was an early supporter of the bloody 1976-1983 dictatorship.

“The timing of the visit is a provocation,” said Miguel Funes (39), a lawmaker from former president Cristina Fernandez’s Front for Victory party.

The United States initially backed the dictatorship, which killed up to 30,000 people in a crackdown against Marxist rebels, labor unions and leftist opponents.

Many were “forcibly disappeared”– a euphemism for kidnapped and murdered – and hundreds of children were stolen from their imprisoned parents.

The United States announced last week it would declassify documents from US military and intelligence agencies related to the dictatorship, a move aimed at soothing criticism over the timing of the trip.

In the 1990s, relations between Washington and Buenos Aires were so close the foreign minister of then president Carlos Menem described them as “carnal”.

But a 2001-2002 economic depression left millions of Argentines fuming against the US-backed neoliberal reforms. Relations hit new lows during Ms Fernandez’s 2008-2015 time in office.

Mr Macri has urged a “productive and intelligent” relationship. He and Mr Obama will discuss the economy, climate change and drug trafficking. US officials say a number of bilateral agreements are expected.

Carlos Guglielmi, a bank worker, welcomed the thaw in relations but said his main concern was Mr Macri’s economic reforms.

“It’s good that Macri has Obama’s support. But what he needs is the support of the Argentine people,” said Mr Guglielmi. “If he governs only for the rich and keeps cutting state spending, his popularity won’t last.”