With its incredible endowment of natural resources — some of the richest soil in the world, a variety of climates including a large temperate zone, oil, uranium and other minerals, enormous hydroelectric resources, a homogenous population of European descent — Argentina should be one of the world’s most prosperous and stable societies.
Not so long ago, it was. Argentina seemed destined to become one of the major nations of the world, just behind Italy. In 1909, the per capita income in Argentina was 50 percent than that of Italy, 180 percent higher than Japan, and almost five times higher than in neighboring Brazil. Buenos Aires was (and still is) one of the leading cultural centers of the Spanish-speaking world.
But Argentina’s dependence on unprocessed agricultural exports set it up as a particular victim of the Great Depression and inspired poor terms of trade for commodities. What followed were decades of far-fetched efforts to industrialize through state capitalism under demagogic leaders, most famously represented by Juan Peron and his consort, Eva, romanticized in the United States but in fact a disaster for Argentina to cry about.
President Obama’s short visit to Buenos Aires late next month is a recognition that something, and maybe something good, is afoot. A revolution is brewing in Argentine politics, brought about by the election last November of the American-educated pro-business president, Mauricio Macri, the former mayor of Buenos Aires One of Mr. Macri’s principal aims is to strengthen Argentina’s foreign ties after years of combative relations, particularly with the United States, under his left-wing predecessors.
“We believe this is really a new beginning and a new era in our relations with Argentina,” Ben Rhodes, one of President Obama’s closest advisers, says. Others see the opening, too. French President Francois Hollande and Italian premier Matteo Renzi have already paid calls in Buenos Aires.
Mr. Macri’s election was a surprise and he has a daunting job ahead of him. Although Argentina’s 38 millions have Latin America’s third largest economy, a $100 billion default in 2001 made Argentina a financial pariah, closing it out of international capital markets. He has moved swiftly to clear the remaining $9 billion in claims by offering a $6.5 billion settlement. Within days of taking office, he cut 21,000 public sector workers from the bloated public payroll, devalued the peso and discontinued long-running fuel subsidies. He made it clear that he’s against a government role in promoting industry. He proposed tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers. That suggests that more cuts are ahead, since Mr. Macri pledged to reduce the government deficit.
Naturally, such dramatic policy changes have inspired heated opposition. Within weeks of his taking office, he inspired public-worker protests against 30 percent inflation and public-job cuts. Public-opinion polls indicate Mr. Macri still has the voters with him; job approval is still high at 60 percent, though it has fallen 11 points over the two months he has been in office. Twelve percent of those who voted for him say they wouldn’t do it again.
The new president has made his new Argentine foreign policy loud and clear. He denounced the taking of political prisoners in Venezuela and called for it to be tossed out of Mercosur, the South American politico-economic alliance. This makes his pro-American sentiments equally clear. President Obama has the opportunity now to show that his crush on the Castro brothers in Cuba, who continue to snuff freedoms, was merely a summer romance, and to make a dramatic gesture of support for Mr. Macri in Argentina. That’s a bet more worth taking.
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