When Air Force One landed outside Buenos Aires on Wednesday, Barack Obama became the sixth US president to visit Argentina – technically speaking, that is, for reasons to be explained below. In the last year of his presidency, Obama’s schedule-makers arranged a trip to follow his path-breaking visit to Cuba this week, but that caused something of a kerfuffle because the date of his visit to Buenos Aires – March 24 – coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup that toppled the government of President Isabel Martínez de Perón in 1976 and started a reign of terror that became known as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) – for which many Argentines have blamed the United States.
With that as background, it could be helpful to provide a short chronology of those presidential visits – the first of which was Theodore Roosevelt in 1913 – or was he? By that time, Roosevelt was an ex-president whose term had expired in 1909, and he had lost as a third-party candidate in 1912. He did visit Buenos Aires, but his heart was in Patagonia, where he met the pioneer Argentine conservationist Francisco P. Moreno in Bariloche (in the photo above Moreno, dressed in white, stands to Roosevelt’s left).
In truth, then, the first US president to visit Argentina officially was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent four days in Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and Bariloche in February of 1960. Hosted by then President Arturo Frondizi, he even addressed the Argentine Congress but, at the same time, police tear-gassed demonstrators loyal to the exiled Juan Domingo Perón. In Bariloche, though, Eisenhower fished and golfed while staying at the classic Hotel Llao Llao (pictured above).
It was another 30 years before President George H.W. Bush’s visit coincided with a military uprising by so-called carapintadas, rogue junior officers who had staged several rebellious incidents in previous years. Bush, to his credit, did not cancel or postpone his trip at a time when many still considered Argentine democracy a fragile flower. He did, however, play tennis with then President Carlos Menem (pictured above).
President Bill Clinton’s October 1997 visit included a breakfast with Menem, where (in retrospect) he overstated the success of Argentine economic reforms that ended in the economic collapse of 2001 and their reversal under the populism of Presidents Néstor Kirchner and his successor/wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Clinton also met with Jewish leaders concerned about Buenos Aires terrorist bombings in 1992 and 1994 – neither of which has been solved – and participated in a televised town hall. Like Eisenhower, he stayed at the Llao Llao, indulged himself in golf there, and also went for an excursion on Lago Nahuel Huapi (pictured above) and spoke about global warming.
All those visits were congenial, but the 2005 visit of George W. Bush – for the fourth Summit of the Americas in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata (pictured above) – was a disaster. It may not have been so catastrophic as his Iraq invasion but, as the New York Times editorialized, "he and his delegation failed to get even a minimally face-saving outcome at the collapsed trade talks and allowed a loudmouthed opportunist like [President Hugo Chávez] of Venezuela to steal the show." There was no thought of a recreational breather - the widely despised Bush Jr. left with his tail between his legs.
Most recently, last week, President Obama received a warm welcome from newly elected Mauricio Macri, who succeeded Fernández de Kirchner (whose relations with the US were tense at best). Obama’s arrival put the conservative Macri in the awkward position of having to acknowledge “Dirty War” crimes of a period he’d probably rather ignore. One stop was the riverside Parque de la Memoria, dedicated to victims of the dictatorship, where the US president tossed a wreath into the water. The wall depicted above registers names of the victims, one of whom was my brother-in-law’s first wife.
Obama took some flack for his arrival at this sensitive time – in fairness, presidential itineraries are not easy to arrange – but he responded by announcing the release of confidential documents about US encouragement of the 1976 coup. That was not enough for large crowds of the previous president’s supporters, who seemed to think he was a coup-mongering second coming of George W. Bush.
Obama had made some untimely public criticisms of Fernández de Kirchner, but the visit still seems to mark the end of her administration’s international isolationism. Following the meetings with Macri, the Obamas headed for Bariloche – now the traditional destination of US presidents in the country – where they stayed at the Llao Llao, took a boat trip on Nahuel Huapi, and Obama himself sipped a brew at the Cervecería Berlina (pictured above).