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Argentines Question Value of Close Relations with US - 2003-08-21

After a decade of close relations between Washington and Buenos Aires, Argentina says it will focus more on ties with its immediate neighbors. VOA's Michael Bowman was recently in Buenos Aires.

For much of the 1990s, Argentina pursued close relations with the United States - what a foreign minister at the time, Guido di Tella, famously called "carnal" relations. The term became widely known, as Argentina regularly voted with the United States on matters before the United Nations, and contributed peacekeeping troops to the former-Yugoslavia and elsewhere. For its part, the United States named Argentina a "major non-NATO ally," a status held by only a handful of nations, including Israel, Egypt, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

For many Argentines, suffering through a severe period of economic hardship, the value of the alliance is not clear, and some openly disparage it. The bitterness is evident in comments from Fabiana Torres, who has been unemployed since Argentina sank into a financial crisis 20 months ago.

"We [Argentines] do not think we received any benefit from the 'carnal' relations," Ms. Torres says. "The only thing the United States does is plunder other countries, like Argentina, to our last drop of blood."

In 1995, the United States helped rescue Mexico from financial catastrophe, extending a multi-billion dollar emergency credit. But the U.S. government reacted differently when Argentina was in trouble. No U.S. aid reached the country in late 2001, when the country defaulted on its massive foreign debt and abandoned a program that had pegged the peso one-to-one with the U.S. dollar.

That program had allowed Argentines to take their pesos to the bank and deposit them in dollar-denominated accounts. In late 2001, the government froze those accounts, and later decreed that the funds be converted to pesos, which have since lost nearly two-thirds of their value.

Retiree Josefina Mangi belongs to a group of angry bank patrons who, twice a week, pound on the doors at the Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires.

For Ms. Mangi, the banks are thieves. "We have worked all our lives: we deposited dollars, we want dollars," she says.

The Bank of Boston did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But officials from other banks have said they had no choice but to obey the Argentine government's decree that converted dollar-held accounts to domestic currency.

Nevertheless, the controversy has, for some Argentines, contributed to a belief that the United States and its financial institutions are not to be trusted - and that the alliance between Buenos Aires and Washington is a failure.

At the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, researcher Mark Falcoff points out that the notion of "carnal" relations was flawed from the beginning.

"It was Argentina that defined the relationship in such a graphic way, not the United States. I found that [to be] a very inopportune characterization and one that inevitably set everyone up for disappointment," he said. "The United States did not ask for that kind of a relationship and was not in a position to deliver anything special in exchange for it."

At Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, international relations professor Carlos Escude defends Argentina's decision to pursue close relations with Washington in the 1990s. He notes that Argentina received significant foreign investment during that period. As for the country's current plight, Mr. Escude thinks the United States should not be blamed for Argentina's shortcomings.

"If one establishes an alliance with the United States and, at the same time, incurs an enormous budget deficit and allows corruption to flourish, there is no alliance capable of fixing such a situation," Mr. Escude says. "For a sound foreign policy to work, it has to be matched by domestic policies that are just as sound."

Today, Argentina has a new president, Nestor Kirchner, who has pledged to retool his country's foreign policy. His spokesman, Miguel Nunez, says Argentina intends to concentrate on strengthening relations with neighboring countries that are members of Mercosur, the economic bloc made up of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Mr. Nunez says, first comes Mercosur and then the rest of the world. "We want serious relations with other countries and the possibility of opening up foreign markets to Argentine products," he says. "The focus is on strengthening the regional market."

Some observers question, however, whether the Kirchner administration's actions will match its rhetoric. One of Mr. Kirchner's first trips abroad after assuming the presidency was to Washington, at the invitation of the Bush administration.