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A Chinese satellite tracking station being built in the south of Argentina that critics fear could serve as cover for a military base is emerging as a key foreign policy test forMauricio Macri, Argentina’s new centre-right president.
The satellite base in remote Patagonia is one of a number of secretive Sino-Argentine deals signed by the populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner that her successor vowed to review on concerns that it could be used to collect sensitive military information from the US.
But following its review, the government has tried to assuage critics by insisting the base is “exclusively for civil use”.
Unlike the civilian European Space Agency’s smaller station some 170 miles to the north that is mainly staffed by Argentines, the Chinese space tracking, telemetry and command facility — the first of its kind outside China — is reportedly to be staffed by a unit of that country’s People’s Liberation Army.
“A base with a Chinese flag in Argentina is not acceptable,” said Dante Caputo, a former foreign minister in the 1980s. “It’s fine to have relations with China as long as you realise that their goals are not purely commercial. If you forget that, it’s dangerous.”
The government’s less confrontational stance on the Chinese deals, along with an apparently more accommodating attitude towards socialist Venezuela, suggests Mr Macri is not breaking completely with the Kirchner foreign policy line.
On one level, there has been a major shift in Argentina’s foreign policy. This was underlined by US President Barack Obama’s show of support for the business-friendly Argentine leader in an official trip earlier this year, which followed visits from the leaders of France and Italy. Mr Macri has also just returned from a trip to Brussels, Berlin and Sun Valley in the US as part of a crusade to attract foreign investment to reactivate Argentina’s struggling economy.
It’s fine to have relations with China as long as you realise that their goals are not purely commercial. If you forget that, it’s dangerous
“How many heads of state beyond the region visited Argentina during the Kirchner years? Hardly any. That is a very real indicator of the level of diplomacy of the previous government,” said Mr Caputo, who described Ms Fernández’s foreign policy as “terrible”.
Jason Marczak, a director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said there has been a “180 degree shift” from the protectionist policies of Ms Fernández, who favoured relations with countries such as China and Russia that challenged US influence.
“Macri has fundamentally shifted Argentina from being an isolated country to an engaged global player. This is a complete reversal from the previous administration,” he said, pointing to “significantly enhanced” relations with the US and Europe.
Macri has fundamentally shifted Argentina from being an isolated country to an engaged global player.
Even so, Mr Marczak pointed out that China was a major global power and Argentina’s second largest trading partner, a hungry consumer of its principal export, soya.
“Argentina is not going to ditch China in favour of the US. Some of the agreements with China may have caused a lot of controversy, but it is imperative that Argentina does not turn off an important trading partner. Macri has to walk a fine line,” he said.
Mr Macri also appears to have softened his aggressive stance towards Venezuela, where a humanitarian crisis is deepening as many citizens struggle to find enough food or medicine to cover basic needs, triggering mounting social unrest. After winning elections last year he promised to have Venezuela suspended from Mercosur, the regional trade bloc, over human rights violations. But that never happened, and Argentina has since been condemned by the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States for “obstructing” moves to suspend Venezuela from that body.
One seasoned Argentine diplomat said that Mr Macri’s backpedalling on issues over which he had been fiercely critical obey a well-established rule that “the further away from power you are, the more irresponsible you can be, and vice versa.”
We are living through a process of change whereby Argentina, a country of much less economic importance than Brazil, could become the key player in leading the direction of the region
“As a presidential candidate, Macri was inexperienced and influenced by the press. But now he has suddenly found himself facing the reality and limitations of exercising power,” he said.
Moreover, Mr Macri’s decisions are influenced by his growing leadership role in Latin America, whose most powerful economy, Brazil, is in the midst of a political and economic crisis which could set it back for years.
“We are living through a process of change whereby Argentina, a country of much less economic importance than Brazil, could become the key player in leading the direction of the region,” said the diplomat. “That is playing on Macri’s mind a lot.”
Nevertheless, Mr Macri faces “an uphill battle” to achieve the ultimate goal of his foreign policy, which is to break down commercial barriers and harness foreign investment to reboot the economy, says Mr Marczak. “The question is, what can the US and Europe do to support Macri? If he doesn’t succeed then we could see a return of the Argentina of the Kirchner years.”