Argentines Ask If US Tack Is Worth the Cost High-Profile Ambassador to Argentina Sparks Debate over Whether Washington Exerts Too Much Influence in the Country on Issues like Government Corruption and the Armed Forces

By Julia Michaels, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 1991 | Go to article overview

Argentines Ask If US Tack Is Worth the Cost High-Profile Ambassador to Argentina Sparks Debate over Whether Washington Exerts Too Much Influence in the Country on Issues like Government Corruption and the Armed Forces


Julia Michaels, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


RELATIONS between the United States and Argentina are the closest they have been in decades, but paradoxically are also a source of irritation for many Argentines.

"The United States has become a semi-auditor," complains Carlos Bruno, a private economic consultant in Buenos Aires. "(US Ambassador Terence) Todman is known here as the virrey," he says, referring to the Spanish viceroys who once ruled Hispanic America in the king's name.

Social scientists and politicians in Buenos Aires cite a widespread belief among Argentines that the US, via Mr. Todman, is playing too large a role when it comes to the country's hottest issues: government corruption, the armed forces, the drug trade, and economic policy. Todman's high-profile stance on such issues has made him a focus for debate. Recent rapprochement

"Dignity has its effectiveness, too, in international relations," says Andres Fontana, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of State and Society, a think-tank here. "We are not an American backyard."

In the past, Argentina and the US have often been at odds over human rights and other issues. During the years of military rule, the junta resented US inquiries regarding the disappearances of thousands of Argentine citizens. And when the junta sent troops to the Falkland Islands in 1982, the US sided with Britain in the war. The country's return to democracy in 1983 removed human rights as a sticking point, but President Raul Alfonsin hewed an independent path, seeking to play a leadership role among de veloping nations.

But President Carlos Menem, who took office in July 1989 as a Peronist leader, surprised everyone with a new tack toward the US. Last year Mr. Menem sent two warships to join the allies in the Persian Gulf, the only Latin American nation to do so. This year, Argentina supported the US in a United Nations vote to investigate human rights violations in Cuba, breaking a long tradition of voting with other Latin nations.

Menem's government also last month cancelled the Air Force's Condor II ballistic missile project under pressure from the US. Argentina is weighing whether to break from the nonaligned movement.

For Argentines, this switch is hard to digest. They have "tended to see themselves as a natural leader of South America and there was a certain rivalry with the US," says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat, now professor of Latin politics at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"Argentina has suddenly decided the best they can do is throw themselves in the with US," Mr. Smith says. "Now, if I were an Argentine, I would find this very irritating and deeply disturbing."

Amid such concern has come Todman, whose unapologetic representation of US interests, has become a "kind of lightning rod" for nationalist feelings, Smith says. The ambassador may also receive more recognition because he is a black man of stature in a largely white society.

It remains to be seen whether such negative popular feelings, played out in the press, will damage political relations. Some Argentines believe Todman's pressure on the Argentine Air Force to destroy its $200 million Condor II project has stirred anti-US sentiment among the military.

"US policy predisposes the Army against (it)," says Mr. Bruno. "The policy takes power away from them, by decision of the US ambassador."

Although the threat of a military coup appears to be waning, there have been four rebellions in four years, and political scientists concede that civilian rule is still relatively fragile. 'Automatic alignment'

When President Bush visited Argentina in December, he made clear the country would get no special treatment for sending ships to the Persian Gulf. …

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