US Attention Delights Visiting Argentine Head


PRESIDENT Clinton's approval of a proposed ``civilian rapid-response capability for humanitarian crises,'' was a brief mention in his lengthy address to the United Nations on Monday, but it sparked new radiance in Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem.

The idea was President Menem's, and he hasn't let anyone forget it. Since Mr. Clinton's speech, Menem has repeatedly pointed out this latest indication of the now-chummy relationship that exists between Argentina and the United States.

Menem has done plenty of bragging without bringing up Clinton's name as he has traveled from New York to Boston, with plans to make stops in Los Angeles and San Diego before returning to Argentina on Oct 1.

Menem has touted himself as the master of an economic miracle. During his presidency, Argentina's inflation rate has dropped from upwards of 4,000 percent four years ago to an expected 8 percent this year and the annual growth rate has held at between 6 percent and 8 percent a year over the last four years.

Since 1983, when the last of a spate of Argentine dictatorships crumbled, the country has struggled to install basic democratic freedoms, dismantle a bloated state-run economy, and shed its isolationist tendencies.

Though Menem often refers to his successes in crafting a market economy, he gives nearly as much weight to his nation's new place on the international scene.

``We didn't realize the world was marching toward integration and we were being left alone,'' Menem said at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday, explaining the motivation for economic reform.

Then, referring to Argentina's contribution of troops to the Gulf war, Croatia, and a UN patrol of the Haitian-Dominican Republic border, as well as the signing of a regional nuclear non-proliferation treaty, he said: ``On an international level, we're back in the world, we're back on the map.''

Menem's actions internationally have largely been in step with the US, most recently evidenced by his backing of the US-led intervention in Haiti, a mission unpopular with most Latin American countries.

``A closer alliance with the US makes more sense than trying to be part of a third world club or even a Latin American [bloc],'' says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on US-Latin American policy based in Washington. ``Menem's strategy is to ask: `Where is our real interest?' ''

Menem spoke of the benefits of aligning his country with the US. ``We are joining one of the biggest states on earth without giving up any relations with other nations,'' he said. ``And since 1989, when Argentina improved realtions with the US, we have entered a new, modern age.''

And this goodwill is exchanged without any hope of quick acceptance into an expanded North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton has made it well-known that Chile is next in line for NAFTA. But there is a certain amount of prestige at home and abroad for Menem to have connections to the US. ``Menem is happy to be a player on the international stage; not a major player, but a player, nonetheless,'' says William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington.

The US benefits from this partnership as well. In addition to winning another hemispheric friend for its peacekeeping activities and increased access of new export markets, the US gains by having a special relationship with any stable democracy in the region, Professor LeoGrande says.

``The US would probably be equally happy to have Brazil or Chile [be a regional ally],'' he says. ``I don't think there is anything intrinsic about Argentina per se.''

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