When President Clinton wrote a letter recently wishing happy trails to outgoing Argentine President Carlos Menem, the gesture marked more than just the golf-buddy friendship the two leaders have struck up.
The letter was acknowledgment of a special relationship forged over the decade of Mr. Menem's presidency that turned Argentina from one of the United States' more suspicious and arms-length southern neighbors into perhaps its closest and most reliable ally in the region.
That transition is indicative of a shift away from anti-American ideologies across Latin America and toward a wider opening to foreign influences and the international community - with the Argentine swing being the most dramatic.
Now with Menem leaving office the relationship with the US won't be so close, analysts say. But the opening of Argentina - and Latin America - to the world is here to stay.
"What happened in Argentina in this decade was a strategic rethinking of the country," says Daniel Geraci, undersecretary of defense for policy and strategy. "Such shifts aren't subject to a political campaign or a change of government."
According to Admiral Geraci, this rethinking was not so much based on a desire for alignment with the US as it was a conscious embrace of international values emerging in the post-cold-war years. Instead of going against the grain Argentina wanted to move with the international community on democracy, human rights, and a freer economy, he says. "The change of values led to a congruence with the US."
No more 'automatic alignment'
An Argentina under incoming president Fernando de la Rua will maintain friendly ties with the US, but what came to be called Argentina's "automatic alignment" with the US on international issues will end. Mr. de la Rua, who takes office in December, will shift Argentina slightly to a more traditional orientation toward Western Europe, observers here believe. They say the country will side more firmly with regional partners like Brazil in any conflicts with the US in areas such as trade. Washington will no longer be able to count Argentina in the "with us" column when it comes to key United Nations votes, participation in international military interventions, or a position on Cuba's communist government.
US officials say the symbolism is not lost on them that de la Rua plans to visit Europe before he goes to Washington. Since his election Oct. 24 de la Rua has said in interviews that relations with the US will change "categorically" although within a context of friendship, and that Argentina's frequent participation with troops in foreign conflicts - as in the Gulf War or Yugoslavia - is "over."
No return to anti-American past
What will not happen is a return to an anti-American past. When former president George Bush visited Argentina in 1990, leftist political parties sought to have the American president declared persona non grata. When President Clinton came here in 1997, leaders of the left-leaning parties sought private meetings with him.
"Menem made a structural change in Argentina's positioning in the world, begun by joining the Bush coalition in the Gulf and characterized by the automatic alignment with the US," says Oscar Ral Cardoso, foreign affairs analyst with the Buenos Aires daily "El Clarn." Argentina under de la Rua may be more cautious about joining interventionist forces, he adds, "But now that the country has its feet in what I'd call the Western coalition, it's not going to pull them out."
Argentina's shift is partly explained by its desire to emerge from the image it still lived with at the outset of Menem's presidency as a result of its experience in the 1980's with a military dictatorship and the Falklands war against Great Britain. Menem had to act in an "energetic" manner to make the country's shift credible, Geraci says.
That led to the Gulf War participation, only a few months into Menem's first term, followed by more participation in US-led military interventions and UN peacekeeping forces by a country that until 1993 was a staunch member of the nonaligned group.
Creation of a US-Argentine bilateral working group in defense issues, plus annual joint exercises involving the Marines in Argentina led to recent rumors that Argentina would offer territory to US forces seeking a replacement for Green Beret jungle-training facilities that will be lost this year in Panama.
But Argentine officials say neither government ever envisioned establishment of a base or anything else more permanent than the already established exercises, which mostly involve anti-drug-trafficking training.
The proposal for a base "was never offered, and it was never asked," says Jorge Raventos, a spokesman for Argentina's Foreign Ministry.
Looking ahead to the de la Rua presidency, Mr. Raventos says Argentina may become less "audacious" in international involvement, "but I believe the new direction established will be respected."
One open question is whether de la Rua will seek to put an accent on a shift by refuting the "extra-NATO" ally status the Clinton administration bestowed on Menem's Argentina. But one area where observers foresee an increase in conflict with the US is in the commercial arena.
Resisting global economy
"Part of the Alliance [of political parties that de la Rua rode to victory] is more resistant to the globalized economy as promoted by the US," says Raventos.
"Menem's vision of Mercosur [the southern cone's custom union] was more as a step towards the full hemisphere's integration," he says, "but [the Alliance] sees Mercosur as Argentina's first priority and an alternative to ALCA," or the hemispheric free-trade area the Clinton administration supports.
That difference in vision, he says, could result in stronger resistance to US leadership in regional trade negotiations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society