Missing the boat to Argentina

ON Sunday, Argentina inaugurated a new president, Néstor Kirchner, and virtually every head of state in Latin America was here to lend support. Fidel Castro was the biggest celebrity in town, followed by Lula da Silva from Brazil, and Hugo Chávez from Venezuela.

The best that the US could come up with was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez. Perhaps this wasn't an intendedsnub, because the White House similarly sent only its US Trade Representative to Lula's inauguration in Brazil. But all the Argentine media have noted the absence of a higher-ranking official.

Unfortunately Mr. Kirchner needs the boost of as many visiting dignitaries as possible. Emerging from the worst depression in the nation's history, Argentines are desperate that he perform well. But he becomes president with only 22 percent of the vote. Former President Carlos Menem, the winner of the first round of voting, withdrew his candidacy rather than face certain defeat in a runoff. However, he did not withdraw in a concession of defeat, but rather to rob Kirchner of the legitimacy of an electoral mandate.

Oddly, many Argentines assume that the US supports Menem, whose scandal-plagued presidency from 1989 to 1999 set the free-spending policies that are widely believed responsible for the current economic disaster. Menem is perceived as having strong ties to the Bush family, because the elder George Bush met with him on five trips to Argentina after leaving the presidency and several times in the US.

As president, Menem's foreign policy was always one of complete deference to the US; his own foreign minister once used the term "carnal relations" to describe the Argentine-US relationship.

On the campaign trail this year, Menem came out in favor of paying back Argentina's entire foreign debt, however unrealistic that may be.

Argentina's economy remains unstable after a meltdown during 2002. Bank financing remains nonexistent, unemployment approaches 20 percent, and what was once a broad middle class has collapsed into poverty. Many Argentines assume that the US wishes to punish Argentina for its default on its foreign debt and wants to keep Argentina weak.

Kirchner will need to consolidate power, and it remains unclear whether he'll do so by buying friends through patronage and corruption or through legitimate political reform. As a provincial governor, he packed the judiciary and subordinated most checks on his power. Further, he reached the presidential runoff thanks to an alliance with interim President Eduardo Duhalde, who leads a Peronist machine in greater Buenos Aires that is often viewed as being as corrupt as Menem's.

But Kirchner also presented a strikingly moderate inaugural address, calling for fiscal discipline, a crackdown on tax evasion and corruption, and new public works, with no populist bombast.

When the US engages a country, whether with trade, aid, or just high-level visits, progressive forces find themselves with greater political space.

US backing can encourage reformers to take risks against a corrupt status quo, because the US can offer new opportunities for trade or recognition. It's hard to imagine how the Bush administration plans to negotiate the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas when it fails to send a top official to major Latin American events.

The presence of Secretary of State Colin Powell or Vice President Dick Cheney at Kirchner's inauguration would have been the sort of healthy support that prevents painful interventions later. The markets would have taken note, and Argentines would perceive that the US wants their country to be successful.

Instead, in a country whose new president needs legitimacy to confront huge problems, and where his despised opponent flaunts Bush family ties, the US leaves it to Fidel Castro to party with the winner.

Today, even the US students studying in Buenos Aires are pleading for tickets to get to hear Mr. Castro. It's too bad there's not another show in town.

Jonathan M. Miller, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law, established Southwestern's summer law program in Argentina and has published two books in Argentina on Argentine constitutional law.

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