By Pablo Vivanco on March 24, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech during a visit at the Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park), where they honored victims of Argentina’s Dirty War on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup that initiated that period of military rule, in Buenos Aires, March 24, 2016.
He downplayed U.S. support for dictatorships in the region and actively peddled the same policies that have kept Latin America poor and indebted.
In many ways, Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba and Argentina lived up to the hype.
Since making the announcement of his trip on Feb. 18, 2016, there had been a whirlwind of speculation as to what exactly Obama would do and say on the island. Over 1,400 journalists were on hand for the moment that the U.S. president arrived in Cuba’s Revolutionary Square, with the iconic backdrop of Che Guevara’s image looking on from the Interior Ministry. The symbolic significance of the entire ordeal was compelling, and much of the world watched with awe.
While the visuals were undeniably powerful, the content of the U.S. leader’s speech was less impactful. Rather, many Cubans were more impacted by what Obama did not say: I’m sorry.
Everyone knew Obama would meet with U.S.-financed opposition activists, and so it was no surprise that he made no mention of any foreseeable end of the destabilization efforts against Cuba’s government. And while it is true that he has said his administration would attempt to close the Guantanamo prison, at no point has he said that the United States would return the base to Cuba, as the country has been demanding for over 50 years.
Similarly, despite commitments to end the economic blockade, there is no clear end to this policy which has crippled Cuba’s economy for a half a century. Surely no one expected Obama to make some major announcement while in Havana – though he does have the power to – but the fact that he did not acknowledge the culpability of his country in keeping Cuba poor is revealing. Far from apologizing for a policy that drains billions of dollars from Cuba annually and that at one point looked to starve its people into submission, he actually continued to promote the imperial myth that Cuba ruined its own economy!
Days later in Argentina, Obama stayed on the same message, repeating but adapting his previous message for Cubans.
Arriving at the Casa Rosada to meet with newly-minted Argentine leader Mauricio Macri, Obama was quick to heap praise on the Latin American billionaire. Obama said his administration was “impressed” by the work done by Macri in his first 100 days, including his advocacy of “human rights,” and said that Argentina should be an example for the region. Macri of course has laid off more than 100,000 public employees, negotiated a deal with vulture fund creditors that will burden Argentines with a US$10 billion debt, while also jailing opposition leaders.
Argentines may be less enthusiastic about Macri’s regional example however, given the continued rise of inflation coupled by currency devaluations and elimination of social programs and subsidies that have dramatically, and negatively, impacted living standards in a short period of time. Macri’s government went so far as to tell people to cut down on meat consumption – the major staple of the Argentine diet – after price controls were lifted.
An impressive start for sure.
None of this stopped Obama lecturing about the virtues of the brand of capitalism that the United States is looking to push on the region, with Macri’s Argentina as the model. “Free markets create wealth,” he told a crowd of ‘young entrepreneurs’ before going on to say that Cuba “looks like it did in the 1950’s” because of the failure of its own people and government. The message to Argentine – we want you to adopt pro-market policies, even though this same market orthodoxy collapsed Argentina’s economy in 2001.
Much like his message to Cubans, Obama also wants Argentina to forget the past, and not only in terms of economics and ideology.
On his last day in the Southern cone, Obama visited the memorial to the victims of Argentina’s brutal dictatorship which was responsible for the death and disappearance of some 30,000 Argentines, while also collaborating in a regional operation with other U.S.-backed military governments to target left-wing activists. Once again, Obama did not apologize for his country’s involvement in this massacre, instead downplaying the “counterproductive” role in Argentina’s past.
Just as he told the audience in the Gran Teatro de la Habana that “it is time, now, for us to leave the past behind,” Obama wants Argentina to forget its dead and disappeared and forget its economic collapse. But this message is not just for Cuba and Argentina. It is clear that Obama’s final trip to Latin America was not meant to foster greater trust with a region that has rejected U.S. influence and imposition. As it negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other multilateral free trade agreements, Obama was in the region to promote the very form of neoliberal capitalism that Latin Americans rejected during the last decade.
Given that, it makes perfect sense that the president of the United States wants the people of the region to focus on baseball and mate. A long memory is bad for business.