Argentina’s mercurial power couple

WikiLeaks cables exposed a Machiavellian US approach in South America, while Argentina played a diplomatic double game.

Senior figures in the Kirchner administration had severe doubts about the South American left and sought to hedge their bets by placating successive administrations in Washington, WikiLeaks documents revealed [GALLO/GETTY]

Under the rule of power couple Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, Argentina has flirted with South America’s “Pink Tide” to the left, which has swept through the region in recent years. 

Though hardly embracing a radical political or economic agenda, Argentina has conducted a controversial foreign policy which has cultivated ties to the likes of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. 

Such moves irked Washington and, needless to say, the Kirchners’ rhetorical anti-imperialism befuddled the likes of Hillary Clinton at the US State Department.          

Behind the facade, however, the Kirchners played a diplomatic double game. 

That, at least, is the impression I got after reading recent US cables released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, which reveal that senior figures in the Kirchner government had severe doubts about the South American left and sought to hedge their bets by at least placating successive administrations in Washington.

Take, for example, Argentine presidential chief of staff Oscar Parrilli, “one of a small group of advisors considered to be in President [Néstor] Kirchner’s inner circle”. 

During a 2006 meeting in Buenos Aires, Parrilli told US diplomats that his country’s economic ties to Venezuela “could not be discounted”. However, the Kirchner official was quick to add that such ties did not imply “support for Chávez’s heavy-handed ways”.

WikiLeaks cables reveal US officials as cynical players who frequently take a dismissive and cynical attitude toward the South American left, and as a result one must read the correspondence with a grain of salt. 

Nevertheless, the Argentine communications suggest that the Kirchners were much more politically conflicted about Chávez’s Venezuela than they commonly let on in public. 

Divisions in the Peronist camp

The case of Argentine congresswoman Alicia Castro illustrates these inner conflicts. In 2006, President Néstor Kirchner appointed Castro as his country’s new ambassador to Venezuela. 

A former union leader representing Argentine flight attendants, Castro was regarded as one of Venezuela’s “most ardent supporters in Argentina”. 

Indeed, Castro sponsored a number of pro­-Chávez resolutions in Congress and according to the US Embassy, “rumours have swirled that there is also a romantic relationship between the two (Castro and Chávez)”.

On the surface at least, Castro’s high level appointment could be read as a sign of deepening Venezuelan-Argentine ties. 

Yet US diplomats held a very different view of the political scene.  Writing to his superiors in Washington, US ambassador Lino Gutiérrez remarked that Castro’s appointment came “at a time when Argentine-Venezuelan relations were beginning to cool, and may represent an attempt by President Kirchner to please both Chávez and the Argentine left”.

Revealingly, Gutiérrez hinted at crucial political fault lines, declaring that “Kirchner has remained concerned about Chávez’s increasingly successful seduction of Morales, which he views as meddling in Argentina’s backyard”. 

Cooling relations had caused Kirchner to cancel a mini-summit which would have brought Chávez and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Argentina to discuss the construction of a joint South American gas pipeline. 

Moreover, serious political fissures had emerged within Kirchner’s Peronist party camp.  On the one hand, Planning Minister Julio De Vido sought to “avoid ideology and keep the Venezuelan relationship strictly to business”. 

On the other hand, the “Bolivarian minority” within the Peronist movement, which was headed up by Alicia Castro, hoped to build on political ties. 

Caught in the middle, Kirchner himself had reservations about Chávez.  According to Gutiérrez, “Kirchner would gladly meet with Venezuelan opposition leaders here in Buenos Aires”. 

Moreover, the US ambassador added, “Some believe that Kirchner may be outsourcing his Venezuela policy to Alicia in Caracas, while he tries to put some distance between himself and Chávez”.

Breaking the ‘Pink Tide’

Sensing an opening, the Americans pressed the Kirchner government to break with the leftist Pink Tide.  Speaking once again with Kirchner chief of staff Parrilli, US diplomats pressed the Chávez issue, noting that Argentina’s friendship with Venezuela “made it difficult for the embassy to maintain constructive bilateral relations with the government of Argentina”. 

Instead of pushing back against such bullying, Parrilli responded defensively that Kirchner’s ties to Chávez were “based primarily on economics and [South American customs union] Mercosur”.

When US diplomats complained that “one day Kirchner is meeting with Chávez, and Chávez may be on good behaviour because Kirchner has asked Chávez to avoid incidents, but the next day Chávez is calling President Bush a drunkard, a genocidal maniac and worse than Hitler”.

Parrilli declared that the Kirchner government did not agree “with the message or the style of Chávez’s attacks on President Bush or the US”.

Hardly convinced by such rhetoric, the Americans countered by expressing concern about Bolivia. President Morales, US officials argued, needed to respect constitutional democracy and cooperate with Washington’s crusade against drug smuggling. In response, the meek Parrilli wholeheartedly agreed with the American approach.

Placating Washington

Apparently, such suave talk did not dispel American fears. Shortly after the Parrilli meeting in 2006, US embassy staff remarked “President Kirchner is playing a dangerous game as he is drawing Argentina ever closer to Venezuela”. 

When it came to the Argentine government, the Americans were patronising and condescending, remarking that “the Kirchner administration’s lack of understanding in the international relations area, coupled with their sophomoric, 1970s leftist tendencies, make them easily susceptible to manipulation by more radical regional leaders, such as Chávez and Castro”. 

On a note of caution, American officials warned, “it is therefore extremely important for the US, both in Washington and in Buenos Aires, to actively engage the government of Argentina at a high level at this critical juncture to avoid any further slippage of Argentina towards the Chávez orbit.  The consequences of not maintaining a fluid dialogue with the government of Argentina can only be negative for the US”.   

Still playing with fire and playing a diplomatic double game, Argentine officials sought to placate Washington in private. 

“Argentina does not share Chávez’s anti-US message”, remarked Kirchner’s top adviser Carlos Zannini. 

Both Chávez and Morales often employed rhetoric “that is much worse than their actions”, he Argentine added. 

Zannini added that there was little reason to fear, as “Venezuela’s incorporation into Mercosur should not concern the US”. There was little danger of Mercosur becoming radicalised by new member Venezuela, Zannini said, and indeed if Chávez’s bid to join the trading bloc proved successful the firebrand leader would have to tone down his populist politics. 

Trying to reason with Bush officials

WikiLeaks cables reveal that the Kirchner’s delicate diplomatic tightrope continued well into the Obama era. 

In 2007, for example, US state department diplomat Nicholas Burns urged the Argentines to rein in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba.  Kirchner officials were again defencive, with Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández remarking that Washington should be so concerned with “types” of government, whether left-wing, right-wing, or centrist. 

The Bush administration should be reasonable, Fernández declared.  Warming to his argument, the Kirchner official added cautiously that some critics saw the Argentine government as leaning too far to the left, while others believed that it was too right wing.  In fact, Fernández said, the Kirchner regime simply made “rational” decisions about what was best for Argentina.

The Americans were apparently unconvinced by this line of argument, however, and continued to press Argentina.  Burns remarked that Chávez was “immature”, and did not see him as a direct threat to the US. 

However, the US diplomat was frustrated that “other leaders in the region” had failed to “limit” and “contain” Venezuela. 

Once again, Fernández tried to sound reasonable, suggesting that Chávez would never become the “future leader of Latin America”. 

In an effort to reassure the Americans, Fernández claimed that Kirchner himself had “severely questioned” Chávez’s “unnecessary” behaviour during a personal meeting. 

As if to underscore Argentina’s intentions, Fernández added that Chávez’s attitude was “dangerous”.  In a further nod to the Bush administration, Fernández said that his government had “counselled Morales not to pick fights with the US because the US is not his enemy”.  

Cristina Kirchner

A year later WikiLeaks cables pick up at the beginning of a new administration in Buenos Aires, presided over by recently elected president Cristina Kirchner and wife of Néstor. 

Judging from the documents, Cristina pursued a no less mercurial stance toward the Bush administration than her spouse. 

Speaking privately with US diplomats, Planning Minister Julio de Vido “expressed serious concern over what he saw as a union-driven process of radicalisation in Venezuela that is pushing President Chávez further to the left and led to Chávez’ decision to nationalise the Argentine-owned Sidor steel plant”. 

Fast forward to the first few months of the Obama administration, and the Argentines were still intent on placating Washington. 

During a private meeting with US ambassador Anthony Wayne, Cristina said she was encouraged that Obama seemed to be re-engaging with the world and putting to an end to a “difficult” chapter of US-Latin American relations under Bush.

Read further in the cable, however, and it becomes clear that Obama’s approach to the region was not all so different from that of his predecessor.  At one point during the discussion, Wayne thanked Kirchner “for taking issue with Hugo Chávez” after the Venezuelan leader questioned Obama’s willingness to press for meaningful political change. 

Kirchner thought Chávez was wrong to criticise Obama, and explained that the firebrand Venezuelan “often speaks without thinking”.  Cristina then added that Chávez was “Caribbean”, whatever that means, and “full of surprises”.

What do the WikiLeaks cables reveal about the larger contours of US-South American relations?  To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations emerge as Machiavellian in their approach to the region, though the supposed Pink Tide regimes emerge as politically compromised and inconsistent. 

In order to appease the leftist set Argentina’s power couple engaged in rhetorical anti-imperialism, but in their secret dealings with American diplomats the two did their utmost to placate Washington and distance themselves from Venezuela and others. 

In light of WikiLeaks documents, Chávez and Morales may view the notion of hemispheric-wide “left solidarity” with a certain degree of scepticism moving forward. 

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Visit his website,

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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