US base fracas exposes Argentine vulnerability

The recently shelved deal over a military facility hints at the potential US manipulation of domestic politics.

Service members from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, and U.S. Marines carry out a sea landing exercise at the port of Ancon
With joint military exercises and the potential for corporate investment, many domestic politicians are keen to pledge allegiance to US interests, despite the left-leaning national government [Reuters]

New York, NY –
The outlandish story of Washington’s drive to establish a military base in Argentina just got a whole lot weirder. As I wrote in another recent Al Jazeera column, the US has been assiduously seeking alternative sites for its military operations ever since the nationalist/populist regime of Rafael Correa booted the US military out of Ecuador. Having lost its perch in the strategically located coastal city of Manta, the Obama administration went on a tear in the Southern Cone, establishing a base in Chile and proceeding with plans to build yet another installation in the remote Chaco region of Argentina, under the auspices of the US Southern Command.

While Chile has been a time-worn US ally in the region, Argentina has been a less reliable diplomatic partner. Indeed, under the rule of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s “power couple,” this South American nation has stridently criticised Washington’s economic policies and even established an alliance with Venezuela’s colourful Hugo Chávez. On the face of it, then, the Obama administration’s plans to build a base in Chaco seem rather odd and out of place.

“How did a governor from the remote and provincial state of Chaco even presume to negotiate with Washington on such a sensitive project?”

While the US and local authorities claimed that the base was merely aimed at encouraging humanitarian and disaster relief, the Argentine left charged that the installation was purely military in nature. Shortly after news of the Chaco base became public, activists organised protests in Resistencia, a town near the proposed installation. As public pressure continued, the provincial governor of Chaco, Jorge Capitanich, came under a firestorm of criticism. A politician with pro-US leanings, Capitanich had been a key figure pushing for the Resistencia base from the outset. 

A dramatic reversal

Then, just as abruptly as the Resistencia initiative had been announced, the whole agreement was cancelled by the central government. According to Mexican magazine Proceso, both the foreign ministry and defence ministry were incensed by Capitanich, who had essentially conducted his own rogue foreign policy. In late May, a chastened Capitanich was obliged to do a “180 degree turn” by proposing an amendment to his own state’s civil defence law, which would expressly forbid any foreign country from operating in Chaco in the event of natural disasters or emergencies. 

In the end, Proceso notes, Capitanich wound up “colliding” with the Kirchner government and Argentina’s own position within larger geostrategic blocs such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), which excludes the US. The magazine quoted one official at the Argentine ministry of defence, who candidly remarked that the central government was intent on “slapping Capitanich on the wrist” for exceeding his powers, since “no governor has the right to sign an agreement on his own with the US Southern Command”.

Perhaps this bizarre incident will now fade from the headlines. Yet, lingering and troubling questions remain. How did a governor from the remote and provincial state of Chaco even presume to negotiate with Washington on such a sensitive project? What was the position and strategy of the US embassy in Buenos Aires? Finally, what does this story reveal about the internal workings of the political system in Argentina? Fortunately, confidential US diplomatic cables recently disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks shed light on some of these questions.

“One may claim to support the Buenos Aires government, but at the same time fail to demonstrate much loyalty.”

– Andrés Ruggeri

A senator with big time ambitions

When compared with, say, Honduras, which Washington has treated more or less as its own private fiefdom over the years, US officials in Argentina behaved much more cautiously. Rhetorically, at least, Argentina formed part of South America’s so-called “Pink Tide” to the left and the US embassy in Buenos Aires was careful not to bully the authorities. Simultaneously, however, US officials shrewdly recognised that they might cultivate support amongst provincial governors and thereby create an opening.

In August 2007, US Ambassador Anthony Wayne got such an opportunity when he received a visit from up and coming politician Jorge Capitanich. A pro-Kirchner Peronist senator from Chaco, an impoverished province lying just across the border from Paraguay, Capitanich was a descendant of the substantial Montenegrin community in Argentina. Capitanich, who was in the middle of campaigning for governor in Chaco, first buttered up Wayne by declaring that he had “a different view of the US than most Argentines right now”. 

Hoping to curry favor with US diplomats in the event of an electoral victory, Capitanich added that he thought the US should be Argentina’s main partner in economic development. In an effort to impress the ambassador, the magazine reports Capitanich “said that he knows this view does not always win votes, but he believes a strategic alliance with the United States would be good for Argentina’s future”. Specifically, Capitanich lobbied Wayne for closer collaboration on biofuels and expressed interest in attracting information technology to his home state. As he left, the ambitious politician invited Wayne to one day visit Chaco.

Consolidating US ties as governor

The following month, Capitanich was elected governor, and promptly began discussions about organising and financing an emergency centre. According to Proceso, both the local civil defence and consultants linked to the US embassy attended the meetings. A year later, Wayne made good on Capitanich’s invitation and paid a personal visit to Chaco. There, the ambassador and governor jointly touted a local training program designed to prevent and mitigate natural disasters.

While the actual chronology of the Resistencia base is a little unclear, it seems that Capitanich gradually made an impression on US officials. In September 2010, the Chaco governor received a delegation of US legislators and remarked “I defend the strategic alliance with the US and I am willing to struggle for that idea.” According to Proceso, Capitanich met with Colonel Edwin Passmore of the US Southern Command one year later. The magazine writes that Passmore had no prior experience in humanitarian relief but had served as an intelligence officer in Iraq. In addition, Proceso reports, Passmore had been expelled from Venezuela on charges of espionage. 

“Not only can Washington play individual nations off against each other, but also create mischief within separate countries by courting local governors against the central government.”

What could have prompted Capitanich to engage in such politically sensitive negotiations around a US military base in Chaco? Perhaps, the governor believed that by cultivating such strategic ties he might enhance chances of attracting US investment to his home state. Reportedly, Capitanich recently inked a deal with Forbes Energy to develop sugar cane ethanol in Chaco. The governor also reportedly conducts junkets to New York and Washington where he touts the benefits of increased US investment in Argentina.

In light of the Kirchner government’s torpedoing of the Resistencia base, it would seem that Capitanich has been dealt a severe reversal. Yet don’t count this ambitious young politician out of the game yet. Reportedly, the Chaco governor is considered to be a possible contender for the next presidential election to be held in 2015. If he were elected, Capitanich would likely build upon US ties, perhaps even posing a problem for the future consolidation of South America’s “Pink Tide” to the left. 

An alternative site for the base?

Even though Washington failed to achieve its objectives in Resistencia, the Chaco affair reveals startling cracks in the Argentine political system. In future, the US embassy could probably exploit such divisions by currying favor with local governors. If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, US diplomats already enjoy excellent relations with low-level officials, and will continue to pursue such successful diplomatic manoeuvrings.

During one trip to the southwestern provincial state of Neuqúen, Ambassador Wayne traveled with the US defence attaché in tow. During a private dinner, the two spoke with a local army commander, General Hernán Prieto, and touched on US-Argentine military relations. In an echo of the Chaco affair, the conversation turned to the need for greater disaster relief. Prieto said he was most concerned about dealing with annual flooding and providing for an evacuation centre. 

It’s not clear from the cable whether the US regarded Neuqúen as another possible site for building a military base, though Prieto remarked frankly that any such initiative would require “strong political support.” In the event that such a facility was to be built, however, there might be close civilian-military cooperation. Indeed, Prieto confided that he had a good working relationship with Neuqúen governor Jorge Sapag, a Kirchner ally. The rest of the visit went off without a hitch, with Wayne getting on famously with Sapag who “expressed strong support for the many US-based companies” in his state including Chevron and Wal-Mart. 

The rising power of governors

There is no further mention of military affairs in the cables, though correspondence paints a fairly dynamic picture of Wayne who routinely met with other local governors. In 2006, for example, the diplomat spoke with authorities in the agro-industrial state of Rosario. There, the American visited facilities owned by General Motors and Cargill and convened a meeting with business and civic leaders. Even in the midst of the Bush presidency, most Rosario residents expressed “surprise and satisfaction” with the ambassador’s visit, and press coverage was “extensive and positive”.

“It’s a little startling just how much sway local Argentine governors seem to have, and how little discipline Buenos Aires has been able to exert over such renegade figures.”

The following year, Wayne made a two-day trip to the provincial state of Córdoba where he met with the local governor, José Manuel De la Sota. During his meetings, Wayne stressed the importance of preserving a good investment climate. The ambassador followed up by building ties with Córdoba’s American Chamber of Commerce, which included such companies as Lockheed Martin and Wal-Mart. In a revealing, off the record conversation, local media owners and editors reportedly remarked to Wayne that “anti-Americanism in Córdoba was less significant a phenomenon … than in Buenos Aires.”

Apparently feeling emboldened, some local officials sought Wayne out in Buenos Aires. In 2008, for example, Salta governor Juan Manuel Urtubey called on the ambassador at the US embassy. Like Capitanich, Urtubey did his utmost to sell Wayne on private investment, noting his state’s prospects in such fields as energy exploration and agro-industry. Wayne wrote Washington that the pro-Kirchner Urtubey was “young, articulate and charismatic”. Eventually, the ambassador added, the Salta governor could “be a good interlocutor for the US government with a bright future in national politics”.

The fissures of Argentine politics

It’s a little startling just how much sway local Argentine governors seem to have, and how little discipline Buenos Aires has been able to exert over such renegade figures. To get a sense of what it all means, I caught up with Andrés Ruggeri, an anthropologist and political expert at the University of Buenos Aires who I met while researching my second book. In a series of emails, Ruggeri explained that Argentine politics had recently become particularly Byzantine with constantly shifting allegiances at the state level. 

“One may claim to support the Buenos Aires government,” Ruggeri notes, “but at the same time fail to demonstrate much loyalty.” Many governors, he adds, are nothing more than feudal lords responding to local self interest. Capitanich and other young politicians, Ruggeri says, dream of one day being elected president. Believing they might need US assistance in future, the politicians map out their own independent policies. Figures such as Capitanich and Urtubey, Ruggeri declared, are really conservatives in disguise who “play around” with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner while simultaneously maintaining links with the political right.

Something similar might be happening within the armed forces, Ruggeri adds. Whatever the leftist inclinations of the central government or its desire to protect human rights and promote Latin American unity, pro-imperialist elements within the military still hold sway and have some say in national politics. In this sense, Argentina is still haunted by the dark days of military dictatorship and many politicians will have to reckon with such anachronistic forces, the unfortunate vestige of an earlier order.

Looking at the problem more broadly, it seems that, while Washington’s position in the wider region has suffered as of late, US diplomats will nevertheless be able to divide the left without expending too much effort. Not only can Washington play individual nations off against each other, but also create mischief within separate countries by courting local governors against the central government. Judging from WikiLeaks cables, Argentina is particularly vulnerable in this regard and its unscrupulous politicians have few qualms about lobbying the US in pursuit of their own careers.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff