BUENOS AIRES — Frank Mora, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, visited Buenos Aires on Aug. 16 — marking the first official trip by a high-level Pentagon official to Argentina since its February 2011 confiscation of a U.S. military aircraft for inspection.
Mora’s visit signals Washington’s desire to focus on reviving a long-standing history of mutual trust and defense cooperation.
“For Argentina, military relations with the United States should be given importance since the U.S. is the world’s primary power and because it has unquestionable influence in the hemisphere,” said political scientist Rosendo Fraga, who heads the Nueva Mayoria think tank in Buenos Aires. “It makes sense for Washington to improve relations with Argentina within the overall context of its foreign policy toward South America, where Argentina has the second- largest GDP after Brazil and the third-largest population after [Brazil and] Colombia.”
Argentina and the United States have a long successful history of military cooperation. In 1963, the Pentagon established a Military Assistance Program (MAP) for its South American neighbor. Like most other MAPs, it provided assistance in materials and machinery for military production, direct transfers of military equipment and training of personnel. That cooperation strengthened throughout the years, with only one interruption during the Argentine military regime of 1976-83.
Military relations on the upswing
Between 1950 and 2000, Argentina received $34 million in U.S. military aid and has sent more than 5,200 exchange students to the United States for defense-related courses. In 2009, Argentina ranked fourth among countries participating in U.S. training programs, with 688 students, according to Just the Facts, a website that monitors military assistance to Latin America. Yet an about-face in Argentine foreign policy had strained cooperation. “The bilateral relationship between the two countries in the military area has multiple possibilities, but the issue is that the Argentine government does not appear to want to advance with these,” Fraga said.
However, Mora’s visit offers hope that ties are on the mend. Argentine Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli praised U.S. defense policy during a recent gathering at the Education Center of the Armed Forces (CEFFAA) where he thanked Mora for his visit and “predisposition to work in the intensification of U.S.-Argentine relations.” Puricelli explained that the renewed relationship should be developed on the basis of “mutual respect” — and must be “aligned with” South American defense policies to ensure the objective of creating a regional “zone of peace.”
Mora thanked Puricelli for the opportunity “to exchange and share ideas and policies in the area of defense” and highlighted the regional armed forces’ “professionalism, respect for the rule of law, and subordination to civilian governments.”
Threats of the 21st century
Mora also touched on new multidimensional and transnational threats confronting the hemisphere like cyber attacks and natural disasters. He urged Argentina “to utilize the armed forces to support decisions made by civilian authorities to establish cooperative and transparent relations” between governments.
Argentina was notably absent from the recent U.S.-led Panamax 2012 military exercise aimed at bolstering hemispheric cooperation. Its decision to abstain, however, is difficult to interpret as ideologically based since Ecuador — a member of the ALBA regional alliance— set aside fundamental differences with Washington and participated in the exercises. So did 13 other countries: Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru.
During the Cold War, Argentina and the United States cooperated to protect themselves from the communist threat. In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over, attention turned to fighting drug trafficking — and following the 9/11 attacks, the focus has been on eradicating narco-terrorism.
Argentina has been a victim of international terror in 1992, when the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed in an attack that left 29 people dead — and again in 1994, when a truck bomb destroyed the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring more than 300.
Argentina is pursuing military cooperation with a myriad of non-traditional partners. Some of these alliances — such as the ones it’s formed with Venezuela and China — bring into question shared values with the United States. Despite these recent mixed signals and lost opportunities, officials from both sides are now seeking common ground in order to avoid discarding years of friendship and cooperation.