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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 November 2005, 12:16 GMT
Argentines eye the US with suspicion
By Nick Caistor
BBC News, Argentina

President George Bush's visit to Argentina for the Summit of the Americas provoked demonstrations on the streets of Buenos Aires in protest at his foreign policy and attitude to trade. Nick Caistor meets some of the local people who have lived through the economic hardships of recent years.

Anti-summit demonstration
Thousands of protesters attended a rally before the summit started

The man at the bar is crooning enthusiastically if not exactly in tune.

His companion is hunched over that quintessential tango instrument, the bandoneon, squeezing out a song that tells of hope betrayed in a harsh, uncomprehending world.

Sitting next to me, Mario is intent on explaining how it is all George Bush's fault.

According to my friend, who has lived all his life in Buenos Aires, every time Argentina achieves stability and economic success, the Yankees have to spoil it all.

They cannot, he says, stand the competition.

This was what happened four years ago, when the Argentine economy collapsed.

IMF conditions

The pesos Mario had saved, each of which was then worth $1, suddenly lost two-thirds of their value as the peso plummeted.

Women bang pans in 2001 demonstration
In 2001 people banged pots and pans in protest against cutbacks

And since then the dreaded International Monetary Fund has been trying to impose its stranglehold on the Argentine economy and force Argentines to comply with its recipe of cheap exports, firms being sold off to foreign investors and even Argentine beef being banned from the United States on the grounds that most people in Argentina say are spurious.

Two elderly couples have started to lurch, rather than dance, their complicated tango steps around our dinner tables.

We are in La Boca, once the immigrant area of the port of Buenos Aires, now full of restaurants that all seem to be crammed with ordinary Argentines out to enjoy themselves.

Memories of success

Like many of the diners here, Mario clings to a folk memory of a period when, almost a century ago, the booming Argentine economy made the country one of the top 10 nations in the world and when politicians and other patriots saw it as being a power in the south to rival the United States in the north.

Argentina's new president has refused to pay back more than a quarter of the debts owed to foreign institutions, many of them North American
This never happened but, even now, there is widespread resentment among Argentines that somewhere along the line their nation became nothing more than a middle-sized country beset with severe political and economic problems.

In the past, Argentina and other countries in Latin America were keen to follow the United States, which has often seen the whole continent in terms of keeping [Cuban President Fidel] Castro and his communist ideas out.

Thirty years ago, the Argentine military dictatorship was encouraged by Washington in its fight against communist "subversion".

Equal terms

More recently, the former Peronist President, Carlos Menem, described Argentina as having a "carnal relationship" with the United States but, as Mario comments sarcastically, "We always knew which of the two was on top."

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina
President Kirchner recently welcomed his wife into politics

Now in Argentina there is a new Peronist President, Nestor Kirchner, and he is trying hard to make sure that the relationship with the US is on more equal terms.

He has refused to pay back more than a quarter of the debts owed to foreign institutions - many of them North American - and has made himself hugely popular at home by resisting the terms the IMF wants to impose on Argentina before granting it any further loans.

Like President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, he has been standing up to pressure to toe the Washington line and has won the support of Mario and many others in Argentina.

Indeed President Kirchner has just emerged from mid-term elections with his position greatly strengthened.

National pride

In true Peronist style, his wife Cristina has been elected to Congress for the most populous area of greater Buenos Aires.

There is already talk of a new "Evita" and the myth-making machine is going full throttle.

After taking massive blows four years ago when both the Argentine economy and the political system were close to collapse, there is a new sense of national pride.

The clearest symbol of this is the footballer Diego Maradona, who made his name just round the corner from the restaurant at the stadium of La Boca football club.

Maradona, now off the drugs and looking much less heavy after surgery to staple up his stomach, has become the unlikely champion of the anti-American demonstrations being held around the Summit of the Americas that George Bush has been attending.

Maradona presents a hit television show and the latest edition features an interview with the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, berating the United States and supporting Maradona and Argentina in their efforts to combat pressure from the US for more free trade and help in the war against terrorism.

The 'real' Argentina

President Castro was the only regional head of government not invited to the Argentine summit.

But the others have been looking to President Bush to see beyond his obsession with Cuba and its "fight for freedom".

They needed some recognition of the attempts they are making to resolve problems like poverty, massive unemployment and the difficulties of making democracy work.

The couple in front of us come to an untidy finish to their tango but everybody in the restaurant applauds.

This, says Mario, is the "real" Argentina, the one he hopes President Bush has understood and appreciated a little more at least after his brief visit.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 November, 2005 on BBC World Service. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Argentina
30 Aug 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Argentina
15 Jun 05 |  Country profiles
Battle ahead at Americas summit
04 Nov 05 |  Americas
Argentina poll boost for Kirchner
24 Oct 05 |  Americas
Maradona interviews Cuba's Castro
28 Oct 05 |  Americas

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