Buenos Aires: After years of anti-American posturing by its leader, Argentina has a new president whose outstretched hand has been eagerly accepted by the United States. President Barack Obama on Wednesday rewarded the South American nation with a state visit aimed at keeping that promising trajectory on track.
Obama has made no secret of his preference for Argentine President Mauricio Macri over his left-leaning predecessor, Cristina Fernandez, whose meandering missives were a source of frequent frustration and eye-rolling in the White House. So Obama was all too glad to see her replaced in December by Macri, who has affably accepted US help with his mission to modernise Argentina's struggling economy.
"President Macri recognises that we're in a new era, and we have to look forward," Obama said before the visit.
After arriving in Buenos Aires in the wee hours Wednesday, Obama opened his two-day visit at Casa Rosada, the Argentine president's pink-hued offices, where an honour guard donned white gloves and swords to welcome him. Seated side by side in front of US and Argentine flags, Obama and Macri made no comments to reporters at the start of their meeting.
The two planned to hold a joint news conference later Wednesday before Obama lays a wreath at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral.
Obama planned to hear from young Argentinians at a town hall meeting, in what's become a hallmark of his trips abroad. Joined by first lady Michelle Obama, the president was to be feted by Macri at a state dinner in the evening, marking the first such visit by a US president in nearly two decades.
Despite best efforts to keep the focus on the future, Obama's visit has been clouded by a renewed look at painful chapters in Argentina's past, returned to the forefront by the 40th anniversary this week of Argentina's 1976 coup. Questions about America's role in the military dictatorship that followed are a reminder of what many see as a shameful US history of backing repressive Latin American regimes.
It was unclear whether Obama would use his visit to apologise or acknowledge decades-old US mistakes. But as controversy about the timing of his visit grew last week, Obama's administration announced plans to declassify secret intelligence and military documents from the period, potentially shedding more light on a story left partially untold until now.
"He will be more than willing to speak to what took place 40 years ago, to the suffering that took place after the coup," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
In another gesture directed toward the victims of Argentina's "Dirty War," Obama planned to visit Remembrance Park in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Argentina's government estimates some 13,000 people were killed or disappeared under force during the crackdown on leftist dissidents, though activists say the number is as high as 30,000.
Obama's visit to Argentina, like his visit this week to Cuba, aims to bolster his efforts to keep the US focused on economically important regions like Latin America and Asia, even while dealing with pressing security concerns in the Middle East and elsewhere. Overshadowing his trip were terror attacks Tuesday in Brussels that killed more than 30 people and triggered fresh panic in Europe about the spread of violent extremism.
Those distractions notwithstanding, Obama is hoping his final year as president will be one of critical progress for the US and Latin America.
Even as Obama continues to struggle with refugees fleeing insecurity and instability in Central America, his administration is working toward a historic truce between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The US was heartened by the opposition's success in Venezuela's recent legislative elections.
No nation has become a more potent symbol of Obama's efforts to turn a page in Latin American than Cuba. The president flew to Argentina from Havana, where he made history as the first US chief executive to visit in nearly 90 years, a significant boost for his efforts to normalise ties with the longtime US foe.
To show that the US and Argentina are on a better path, Obama and Macri planned to announce new joint efforts on climate change, energy, and fighting drugs and crime, the White House said.
The last US president to set foot in Argentina was George W. Bush, who attended a regional summit here in 2005 but didn't conduct a formal state visit. Bill Clinton came to meet with his Argentinian counterpart in 1997.
Before returning to Washington, Obama, his wife and daughters planned a leisurely daytrip to Bariloche, a picturesque city in southern Argentina.