The last time Air Force One touched down here, the president of the United States stepped onto hostile and uncertain turf.
It was 1990: President Bush visited Argentina a day after a failed military rebellion culminated in a firefight in front of the presidential palace. The region was struggling to shake off a history of tyranny and political and economic turmoil. Anti-Americanism was so virulent that Argentine Congress members tried to declare Bush persona non grata.
Seven years later, President Clinton will make his first trip to South America, a visit that culminates a period of profound change.
Besides Venezuela, the biggest U.S. oil supplier, Clinton will visit Brazil and Argentina, the continental powers that have led the region's transformation: Their democracies thrive, and their economies boom as the result of once-unimaginable reforms.
"The region is experiencing a moment that seems too good to be true," said Guido di Tella, Argentina's foreign minister. "The principal countries have enacted reforms, reduced inflation; there is democracy in all the nations except for Cuba. It's another world. The two emerging regions that will be the big news of the 21st century are the Asian Pacific and Latin America."
No one denies the pressing challenges of poverty, drugs and injustice. But the Clinton visit is shaping up as a celebration of progress.
Not only have authoritarian and statist regimes toppled, not only is U.S. trade to Latin America growing at twice the rate as to other regions, but U.S. relations with most Latin nations have improved dramatically.
"Since I can remember at least, we have never had such a good relationship [with the U.S.] as now," President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil said.
Argentina's turnaround is emblematic. One of the Argentine Congress members who condemned the Bush visit in 1990 will meet with Clinton next week, part of a delegation of opposition leaders who lobbied for the photo opportunity days before legislative elections here.
After a century of anti-U.S. sentiment that united fascist-inspired dictators and leftists, it has become better politics to shake Uncle Sam's hand than burn him in effigy. And the hip vacation spot for middle-class Argentines--and Brazilians--is not Rome or Madrid, but Miami.
"All the anti-American nonsense has been discarded," Di Tella said.
Argentina began to break with the past in 1989 and positioned itself as a steadfast U.S. ally, denouncing Castro's Cuba and sending frigates to support Operation Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War. In return, Clinton will use the trip to announce his designation of Argentina as a major non-NATO ally, a status shared by nations such as Israel and Australia.
The gesture recognizes President Carlos Menem's success in dismantling a once-repressive and destabilizing military. It was the region's most thorough disarmament: Menem abolished the draft and reinvented the scaled-down military as a good-citizen participant in peacekeeping efforts from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Haiti.
Although largely symbolic, the anticipated designation ruffles Argentina's neighbors.
Chilean rightists accuse the U.S. of sowing dissent in the region. Brazil, meanwhile, aspires to a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. That befits many Brazilians' view of their nation as a world-class power. Brazil's partnership with the United States, therefore, is friendly but more complex and measured.
Brazil's industrialized economy, the region's biggest, will receive an expected $16 billion in foreign investments this year. Brazil dominates Mercosur, the South American trading bloc. Some Brazilians worry about Clinton's vision of a free-trade zone for the Americas by 2005, his foreign policy centerpiece for a continent that has not been a diplomatic priority.
"Free trade is in the interest of countries with high technology that export industrialized products," said Helio Jaguaribe, a political scientist. "Brazil is a developing country in an intermediate situation. If Brazil signs the trade agreement for 2005, it will destroy its industry and can go back to coffee exporting."
Publicly, Brazilian officials disagree about such a threat to Mercosur. Any friction will be muted during a presidential visit emphasizing upbeat themes such as educational programs involving U.S. high-tech aid and student exchange programs. Cardoso sees education as the key to overcoming Brazil's enormous social inequalities--and an example of a meaningful partnership with Clinton.
"Tariffs are not an exciting issue. It is rather boring," Cardoso said jovially during an interview recently. "If we want to exercise leadership in order to have more integration across the hemisphere, we need more than that, we need values. . . . Education is basic to the future in terms of jobs, democracy, turning people into citizens. This is the crucial battle of the coming millennium."
Cardoso, a distinguished scholar and one of the continent's best-regarded leaders, has raised teacher salaries and installed 50,000 televisions in rural schools. As part of a blockbuster package of reforms similar to those accomplished in Argentina, he has also brought down inflation, privatized torpid state industries, given land to more than 300,000 poor families and begun to slash budget-devouring bureaucracies.
Human rights advocates call him the first president to openly confront lawlessness and other social crises.
"We are putting on the table our social problems," he said. "The government is not trying to cover up what's wrong in Brazil. The Amazon forest is being burned? Let's see if it's true because I don't want that. The police are violent? Yes, it's true, so let's discuss violence."
Despite such reformist vigor, the lives of millions of Brazilians and other South Americans seem walled off from the bounties of macroeconomic progress and democratization. The consequences can be grim: guerrilla war in Colombia, militaristic rumblings in Peru, anarchic strikes by police forces in Brazil and the endemic menaces of drugs and crime.
Reforms are vital to the future because corruption undermines low-crime, comparatively middle-class nations like Argentina as well as more violent, unequal ones like Brazil, according to Luis Moreno Ocampo, an Argentine anti-corruption consultant.
Moreno, who prosecuted military dictators in the 1980s, now advises Latin American governments and corporations.
The past shows that today's crises are not as insurmountable as they may seem, he said, noting: "Twenty years ago, if you had said we could resolve the problem of military dictatorships, people would have said it was impossible. I think corruption is the new form of abuse of power and can also be fought and reduced."
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The Latin Makeover
President Clinton's visit to Latin America, which begins Sunda, comes as the region undergoes a rebirth, enacting reforms and bringing runaway economies under control.
* Designates the stops in Clinton's tour of Latin America.
(3) Sao Paolo
(4) Rio De Janeiro
(5) Buenos Aires
ARGENTINA BRAZIL Population 32 million 167 million Inflation 1% annually (down 8% annually (down from hyperinflation of from 40% monthly in 1980s) 1994) Per capita income $9,000 $3,500 Returned to 1983 1985 democracy from dictatorship