To Argentina, Iraq’s Just Another Example of U.S. Meddling

Times Staff Writers

Come to Argentina, one of the most educated and literate countries in Latin America, and you’ll have a hard time finding people who think a U.S.-led war against the regime of Saddam Hussein is a good idea.

By a ratio of more than 25 to 1, Argentines oppose military action against Iraq, according to a recent poll. Antiwar sentiment is stronger here even than in Pakistan or any of the 40 other countries in a Gallup International survey released this month.

“I think Argentines are opposed to the war in part because many hate the United States and in part because we’re identifying ourselves more with the Third World,” explained Hector Goldentul, a 51-year-old accountant. “A lot of people blame our permanent economic crises on the United States.”


Rightly or wrongly, for many Argentines the seemingly limitless economic and political power of the U.S. is represented by initials that have appeared on the front pages of newspapers here almost every day for the last year: “FMI,” the Spanish signifier for the International Monetary Fund.

The fund is the lender of last resort to financially troubled countries. And here, its name is synonymous with Argentina’s ongoing national humiliation, an out-of-control, $130-billion foreign debt that has forced the nation’s leaders to throw themselves on the mercy of international lenders.

Even before Argentina’s banking system collapsed in late 2001, the IMF was identified with the austerity measures of President Fernando de la Rua, who was driven from power by rioting and popular protests.

De la Rua’s successors have continued the same budget-cutting policies, negotiating for more than a year with Washington-based IMF officials over the terms of a new bailout. Among other things, the IMF has told Argentina that it must change its bankruptcy laws and force its bickering governors to agree to reduce spending.

“What happened to us with the IMF is a consequence of the fact that they want to break us and control us,” said Bernardo Estevez, 57, a taxi driver. “It’s the same attitude as the war.”

An old saying describes an Argentine as an Italian who speaks Spanish but thinks he is British and dresses as if he were French. And in the 1990s, Argentines embraced all things American, even flirting with the idea of making the U.S. dollar the national currency. Then-President Carlos Menem told Argentines they would soon join “the First World.”


Now a bitter reality has set in: Argentina is still a Latin American country, more impoverished than ever.

Adding insult to injury, it’s seemingly worse off than its neighbors and traditional rivals, Chile and Brazil.

“We countries of the Third World have surrendered our power to the United States,” Maria Laura Tchijek, a 23-year-old insurance company worker, said as she took a lunch break near the Plaza de Mayo. “We’re stuck in a dependent relationship, like a battered woman who never leaves her abuser.”

These days, Argentines are feeling further away from the U.S. than ever. In the early 1980s, Argentina’s dictators were key anti-Communist allies of the Reagan administration. But now, top U.S. officials rarely wander down to these latitudes.

Paul H. O’Neill, then Treasury secretary, made the most recent high-profile visit, in August. His car was pelted with eggs in downtown Buenos Aires.

“The farther south you go, the worse the image of the United States,” said Rosendo Fraga, a leading political analyst here.


“Argentina has always resisted the hegemony of Washington,” Fraga added. “You could see this attitude in the last two world wars,” in which Argentina remained for the most part neutral. It declared war against Japan more than two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Argentina abandoned its traditional neutrality in 1991 when President Menem dispatched two warships and 450 troops to the Persian Gulf, making this the only Latin American country to join the U.S.-led coalition.

But even that experience helped feed the current antiwar sentiment, said Oscar Raul Cardoso, a columnist for the Buenos Aires daily Clarin.

“We were promised that [sending troops] would bring great benefits to Argentina in the international arena in matters of economics and geopolitics,” Cardoso said. “In fact, the opposite happened. We didn’t seem to get anything good out of it, much less now that we’ve had all these difficulties with the IMF.”

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his work defending human rights during Argentina’s dictatorship, is one of many prominent voices calling on his fellow citizens to join a large antiwar rally here Saturday.

“The United States is acting more and more like an empire,” he said. This war has “more to do with the [American] military- industrial complex than it does with Saddam Hussein.”