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24 Jan 2019 | Commentary

What Does the U.S.-Argentina Partnership Mean for Human Rights?

On November 30 and December 1, 2018, the world’s most powerful economies met in Argentina for the G20 Summit. This annual meeting serves as a platform for leading countries to discuss the externalities that are produced by globalization in order to yield consensus building, a national agenda between the world powers and developing countries and the adoption of policies that respond to global issues. This level of interaction synthesizes the diversity of economic models, political regimes, and social preferences that exist in international society. This year, trade, climate change, sustainable development, international security, and education were discussed.


This G20 differed from prior ones in that it was the first to be held in South America. It marked an important opportunity for Argentina to prove itself as a strong competitor in the global market, increase foreign investment, and to globalize the interests of the Global South. Arguably, it was the most important international event to take place in Argentina in the past few decades. President Mauricio Macri, the host, was congratulated for effectively organizing the summit from International Monetary Fund director, Christine Lagarde. It was considered a success by many because it resulted in various bilateral trade agreements including the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaced NAFTA, as well as, a series of agriculture and investment deals between Argentina and China.


However, the G20 also exposed that tensions are brewing in the Global South as a result of the political shift to the right and globalization. One goal of the G20 was to avoid instability in the international system by incorporating more actors and investments to yield more development. The choice of Argentina in many ways reflected a consolidation of efforts between Argentina and the U.S. President. Given Macri’s strong alliance with Donald Trump, it is important to highlight what this relationship means for human rights in Argentina.


U.S.-Argentina Relations

Relations between the United States and Argentina improved significantly since President Macri’s inauguration in 2015. The prior Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Administration (2007-2015), maintained a tense relationship with the U.S. A left-wing populist, President Kirchner implemented protectionist policies and espoused anti-neoliberal rhetoric not welcomed by the United States. Particularly thorny issues included the Kirchner government’s refusal to pay the hold out debtors and their position on Iran when it came to the investigation into the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) AMIA building that killed 85 people and injured many others.


Trump is the second U.S. president to visit Argentina in the past two administrations. Near the end of his Presidency in 2016, President Obama traveled to Buenos Aires in order to improve relations. At that time he delivered declassified documents to the government that detailed the atrocities committed during the Dirty War, Argentina’s military dictatorship that took place from 1976 to 1983. Obama pledged that the U.S. wanted to strengthen transparency by declassifying more documents from this dark time in Argentine history. Once in office, Trump followed suit by providing President Macri more documents when he visited the White House in April 2017. During that visit, the two presidents discussed strategies for trade and investment, along with combating illicit trafficking, financing, and citizen security. In August 2017, Vice President Pence continued to strengthen U.S.-Argentina relations by visiting Buenos Aires and expressing solidarity with the Macri Administration’s controversial economic reforms and aligning the U.S. with Argentine policy.


Under Trump and Macri, Argentina has become one of the United States’ allies in Latin America. During the rise of leftist governments in South America, the U.S. mostly relied on Colombia to serve as a counterweight. Now with Macri in Argentina and Bolsonaro in Brazil the numbers of allies have increased. The Trump Administration sees Argentina as an ally on Venezuela and drug politics. President Trump also has a personal connection with the Macri family and both men share common upbringings and business practices. The growing relationship with the U.S. is an opportunity for Argentina to step out further on the global stage. It is shedding the image of a nation unfriendly to the U.S. that implemented economic policies considered rogue by the global powers.


The U.S. Congress and several think tanks are supportive of the economic reforms put in place by Macri. Most endorse a deepened bilateral partnership between the two countries. Members of the Western Hemisphere Sub-Committee in the U.S. Congress have a keen interest in justice when it comes to the 1992 terrorist attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 AMIA bombing. Argentina was not a major recipient of U.S. assistance; however, Trump has requested that Congress strengthen Argentina’s military and border security program by giving the country more aid.


Macri’s presidential win against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015 was a major political upset. It illustrated a political shift away from progressivism and human rights towards a government focused on development within the economic global system and privatization. The various parties under the umbrella of Peronism still maintain a majority in both the Senate and the House, but the party is now floundering without a defined leader. In the face of extreme economic insecurity, the achievements of the agreements of the G20 represent millions in investments and financing for Argentina. In this way, Macri hopes to bring the country out of the current economic recession.


Living in the shadow of economic crisis is not a foreign concept to Argentines as high inflation rates have plagued the country for years. Currently, another cycle of financial insecurity has reached a climax. At the time of his election, President Macri was expected to stabilize the economy after promising large financial growth vis-à-vis allowing supply and demand instead of the State to control the market and the repairing of a strained relationship with foreign investors. However, his policies now pose a threat to Argentina’s economic health and are still considered a risk by Wall Street. Since 2015, the extreme devaluation of the Argentine peso against the U.S. dollar only continues to plummet, and the country’s inflation rate is now the highest among the G20 nations. The Macri administration sought and was recently granted aid from the International Monetary Fund to decrease the national deficit and prevent economic collapse, a strategy that received overwhelming public backlash in the form of social protests. It is unclear when the economy will recover as Macri has failed in implementing the economic reforms he promised, inducing flashbacks to Argentina’s most notorious and consequential economic crisis in 2001. Unsurprisingly, Argentina’s civil response regarding the G20 was accompanied by extreme polarization that highlights the country’s lasting social unrest. On a broader scale, the Argentine State’s response in the wake of the G20 is a red flag in regards to human rights.


Human Rights in Argentina

While human rights have significantly improved in Argentina since the 1970s and 80s, they are not a priority for the Macri administration like they were during the era of the Kirchners. Argentina’s truth commission is internationally recognized. It serves as a model for many other countries and has prompted a “justice cascade”[1] around the world. Despite these positive examples, there are human rights situations that require attention today. They range from steps backwards in the country reckoning with its past where perpetrators of the Dirty War atrocities may have their sentences reduced to the criminalization of social protests.


On the transitional justice process, there still exists a largely polarized dispute regarding the number of victims of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Nunca Más, Argentina’s truth commission on the fate of the disappeared, originally estimated this number to be between 8,000 and 10,000[2]. However, after time passed allowing for further investigation and more testimonies to be collected, civil society estimates that the number of disappeared victims may be as high as 30,000[3]. Discourse from the Argentine center-right describes the dictatorship as a war between two symmetrical forces when nothing could be further from the truth. The military used excessive and disproportionate force to control subversive and militant groups.


On more than one occasion, President Macri has expressed interest in moving forward as a society, leaving behind the atrocities committed during the dictatorship, and allowing impunity from this period to still run rampant. One of the many efforts to reinforce and achieve this desire to move on is the recent “2-for-1” Supreme Court ruling[4] which grants shorter prison terms to persecutors of crimes against humanity by double-counting days served in pretrial detention. This ultimately perpetuates the string of impunity Argentina has stomached for more than thirty years. The Supreme Court recently began the process to overturn this previous ruling.


Migration Policy

In 2003, the Néstor Kirchner administration passed a historic migration law granting legal documentation to migrants that reside in Argentina[5]. The Macri administration struck down some of this law’s key provisions, impeding justice by a violation of due process. As such, the current administration criminalizes migrants, especially those coming from Bolivia, Perú and Paraguay, and perpetuates a negative xenophobic discourse towards them. They claim the presence of indigenous migrants harms the country’s social fabric by bringing drugs and crime into Argentina. In addition, aid programs for migrants were recently terminated and the process for deportation is faster, less impartial, and therefore less humane. The  current migration policy leads to the criminalization and dehumanization of migrants and the injustices they endure, ultimately delegitimizing them in the eyes of the State.


Criminalization of Organizing, Indigenous Rights

Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, is known for its social resistance in the form of street protests. At present, the Argentine government is inhibiting groups from assembling and organizing in various ways, using both hard and soft power to exercise control over the masses. These groups are comprised of the working class, such as unions, and human rights defenders, and other marginalized members of society exercising their rights. The Macri administration contributes to the perpetuation of negative discourse surrounding protesters, which claim they take to the streets only to attempt to halt national progress. Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich commented in the aftermath of a protest against IMF intervention in the national budget that protesters “always have an excuse to strike against the government” in their “attempt to hamper democracy”[6]. Alleged offenders are charged with crimes such as the obstruction of traffic and public intimidation and are met with a heavy police presence, which often leads to arrests and the use of water cannons and tear gas. The 2017 case of Santiago Maldonado highlighted the underpinnings of an already polarized society and an estranged relationship between the Argentine State and its people regarding protesting.


Santiago Maldonado was an indigenous rights activist and artisan who disappeared on August 1, 2017 when the Argentine Gendarmerie confronted protestors who blocked a road in response to a Mapuche land dispute in the Chubut province. Maldonado’s body was found in the Chubut River in October 2017, which prompted a federal investigation after the government received societal pushback for not immediately prioritizing the case. Just one day before the G20 summit, the Macri Administration released the official results of the investigation, which declared Maldonado’s death an accidental drowning, closing the case and denying any State involvement. Maldonado’s disappearance reopened old wounds as many claim this as the first case of State enforced disappearance since the return of democracy in 1983. The political left in Argentina claims that the State forcibly disappeared Maldonado while the right insists that he simply drowned due to his alleged inability to swim. Police responded to protests demanding Maldonado’s safe return with repression, using tear gas and other weapons, wounding and arresting civilians and journalists.


Unfortunately, Maldonado’s case is not an isolated incident. Agustín Santillán, a Wichí indigenous leader from the Formosa province, was held in pre-trial detention for six months in 2017 under more than 28 criminal charges for protesting the lack of government aid his community received after a flood[7].


Milagro Sala, former congresswoman and leader of the Tupac Amaru organization in the Jujuy province, was arbitrarily imprisoned in January 2016 on counts of instigation of criminal offenses for allegedly organizing a protest against Jujuy Governor Gerardo Morales in 2009. She has been battling the judicial system ever since for her freedom. Sala has spent two years in pre-trial detention, where more charges were brought against her, from embezzlement to attempted homicide. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention[8] demanded she be immediately released or put on house arrest on several occasions, however, the judiciary failed to comply. On January 14, 2018, Sala was sentenced to 13 years in prison even though she is not yet technically considered guilty[9].


The Tupac Amaru Community Organization works[10] on several grassroots efforts to support trials against military defendants who are responsible for crimes against humanity in Jujuy during the last military dictatorship. These criminalization of organizing cases parallel with groups who question State authority and fight for indigenous rights. They highlight a lack of legal recognition for land rights even though the Argentine Constitution recognizes the right to ancestral lands and natural resources. The government’s responses are clearly intimidation strategies to justify repression and ultimately silence these communities. This case, along with the political climate surrounding public organization, raises several challenges and questions regarding the seemingly anti-democratic security policy in Argentina.


Security policy

The Macri Administration’s security policy clearly values public order over the right to assemble, which is a right enshrined in the country’s Constitution. Macri has implemented a new protocol[11] on protests in the name of clearing roadblocks, as most protests take place in the streets. Participants can now be detained without a court order and police are not prohibited from using firearms to control crowds. Most social protests are organized and executed by those most affected by the current policies. In the wake of other social issues, this both demonizes the poor and perpetuates a discourse that claims that these protests are a hindrance to progress and a threat to national security.


The “New threats” doctrine[12] from the United States focuses on drug trafficking and terrorism, identifying them as threats to Argentina’s democracy that require military intervention. In reality, these issues do exist but are not pressing and reflect the control the United States wishes to exercise over the region for matters of self-interest. This is a case of military intervention in domestic security matters, which is a violation of Argentine law. The fractured relationship between the Argentine State and its people has also led to a decrease in military presence.


Women’s Reproductive Rights

Abortion is illegal in Argentina, except in cases of sexual assault or if the pregnancy poses a serious threat to the mother’s health. Even under these conditions, cases must be approved by a judge in order for a pregnancy to be terminated and many medical facilities are still unwilling or hesitant to perform abortions. Together, the judicial and medical systems criminalize women. Women who experience complications during pregnancy and seek help at a medical facility are often accused of attempting a clandestine abortion, which is considered a criminal offense. This past August[13], the Argentine Senate failed to pass a bill to legalize abortion even though it was narrowly passed by the House in July. In addition, the police combined with the justice system do not adequately confront the structural and societal systems that hamper rights for women, precisely victims of femicide or other sexual violence. This is evident in the December 2018 verdict regarding the sexual assault and murder of Lucía Pérez in 2016[14]; the court found the incident consensual. Women’s reproductive rights are yet another issue that demonstrate the structural inequity that persists in the country.


The feminist movement “Ni Una Menos” (Not even one less [woman])[15] denounces machismo culture, the brutal killing of women, and other forms of gender-based violence. Originally launched in Argentina, the grassroots movement began in 2015 following the femicide of 14-year-old Chiara Páez and has since spread to many countries in Latin America. In 2016, the movement organized a mass protest in response to the femicide of Lucía Pérez, which generated international momentum. This opened the door to campaign against not only femicides, but also gender issues such as sexual harassment and the right to abortion. Ni Una Menos represents the beginning of a paradigm shift in Latino culture by protesting machismo and resisting the patriarchy.


Economic and Social Instability

The decline in Argentina’s economic health persists under the Macri administration, however, no one is addressing the structural issues underpinning this instability. The current rates of poverty, unemployment, and inequality cannot be completely blamed on the Macri administration, but Argentina is experiencing a dramatic increase in poverty due to the presence of pro-market neoliberal policies, and the poor are suffering the consequences. A recent report published by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) highlights that poverty cannot be measured solely by income and also that the Argentine government deflated its own findings regarding poverty levels. This report also highlights the underreported economic and social health of Argentina.


On the whole, the issue of human rights in Argentina is a mixed bag, and is not just limited to the issues mentioned in this article. At different times throughout its history, Argentina has represented both a model and failure of the transitional justice process. It seems that the current administration’s sole focus on economic success has produced has an asynchronous relationship between the State and human rights.


Following the wave of amnesia, impunity,  and “retroactive justice”[16] that swept through Argentina in the years following the Dirty War, the Néstor Kircher Administration (2003-2007) implemented a historic human rights policy that focused on four points: the reconstruction of memory spaces; the vetting of government officials, cleansing of corrupt officials and police; international cooperation regarding extraditions; the re-opening of Dirty War trials. Néstor’s policy was perceived one of two ways: as a national threat by the right or as national progress for the left. In the case of Mauricio Macri, the roles are now reversed.


The Macri Administration is disassembling this progress by solely focusing on economic opportunities such as privatizing Argentina’s economy. According to international affairs analyst and author Mariano Aguirre, this year’s G20 summit is yet another sign of crisis in the international system. Aguirre claims in his article that this meeting did not result in any change in the current neoliberal economic model and fell short in the opportunity to discuss and highlight many pressing humanitarian crises, such as the socio-political situation in Venezuela and the Colombian peace process, but instead avoided this type of discourse ultimately hiding it from the public eye. He adds that “stagnant multilateralism” neither allowed for consensus building nor a plan of action regarding the increasingly polarized political climate that Latin America is experiencing today.


The G20 was yet another diplomatic show on the global stage that did not produce any concrete commitments to change or real advancements in development, especially for human rights in the summit’s host country of Argentina. Argentina’s human rights concerns pose a question as to whether or not the current administration will result in a reversion back to extreme State security measures comparable with those of the last military regime.


In spite of a successful meeting in the eyes of the attendees, several key points remain unclear in the aftermath of the G20. Most publicized was the economic success of the bilateral trade agreements and how they will affect the relations between the member countries, especially the United States and Argentina. Most importantly, human rights seems to be put on the backburner as it was not acknowledged by many current world leaders. President Trump does not prioritize human rights, and Macri’s alignment with him does not demonstrate a commitment to the cause. Argentina is only one example of this consequence and its current position highlights the disinterest of the Global North in the Global South.




Acceso al aborto en la Argentina. Center for Social and Legal Studies. https://www.cels.org.ar/web/publicaciones/acceso-al-aborto-en-la-argentina/.

Aguirre, Mariano. “Reunión del G-20, otro paso hacia un mundo sin reglas.” Radio Francia Internacional, December 3, 2018. http://es.rfi.fr/economia/20181203-reunion-del-g-20-otro-paso-hacia-un-mundo-sin-reglas.

Argentina’s fight to legalise abortion is far from over.” Amnesty International. August 8, 2018. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/argentinas-fight-legalise-abortion-far-over.

Bravo, Martin. “Mauricio Macri siguió los incidentes en contacto con Patricia Bullrich.” Clarín. October 24, 2018. https://www.clarin.com/politica/mauricio-macri-siguio-incidentes-contacto-patricia-bullrich_0_NhKnsxOzF.html.

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Human Rights in Argentina: 2017 Report. Center for Social and Legal Studies.


“Lucía se lo buscó.” Página 12. December 5, 2018.  https://www.pagina12.com.ar/160097-lucia-se-lo-busco

Merke, Federico, Zaccato, C. Introduction: The G20 in uncertain times (Introducción: El G20 en tiempos inciertos). Pensamiento Propio: Publicacion trilingüe de Ciencias Sociales de América Latina y el Caribe. Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales. no. 48. (July-December 2018): 15.

Nino, Carlos Santiago. Radical Evil on Trial. Yale University Press, 1997.

“Pobreza monetaria y privaciones no monetarias en Argentina.” UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/argentina/informes/pobreza-monetaria-y-privaciones-no-monetarias-en-argentina

Sabato, Ernesto. Never Again: Report of the National Commission on the Disappeared (Nunca Más: Informe de la Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas). Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1984.

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