Shortly after Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman accused the United States of operating torture schools, his government decided to trigger a genuine crisis in bilateral relations.
Last week, Argentina seized the contents of a U.S. Air Force plane that was delivering equipment for a U.S.-led police-training course. Buenos Aires is claiming that the equipment was undeclared and thus subject to confiscation. “The United States must understand that they can’t send war materials without informing the government,” Timerman told CNN. For its part, the Obama administration is demanding that the equipment be returned. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley described Argentina’s search of the Air Force plane as “unusual and unannounced.”
Whatever legitimate legal issues the plane’s cargo may have raised, the Kirchner administration could easily have resolved the matter in private with U.S. authorities. Instead, Buenos Aires chose to ignite a diplomatic firestorm. Why?
Two reasons. First, Argentine officials are angry that Barack Obama will be skipping their country during his Latin American tour next month (Obama is scheduled to visit Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador), and they are responding like petulant children. Second, President Cristina Kirchner is an ideological leftist who has cozied up to Venezuelan radical Hugo Chávez and adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward the United States.
The plane fiasco will only further bruise Argentina’s image, which has been tarnished by government efforts to doctor economic statistics and bully opposition journalists. Once considered the “Jewel of South America,” today it is suffering from runaway inflation and declining regional influence. As Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, chief of staff to the Buenos Aires city government, told a local newspaper, “Our only friend right now is Hugo Chávez.”