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Sun Dec 04 10:07:13 SAST 2016

Obama addresses US role in Argentina's 'dirty war'

Andrew BEATTY | 2016-03-24 08:44:31.0
US President Barack Obama toasts with Argentina's President Mauricio Macri during a state dinner in the Centro Cultural Kirchner as part of President Obama's two-day visit to Argentina, in Buenos Aires March 23, 2016.
Image by: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS

President Barack Obama will on Thursday tackle one of the most troubled periods of US history with Argentina, visiting a memorial to victims of the country's murderous US-backed dictatorship.

Obama will visit the Parque de la Memoria near Buenos Aires, a monument to the estimated 30,000 people who were killed or went missing from 1976-1983, and deliver a speech.

Obama's two day visit coincides with the 40th anniversary of a right-wing military coup, which the US government condoned and which ushered in the dictatorship.

During his visit, Obama has tried to present a softer side of the hemisphere's preeminent power.

He joked about tasting Argentina's national beverage mate for the first time and about trying to meet football superstar Lionel Messi, while fondly recalling reading books by Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar.

He even had a go at tango -- with a pro, at a state dinner, no less.

Looking relaxed while practicing a few steps with dancer Mora Godoy, while his First Lady Michelle Obama gave it a whirl with dancer Jose Lugones, the Obamas held their own on tango's home turf.

But the past has never been far away.

In 2002, Washington declassified 4,000 diplomatic cables which showed US officials, including then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, encouraged the military junta's purge of leftists.

While acknowledging "moments" in American foreign policy "that were counterproductive" Obama pushed for reconciliation during his first full day in Argentina Wednesday.

In a strategic gesture, Obama agreed to declassify sensitive military and intelligence records linked to the "dirty war."

The intelligence and military documents could shed new light on the depth of US involvement in the coup and in the purges which followed.

"Prior US government releases have detailed human rights abuses and US policymaking in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador," said Carlos Osorio at the National Security Archive.

They may also shed more light on the extent of US involvement in "Operation Condor," a plan among secret police agencies across the Southern Cone to target communists, leftists and dissidents.

"We all need and we are entitled to know what the truth is," said Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who had asked for the documents to be released.

Obama's visit has angered some victims' groups. Several have called on Obama to apologize for US support of the military regime.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, 84, an Argentine human rights activist who, like Obama, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recalled that US military academies trained troops from Argentina and other Latin American regimes in torture techniques.

"It would be good to have a public recognition of United States interventionism," Perez Esquivel said.

Obama is on his first visit to Argentina hoping to nurture a new regional ally.

He also offered a warm embrace of Macri, the country's charismatic centrist and pro-business leader, praising him as a "man in a hurry" who wants to create jobs and mend the underperforming economy.

The White House is keen to help bolster the new president, spotting a chance to put Argentina on a firmer financial footing and create a new ally in the region.

Macri won elections in November, ending 12 years of leftist and crisis-ridden rule by the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina who reveled in political enmity with Washington.

Obama's visit has also seen an effort to neutralize another point of contention between the two countries -- finance.

A $100 billion default in 2001 made Argentina a financial pariah, effectively shutting it out from international capital markets.

Macri has tried to quickly clear billions' worth of remaining claims from holdout bond holders, who are predominantly from the United States.

A deal has been agreed but has yet to be ratified.

Until the issue is resolved, Argentina is frozen out of the International Monetary Fund, making investment difficult.

Obama praised Macri's "constructive approach" in reaching a deal with creditors and said it had led to the "possibility of a resolution."

The Obamas are scheduled to leave Argentina on Thursday night after a quick recreational trip to Patagonia.

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