BUENOS AIRES – After bidding to turn the page on the Cold War in Cuba, American President Barack Obama arrived early Wednesday in Argentina, where campaigners hope he will acknowledge U.S. backing for its former dictatorship.
After calling for freedom and democracy as he stood alongside Cuba’s Communist leaders, Obama has touched down in another Latin American nation with a history of delicate relations with Washington.
After a series of historic but at times awkward public appearances with Cuba’s Communist leader Raul Castro, Obama will on Wednesday meet Argentina’s new free market-friendly President Mauricio Macri.
Tuesday’s deadly bomb blasts in Brussels prompted Argentina to put its security forces on high alert as it prepared for Obama’s visit.
Macri has reached out to Washington and other foreign powers since taking office in December after years of combative relations under his leftist predecessors.
But the delicate issue of U.S. involvement in Latin America’s violent history will rear its head during his visit to Buenos Aires — after the Havana visit touched on sensitivities over human rights in Cuba.
On Thursday morning Obama will pay homage to victims of the “dirty war” by Argentina’s dictators against dissidents.
Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup that started the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Declassified documents have shown that top U.S. officials backed the coup.
Obama arrived in the wee hours of Wednesday with First Lady Michelle Obama, their two daughters and his mother-in-law and were received by Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra.
Later in the day, he will hold talks with Macri, lays a wreath at Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral and meets with local people before attending a state dinner.
As well as becoming the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in almost a century, Obama hopes to remake the United States’ image in Latin America, tarnished by involvement in coups and death squads.
Obama’s administration said last week it would declassify military and intelligence records linked to Argentina’s “dirty war.”
“We’re determined to do our part as Argentina continues to heal and move forward as one nation,” said Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
The documents may shed more light on U.S. involvement in “Operation Condor,” a plan among secret police agencies across South America to target leftists and dissidents.
The sensitive date of the Argentina visit angered some victims’ groups. Several groups have called on Obama to apologize for U.S. support of the military regime.
But four opinion polls showed a majority of Argentines approved of Obama’s visit.
Obama “believes that part of moving forward in the Americas or any other part of the world involves a clear-eyed recognition of the past,” said Ben Rhodes, one of the president’s top advisers.
“He will be more than willing to speak to what took place 40 years ago, to the suffering that took place after the coup and to the complicated history between the United States and Argentina as it relates to those events.”
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, 84, an Argentine human rights activist who like Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recalled that U.S. 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,” he said.
Some small leftist groups planned demonstrations against Obama’s visit in Buenos Aires and in the Andean lake country resort town of Bariloche, where the Obamas are due to head on Thursday afternoon for a few hours’ leisure time.
Some vowed to protest in anger at the treatment of Argentina by its U.S. creditors.
Macri’s government has reached a settlement with U.S. hedge funds that his predecessor Cristina Kirchner branded “vultures.”
The Obamas are scheduled to leave Argentina on Thursday night.