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Chile’s new president visits Argentina in first foreign trip to rebuild regional relations

Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, included symbolic visits and multiple agreements aimed at closer regional integration.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Chile’s new leftist President Gabriel Boric visited Argentina this past week, his first foreign trip since taking office on Mar. 11, where he described his Argentine counterpart Alberto Fernández as “an ally in the battle against inequality and for a more dignified world.”

Boric crossed the snowcapped Andean mountains that form much of their 3,300-mile border along with five ministers, the presidents of both chambers of the Chilean Congress and a group of business leaders.

Together with Fernández, Boric signed a stack of cooperative agreements ranging from gender equality and minority rights to the development of memorials of periods of military dictatorship under which both countries have recently suffered — Chile under the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) and Argentina under the military dictatorship (1976-1983).

“The route and destinations chosen during his visit have a symbolic importance and emit a message aimed at both domestic and foreign policy,” said Pablo Ortemberg, a historian at the National University of San Martín and researcher at CONICET, an important research institute in Latin America. These included the presidents' visit to the ESMA museum, a former military training center that was used by the dictatorship for the torture and murder of 5,000 people.

Boric signaled his intention to refocus the country’s interests closer to home. “Although for a long time we have been looking in other directions, our base is Latin America and it’s from here that we are going to build,” Boric said.

The economy of Chile has been based on a neoliberal model since the era of the Pinochet dictatorship, which remains a core part of its economy today. Half of Chile’s economic trade is with the U.S. and China, while Argentina’s economy is more integrated with South America. According to the OEC, 51.5% of Chilean exports are shipped to the U.S. and China while just 16.3% of Argentine exports go to the two global superpowers.

Speaking in Buenos Aires, Boric emphasized that “Latin America has to recover a common voice on the international stage.” The 21st century began with a wave of left-wing governments ascending to power across Latin America, whose implementation of social and inclusive policies was fueled by rising commodity prices. It lasted around a decade before the region swung to the conservatives.

In recent years, the left has regained ground across Latin America, including the election of Fernández in Argentina and Boric in Chile. This year, there are key presidential elections in Brazil and Colombia, where the left is currently leading the polls.

“We will have to wait until October when Brazilians will decide between the continuity of Jair Bolsonaro or the return of former president Lula to see if the leftist trend is consolidated,” said Cristian Di Renzo, a historian with a focus on geopolitics at the National University of Mar del Plata, Argentina.

Despite the region’s ideological affiliation, national struggles of reemerging from the pandemic may limit deeper integration across Latin America. “The common characteristic in the region is the improvement of local economies, where pragmatism seems to be the key concept for the current alliances taking place,” Di Renzo said. “Domestic politics is a pressing issue so it’s not surprising that there is a lack of emphasis on large-scale integration.”

At the bilateral level, Boric’s visit shows a gradual degree of progress between Chile and Argentina, with relations between the two Southern Cone nations historically punctuated by border disputes and diplomatic tensions that have reached the edge of war.

Both nations share a national hero, José de San Martín, an Argentine liberator who along with Simón Bolívar led the struggle for South America’s independence from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s. In the decades after, both Argentina and Chile began nation-building in the south through the colonization of the vast Patagonia region — home to many indigenous peoples including the Mapuche — that was largely neglected by the Spanish.

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Through separate military campaigns, Argentina’s Conquest of the Desert and Chile’s Occupation of Araucanía, both countries pushed their southern borders closer to Antarctica through repression, displacements and massacres. As borders were being forged separately by both countries, vast tracks of land were released for agricultural production while overlapping geographic claims began to trigger disputes.

The Patagonia problem was partly resolved in 1881 and 1902, when both countries signed border treaties giving Argentina most of Patagonia. The treaty, however, failed to define the entire border. Sovereignty disputes over a large icefield and three islands in the Beagle Channel continued up until Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas in Spanish) in 1983, which triggered war with the U.K.

Five years earlier, Argentina had planned an invasion of the three islands under Operation Sovereignty before aborting the plan. Wary of Argentina’s revised plans to occupy the Beagle islands after victory in the Falklands, the Pinochet regime in Chile provided the British government under Margaret Thatcher military bases and intelligence.

Argentina lost the war, accelerating the return of democracy in 1983. A year later, the countries signed a peace treaty mediated by the Vatican that settled border disputes and navigation rights. It was put to a referendum in Argentina where 82.6% of the people approved it.

“Since the early 1990s, both nations have signed several agreements to move away from ‘threatening neighborliness’ and improve bilateral efforts aimed at integration,” said Di Renzo. “However, there remain some barriers, such as the denunciations of the role of the Chilean government during the Malvinas War.”

Parts of the border — the third-longest in the world — are still disputed but have regressed into the political background. “For Boric and Fernández, both sides of the mountain range are aiming for a mature security alliance where old rivalries are put aside in order to invest in a new shared identity,” Di Renzo said.

While their economies remain largely disconnected — just 0.8% of Chile’s exports are sent across the Andes while 5% of its imports come from Argentina — multiple social issues have forged solidarity. “Civil society has cooperated in different spheres,” said Di Renzo, “such as feminist movements for changes in national legislation.”

The pañuelo verde, or green bandana, has become a defining symbol of modern feminism across Latin America, which emerged in Argentina to visibly show support for the legalization of abortion and later spread across the region, from Mexico to Chile.

Feminist movements in the region draw inspiration from one another. For example, the protest performance that has become a global feminist anthem Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in your Path) was created in the Chilean seaport city of Valparaíso and inspired by the Argentine feminist academic Rita Laura Segato.

With Boric in office, who ran on a feminist platform and appointed a female-majority cabinet, Chile and Argentina currently align on broader areas of cooperation. And it may be civil society, driven by the countries’ feminist movements, that serves as inspiration for broader and closer ties between Santiago and Buenos Aires.

"The current global scenario highlights the importance of regional integration, something always desired but difficult to achieve,” said Di Renzo. “Considering the shared history and the possibilities of both nations, integration should be the shared and inevitable destiny in the 21st century.”

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