World News

Argentina Once Saw G-20 as a Chance to Shine. Bad News Got in the Way.

Posted November 29, 2018 4:52 p.m. EST

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When plans were first made for Argentina to play host to the heads of state of the world’s top economies at this week’s Group of 20 summit, the government saw the gathering as a golden opportunity to portray Argentina as a prosperous, stable nation.

But when the world leaders arrive in Buenos Aires on Friday, they will find a country reeling from a severe recession and rattled by a recent string of security incidents.

Among them are an attack on soccer players by a pack of unruly fans just last weekend, a suspected bombing plot by vegan activists and the recent arrest of a pair of brothers in Buenos Aires suspected of ties to the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, public worker strikes have led to the cancellation of scores of flights this week and snarled commutes in much of the country.

So as government officials set out to lock down much of the capital before the summit, Patricia Bullrich, the top security official, had a blunt piece of advice to residents of the city of nearly 2.9 million: Consider hitting the road.

“Our recommendation is to use the long weekend to get out, to leave on Thursday because the city will be complicated,” Bullrich said.

That advice was incongruous with the high hopes Argentina’s government expressed just a year ago when it assumed the G-20 presidency.

“We inspire confidence around the world because they see we’re going down the right path,” President Mauricio Macri said then.

During a 12-year era of leftist rule by Presidents Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández, Argentina defaulted on its foreign debt, which drove investors away, and cultivated close ties with China and Russia as it drifted away from the United States.

Since his election in 2015, Macri, a center-right politician, has sought to restore the confidence of investors by reining in public spending. He has also realigned Argentina’s foreign policy by cultivating closer ties with the Trump administration.

And he has pushed to position Argentina as an prominent actor in global debates on issues like climate change, migration and trade policy.

“We went from being a country that was on the global sidelines” to having the responsibility of planning the G-20, Macri said last year. “We have to take advantage to make sure the world sees all our potential, live and in person.”

Instead, leaders from the world’s largest economies will arrive to a country that is facing many difficulties, particularly with its economy, that have contributed to a plunge in Macri’s approval ratings.

As the Argentine currency devalued precipitously earlier this year, Macri took the politically painful step of turning to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Then, just months later, that loan had to be expanded.

Still, without much good news to show, Argentine officials are going to great lengths to pull out an orderly summit.

The government is deploying 22,000 security forces and closing off large sections of the capital to protect the visiting heads of state and their delegations. The city of Buenos Aires declared Friday a holiday to ease traffic and encourage people to leave town.

Officials are mindful of the riots that marred the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last year. Critics of globalization of capitalism burned cars, looted businesses and clashed with the police in confrontations that left hundreds injured and led to the arrest or detention of more than 400 people.

This year’s meeting comes at a period of considerable social unrest in Buenos Aires, where protests and street blockades have become a near daily occurrence. And December has historically been a month when these types of demonstrations turn violent, particularly at times of economic upheaval.

The suggestion that residents of the capital leave town during the event was met with outrage by Argentines, who have been struggling to make ends meet amid soaring inflation.

“I barely have enough money for food and she wants me to leave the city?” said Paula Valladares, 46, a caregiver to the elderly. “I need to work. If I don’t work, I don’t eat.”

Anyone who tried to get an early start to the recommendation faced some trouble Monday as all flights by the state-owned airline Aerolíneas Argentinas were canceled because of a workers’ strike.

Early Tuesday morning, all public transport came to a halt for three hours in another strike.

Even before this weekend’s attack on a bus transporting Boca Junior soccer players to a stadium — in which several players were injured, leading to the postponement of a long-awaited match that will now take place outside the country — the city was already on edge after bomb threats led to the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, the regional airport, the Senate, a bank and a hospital.

Those all proved to be false alarms. But earlier in the month, a group of vegan anarchists were accused of leaving an explosive device in Recoleta Cemetery, the place of rest of several important figures in Argentine history, including former first lady Eva Duarte de Perón.

One of the people implicated in the plot was injured after the device apparently detonated prematurely.

The government also blamed an anarchist group for a homemade bomb that was thrown at a judge’s home.

Another unusual episode that made headlines was the arrest in mid-November of two Argentine citizens accused of having links to Hezbollah. Their family vehemently denied that the two men, ages 23 and 25, were terrorists.

The Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in Argentina, charges that the country’s government has used the G-20 as an “excuse to further harden its speech against social protest and street demonstrations and exaggerate its war against terrorism.”

Organizations planning the main anti-G-20 protest, taking place Friday, say they are sure the city lockdown will affect participation. But they still expect a large turnout for a march that will end at Congress — about 3 miles from where the world’s most powerful leaders will be gathered.

Some in the city can’t wait for the whole thing to be over and done with.

“We have such a huge country, why did they have to come here?” wondered Esteban Torres, 31, a retail worker. “As if life in this city weren’t difficult enough.”