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Mauricio Macri hosts G-20 in Argentina amid crises, skepticism

November 29, 2018

BUENOS AIRES For President Mauricio Macri, this weekend’s Group of 20 summit was supposed to showcase a confident, booming Argentina, re-energized by his pro-market policies that put the country’s longtime economic and political dysfunction in the rearview mirror.

Instead, President Trump and other world leaders will descend upon a nation mired in social unrest and economic crisis, with deep doubts as to whether it can safely pull off an event that in recent years overwhelmed security forces in Canada, Britain and Germany.

The lead-up to the meeting of two dozen heads of state and government has been a litany of bad news for the conservative Mr. Macri: Inflation now tops 40 percent; the discovery of wreckage confirmed the deaths of 44 sailors in a military submarine disaster a year ago; and opposition leaders and internal critics are beginning to flex their muscles as Mr. Macri gears up for next year’s elections.

Even in the final days before the summit, the embattled president seemed unable to catch a break: Violent clashes shut down a highly anticipated Buenos Aires soccer match, back-to-back strikes crippled domestic flights and local transportation, and the peso which this year has lost half its value against the dollar dropped 3.5 percent in a day.

“What this exposes are the deficiencies the Macri administration has not been able to resolve in its years in power,” said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center of International Studies.

Sunday’s Copa Libertadores final between legendary rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate, which was suspended after stones thrown at the unprotected Boca team bus left several players injured, was particularly ominous.

“There was an excess of confidence as to the ability to guarantee security,” Mr. Cardozo said. “They never imagined that a sports event of this kind could put the entire status quo of security for the G-20 meeting to the test.”

To add insult to injury, organizers announced Monday that they felt it was prudent to reschedule the match between two Argentine clubs in a foreign country, a decision that reportedly infuriated Mr. Macri, a former Boca president.

Argentine officials still say they are confident in their preparations for the summit. But they would be foolish to take the G-20 security demands lightly, said analysts who scrutinized the violence at last year’s summit in Hamburg, Germany, which left hundreds of protesters and police injured.

“In Hamburg, we knew there was a large critical community,” said Thomas Feltes, who teaches criminology at Ruhr University. “And in Buenos Aires, due to the overall political and economic situation, we now have a very heated situation.”

Balancing act

Tensions were underlined two weeks ago when a group of anarchists detonated homemade bombs at Recoleta cemetery, a major tourist attraction, as well as outside the home of a well-known federal judge.

Police now face the near-impossible balancing act of protecting the globe’s political elite and containing violent instigators without infringing on the rights of peaceful protesters.

“We learned in Hamburg [what happens when] the police commit massive errors at the beginning of these kinds of events,” Mr. Feltes said. “Last weekend’s canceled soccer match showed that there is a massive potential for violence and that the police lack the ability to adequately deal with it.”

Police presence in the Argentine capital is already massive: The army has added 3,000 soldiers to the 22,000 members of four federal police units already dispatched, and 5,000 foreign security guards will help protect visiting delegations. Bus and subway lines have been closed or rerouted, a 7-mile-long security zone with limited or no access has been set up, and Friday has been declared a citywide holiday.

The disruptions have left some locals unhappy.

Adrian Pestano, who sells traditional choripan sandwiches, said his stand along the Rio de la Plata promenade steps from where Mr. Trump and his counterparts will holds their talks is forced to shut down until next week.

“The people want to work, and they have to put up with those from the G-20,” said Mr. Pestano, 36. “I’m an employee, so I’m even more upset because I don’t get paid for those four days.”

At Buenos Aires’ domestic airport, closed to accommodate arriving dignitaries, newsstand vendor Cristian Gonzales, 36, said he was happy for the days off paid in his case. But that was all he was expecting from the summit.

“It doesn’t affect me at all,” he said. “It doesn’t do a thing. For my country, it doesn’t do a thing.”

That attitude common among Argentines weary of a president popular with his counterparts abroad but often blamed for a faltering economy at home is more bad news for Mr. Macri, a former businessman who in Hamburg dubbed his nation “the expression of the entire developing region, anxious for the opportunities.”

“It [causes] resignation given that Argentina is in a situation without immediate exit,” said Mariano de Vedia, a political analyst for the La Nacion daily. “The president hits it off with and certainly will strike a chord with his peers. But that doesn’t mean that investments will rain down the next day.”

Princely problem

Recent global events have put a special strain on the tact and organizational skills of the Argentine hosts, not least the presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his first trip outside the Middle East since the global furor sparked by the gruesome Oct. 2 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a high-level Saudi hit team.

Argentina’s foreign ministry insists that the prince enjoys “special immunities” during his visit. A federal judge has opened an investigation, in part because the country’s constitution gives local courts universal jurisdiction in cases of crimes against humanity.

Lest there be any physical danger to the heir to the throne, the Saudi Embassy hastily installed bulletproof windows on Tuesday.

Although Mr. Trump and Mr. Macri are old acquaintances and onetime business associates, it’s not clear how ordinary Argentines will greet the American president on his first visit to the country. For “security reasons,” Mr. Trump will refrain from holding the customary press conference after a Friday morning meeting with Mr. Macri, the Casa Rosada Argentina’s version of the White House has announced.

Meanwhile, some 1,000 American troops and agents, many based in neighboring Uruguay, have been deployed to protect Mr. Trump, who landed in Buenos Aires on Thursday. The U.S. effort reportedly includes an aircraft carrier and several AWACS warning and control aircraft.

Such over-the-top measures have Mr. Feltes and other security analysts questioning the wisdom of holding such high-powered global summits in the middle of major urban areas.

But Dennis Gladiator, a Hamburg lawmaker who investigated the fallout from last year’s summit as part of a special commission, disagreed.

“If you simply do this on an aircraft carrier or a remote island, you of course don’t get the criticism” leaders need to hear, he said. “I’m not ready to let criminals dictate to us that [world leaders] can only meet on the outskirts, far away.”

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