The Wall Street Journal / October 9, 1997
By Larry Luxner
On Aug. 25, in one of his first acts as Argentina's new ambassador in Washington, Diego Ramiro Guelar tasted a sampling of the first shipment of fresh Argentine beef to the United States in 68 years.
Meat-lovers rejoiced, as did restaurant traders, supermarket executives and Guelar himself. The fact that his country can now freely export fresh, chilled and frozen steaks to the world's largest beef-consuming nation is just one more indication of the warming ties between the U.S. and Argentina -- as is President Clinton's recent designation of Argentina as a "special non-NATO ally" and, of course, Clinton's state visit to Buenos Aires next week.
Guelar says the presidential visit, among other things, will lend credibility to efforts by Argentina and its neighbors to strengthen economic integration through the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur).
"Our country is increasing in terms of U.S. priority," Guelar said in a recent speech here. "We used to be just on the margin of civilization. This shows we are in a new stage of development."
Guelar presented his credentials to Clinton on Sept. 9, replacing Raúl Enrique Granillo Ocampo -- who after four years as Argentina's ambassador in Washington has returned to Buenos Aires as minister of justice in the Menem government. Guelar, a lawyer by profession, most recently served as Argentina's ambassador to Brazil. Before that, he spent seven years in Brussels representing his nation before the European Union.
The 47-year-old diplomat has also edited the opinion page of La Razón, taught at the University of Maastricht in Holland, and served as vice-president of the General Assembly of IRELA (Institute on European-Latin American Relations).
"We are building a very ambitious project, a nation of nations -- a new type of sovereignty linked more to the 21st century than the 19th -- without losing our sense of origin or national identity," said Guelar, predicting that within a decade or two, Mercosur member nations will share a common currency. "My personal goal is Washington's recognition of the integration process. Europe already recognizes Mercosur. I think we deserve the same from the United States."
Indeed, Clinton's visit to South America (he's stopping in Venezuela and Brazil before heading to Argentina) comes at a time of fierce debate in Washington over whether Congress should grant the president fast-track authority to sign trade pacts with other countries. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill -- still upset over NAFTA's extension to Mexico -- bitterly oppose fast-track, though Republicans generally favor the idea.
Asked about Argentina's unemployment rate -- currently the highest in South America -- Guelar says "there is no doubt unemployment is our most delicate issue. It hit a peak of 18% but has since descended as the [Mexican] tequila crisis of 1995 wears off. Now we've recovered, and this year, Argentina's GDP will grow no less than 7.5%. We think unemployment will continue going down."
How long Argentina's peso will remain on par with the dollar is another question. Investors recently polled by New York investment bank Merrill Lynch say Argentine debt offers the best performance prospects in Latin America. That view prevailed even though 67% of respondents don't expect the one-to-one peg to last until 2000.
"We had under 1% inflation last year, and will achieve the same rate this year. There is no reason to have this rigid procedure anymore," said Guelar, adding that although peso convertibility was "extremely useful" at one point, Argentine prosperity no longer depends on parity with the dollar.
Guelar, who happens to be Argentina's first Jewish ambassador to the United States, says one of his government's priorities is finding out who's responsible for the world's two deadliest terrorist attacks against Jews since World War II: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 26 and injured over 200, and the 1994 destruction of the Buenos Aires headquarters of AMIA, which left 86 dead and over 300 wounded.
"There is a terrible feeling because there are no results" in the investigations, he acknowledged -- in response to suggestions the Menem government hasn't done enough to find the culprits. But he added that "there is a general consensus in the case of AMIA that the judge involved is working on the right track."