Argentina sent mixed messages to the world this weekend as it opened the World Trade Organisation’s annual Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires.
On the one hand, President Mauricio Macri spoke optimistically on the future of free-market economics in a global context tending toward protectionism and US hostility which the country led by Donald Trump has at times aimed specifically at the WTO. In his opening remarks, Macri urged that “the path forward is an open world”.
On the other hand, dozens of civil society representatives were barred from attending the high-profile event despite having accreditation from the WTO. Some like Norwegian Petter Titland and British-Ecuadorian journalist Sally Burch were deported.
In his opening remarks Sunday at the first ever Ministerial Conference held in South America, Macri said his country looked to become “trustworthy, productive, sustainable and part of the world”.
“We live in a time of profound global change. Argentina wants to contribute to dynamic (global) growth”, he said.
He also signed a declaration in defence “of the importance of defending and preserving a multilateral system of commerce”.
In yet another sign of changing political tides in the region, Macri was joined by nine Latin American counterparts in signing the “Buenos Aires Declaration” which seeks to promote “open markets with transparent, inclusive, non discriminatory and non discriminate rules”.
They were: Brazil (represented by President Michel Temer), Mexico, Chile, Paraguay (represented by President Horacio Cartes), Uruguay (represented by President Tabaré Vásquez), Colombia, Guyana, Peru and Surinam.
As the event got under way, Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was backtracking on unprecedented moves it made to restrict access to the event. These included the deportation on security grounds of dozens of civil society representatives, many with WTO clearance, and journalists.
Norwegian journalist Petter Titland was able to return to Buenos Aires after his deportation to Brazil, thanks to the intervention of the Norwegian Embassy.
British-Ecuadorian journalist Sally Burch, travelling on an Ecuadorian passport, indicated from Quito she would not return to the country and had not sought assistance from the British Embassy in Argentina.
“The first reasons the Argentine Foreign Office gave was that they had determined that the organisations that were denied (entry to the event) were disruptive and not constructive to the work agenda of the Ministerial Conference, which is totally false,” she told the online news portal LetraP.
Argentina's Foreign Office said Monday it was assessing ‘case-by-case’ the entry of journalists and civil society representatives so long as they were able to provide a guarantor for good conduct.
Protests in Buenos Aires began over the weekend and are expected to last the duration of the event through Wednesday.
US HOSTILITY, CHINA
In a broader sense, the optimism in Argentina surrounding the WTO event came in stark contrast with hostility emanating from the United States toward multilateral trade accords.
The 164-member WTO is also wracked by disagreements over China and has been struggling to kickstart stalled trade talks.
The meeting, which lasts through Wednesday, is the first in the era of US President Donald Trump, who has pummelled the body relentlessly since taking office, describing it as a "disaster."
The Trump administration has made the WTO a preferred target of its "America First" policy, threatening to pull the US out of the trade organization it says is hampering its ability to compete.
Macri said, in opening remarks, that "WTO problems get fixed with more WTO, not with less WTO."
Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and insisted on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said Sunday he will ask US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for "political commitment, political will and flexibility."
"Without flexibility we will not get anywhere," Azevedo told AFP at an opening press conference at a Buenos Aires hotel.
Washington has been blamed for blocking appointments of judges to the WTO's dispute settlement system, saying it was ineffective and insisting on a more aggressive approach to defending its interests.
The dispute body arbitrates international rows over subsidies or tariffs, among other things playing an important role in the standoff between US and European plane-makers Boeing and Airbus.
The European Union, on the other hand, comes to the conference with a robust spirit of multilateralism. The EU and Japan announced Friday that they have finalized a major trade agreement.
EU officials will also meet with counterparts from the South American trade bloc known as Mercosur to continue talks on a free trade accord. These discussions have been going on for nearly 20 years.
Expectations for any kind of a breakthrough at the meeting are low.
For the past decade the WTO has failed to make progress in the so-called Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks, which began in 2001.
The WTO is also accused of failing to do enough to resolve problems that some of its members have with China.
"There is life after Buenos Aires," said the president of the conference, Susana Malcorra of Argentina.
She has said a deal was likely to end harmful fisheries subsidies, of keen interest to developing countries.
Beijing, meantime, wants to be seen by the WTO as a "market economy," but the Europeans and the United States -for once on the same wavelength on trade issues- oppose this. Any such recognition would entitle China to preferential economic treatment under WTO rules.
It is currently classed as a non-market economy. That status allows the US and others to use a special recourse to levy anti-dumping duties against China if they determine that it is selling its goods -- notably steel and aluminum -- at unfairly low prices abroad.
A European diplomat in Buenos Aires said protectionist US rhetoric may actually give fuel to negotiations between the EU and Mercosur.