CIA Chief Pays Argentina Rare Visit Just Three Days Before Anniversary of 1976 Military Coup

Burns’ diagnosis: “we have a short-term problem in the form of Russia; but a bigger long-term problem in the form of China.”

Note to readers: this is a bit of a long post, since it is essentially two in one. The first part explores some of the aggressive moves Washington is making against China in Argentina, which appear to have finally triggered a response from Beijing. The costs could be huge for Argentina’s already buckling economy, unless the US is willing to take up the slack (unlikely). The second part concerns the insensitive timing of CIA William Burns’ visit to Buenos Aires last week. But when, prey tell, was the CIA ever known for its sensitivity?

Last Wednesday (March 20), the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, did something rather extraordinary. He landed in Buenos Aires for an unannounced visit to the Casa Rosada where he met with the Milei government’s Chief of Staff, Nicolás Posse, the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, and the head of the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI), Silvestre Sívori. It is the second time Burns has met with Posse since Milei came to office, the first being in January when the Argentine politician visited Washington.

This visit by Burns was yet another reminder of just how important Argentina is becoming to US strategic interests in South America, and came on the heels of a visit just weeks earlier by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Then, in two weeks time, the Commander of US Southern Command Laura Richardson will be paying a call. According to the journalist Raúl Kollmann, no other Argentine government has received the dubious honour of an in-person visit from the CIA director (translation my own):

A former head of the then State Intelligence Secretariat, or SIDE (Argentina’s apex intelligence agency), during a Peronist government traveled to the United States to visit one of his children. Beforehand, the CIA’s station chief in Buenos Aires had suggested he take advantage of the trip in order to meet with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But in Washington they virtually slammed the door in his face.

“The Director only meets with the agencies with which we can carry out joint operations,” they explained to him. Other heads of the SIDE have fared a little better since: the CIA Director would stop by to say hello, but never for a meeting…

It has been said that the previous head of the CIA, Leon Pannetta, also once visited Argentina, but those who were at the SIDE at the time deny this. No one remembers a similar official visit by a head of North American intelligence — even less so to the Casa Rosada and for a meeting with the Chief of Staff, Nicolás Posse, as well as his counterpart at the AFI, Silvestre Sivori. There was even talk that Burns would meet with Milei, but it did not happen.

Appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021, Burns is a career diplomat who has served every Democratic and Republican president since Ronald Reagan and who, according to the New York Times, has “amassed influence beyond most if not all previous C.I.A. directors.” I would aver that he still has a ways to go before matching the power or influence of Allen Dulles, the agency’s longest serving director who was finally put out to graze in 1961 by John F Kennedy following the CIA’s bungled Bay of Pigs operation.

Although no official agenda was announced for the visit, Burns and his entourage probably discussed many of the same issues already addressed by the front-line US officials who have passed through Buenos Aires since Milei came to office in December. Those issues include bilateral intelligence cooperation; the growing threat posed by terrorist groups, mainly Hizbollah, and “narco-terrorist” groups in Latin America; US interest in Argentina’s strategic resources, including its vast deposits of lithium; and China’s growing economic power and influence in Latin America, which the US government is determined to counter.

It is the last issue that will have topped the agenda, says Kollmann:

Burns’ diagnosis: “we have a short-term problem in the form of Russia; but a bigger long-term problem in the form of China.” He came to speak about China in Argentina and his perspective is that, right now, “joint operations can be carried out.”

It is not hard to see why: no other government in Latin America is tying its mast quite so tightly to  Washington’s as Milei’s. Even Ecuador’s Noboa government, which is firmly in the US orbit and has agreed to allow US military presence off its coastline and on its soil, just concluded negotiations for a trade agreement with China. By contrast, Milei has flung insults at Beijing and his government has even flirted with Taiwanese officials.

Reducing and Supplanting Chinese Influence

The US’ main goal in Argentina is to reduce, and wherever possible supplant, Chinese influence in the country, says Kollman. This includes as preferential buyer of Argentinean lithium; as provider of military fighter jets — Argentina was considering purchasing Chinese-Pakistan made JF-17s but will now be buying 24 second-hand F-16s in questionable condition from the Danish air force — and, rather bizarrely, as the new manager of Argentina’s most important waterway, the Paraná river.

As recently reported here, the Milei government has granted authorisation to the US Army Corps of Engineers to operate along the Argentine stretch of the Paraná river, the longest navigable waterway in South America — something Washington has been actively seeking for years. The military engineers will apparently conduct “maintenance duties” along the Paraná-Paraguay river waterway, including dredging the waters — a job that was formerly the responsibilityy of the Belgian company Jan de Nul until its contract ran out last year.

Along the Paraná’s waters pass not only commodities from the agro-export sectors of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil but also strategic minerals such as lithium and vast quantities of illicit substances, including cocaine, bound for Europe and Africa. Argentina’s opposition parties are incensed, accusing the government of bypassing Congress and selling out Argentina’s sovereignty.

China, like the US, has major interests in the waterway. As the Argentine journalist Sebastián Cazón notes in an article for Página 12, the main corporate competitors for the route are North American big food behemoths like ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus and the Chinese commodities giant COFCO. Chinese companies control two of the major ports along the river, Lima in Buenos Aires and Timbúes in Sante Fe province. Also, a Chinese company, Shanghai Dredging Company, part of the CCCC conglomerate, had expressed an interest in managing the waterway.

China Strikes Back

The US government is also pressuring the Milei government to abandon major infrastructure and scientific projects undertaken by Chinese companies, many of them part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. They include the construction of two astronomical observatories, in Cuyo and Neuquén, in conjunction with Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities, which the US claims could be used for military as well as civilian purposes. What the US government often forgets to mention is that it and NATO are also building an observatory in Nequén, Patagonia, just miles down the road from the proposed site for China’s.

Chinese companies were also helping to build Argentina’s fourth nuclear power plant, in Atucha, on the banks of the Paraná river. The project had reached a fairly stage of development but was frozen last year by the Alberto Fernández government as a result of US pressure, particularly during Argentina’s negotiations with the IMF. Now, it is as good as dead and buried.

The same goes for the Néstor Kirchner-Jorge Cepernic hydroelectric plant river that was being built by a Chinese-led consortium. The project, involving the construction of two dams on the Santa Cruz river, represents the largest bilateral infrastructure project ever attempted between the two countries. The plant was meant to provide for the daily electricity consumption of 1.5 million Argentine households and cut almost $1.1 billion off Argentina’s oil and gas import expenses each year. It should have been completed four years ago, but construction was stalled by the Macri government and then dogged by geological issues. Now, it has been frozen again, and the Chinese appear to have run out of patience.

From La Politica Online (translation my own):

Javier Milei’s government has escalated the situation to a point from which there seems to be no return, with direct insults aimed at the Asian power and flirtations with Taiwan. The anarcho-capitalist administration, whether through basic ignorance or intentionally, has stepped on a high-voltage geopolitical cable.

The response took a while, but it finally came. The Chinese firm Gezhouba that is in charge of the construction of the two Santa Cruz dams left the country, tired of waiting for the Milei government to sign the necessary contracts to continue with the work.

Gezhouba is a partner of the local joint venture, made up of Eiling (Former Electroingenieria) and Hidrocuyo. The departure of the Chinese firm means that all of the Chinese engineers, operators and managers working on the project have also headed home. This Tuesday, the consortium finally announced the total stoppage of the work with the dismissal of 1,800 workers…

As LPO was able to reconstruct from the accounts of local political leaders with strong ties to the Asian giant, the decision is the first step in a series of very harsh retaliations that Xi Jinping’s government does not rule out executing.

“Milei’s geopolitical positioning is worsening in the eyes of China given the possibility that Donald Trump will regain the presidency of the United States. His total alignment with the Republican is not a minor issue for Xi Jinping,” a diplomat who knows inside the communist regime.

In this context, Xi Jinping has a wild card: the breach of the contract for the work of the dams contains a clause crossed with the swap pending payment and the Belgrano Cargas modernization project, which also includes financing from the Asian giant. These are interlinked credits that could fall.

If China decides to call on these loans, the country could face debts of more than USD 30,000 million (USD 18,000 from the swap, USD 4,700 from the dams and the punitive costs that also reach Belgrano Cargas, estimated at just under USD 10,000 million). To put that number into context, it is equivalent to double what Luis Toto Caputo says he needs to dollarize the entire economy.

Insensitive Timing

Burns’ first ever official visit to Argentina came at a most delicate time. On Sunday (March 24),  just two days after he left, Argentina commemorated the 48th anniversary of the 1976 military coup that ushered in seven years of brutal military dictatorship. Both the coup and the brutal regime it spawned were endorsed and supported by three U.S. governments, largely through the CIA. Meanwhile, Operation Condor meant that governments across the Southern Cone could send death squads across each other’s borders to kidnap, torture and murder enemies – real or suspected – among their emigrant and exile communities.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through Buenas Aires, bringing the centre to a standstill  chanting “nunca más” (never again). As AP reports, “as many as 30,000 people,” were killed or forcibly disappeared in a systematic campaign that still haunts the country.” Sixty percent of the victims were under 30. As is now well documented, the US government was fully aware of General Jorge Rafael Videla’s plans to carry out a coup against Isabel Perón. From the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial:

In 1976, the United States Government knew of the plans of the Argentine military led by General Jorge Rafael Videla to perpetrate a coup against Isabel Perón, which gave way to a dictatorship that murdered 30,000 people, according to documents declassified in Washington. The cables, published by the National Security Archive, indicate that the then US ambassador in Buenos Aires, Robert Hill, was central to US involvement and was in contact with the coup plotters from the start of that year. Specifically, Hill met with the coup admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, who would become one of the leaders of the Videla Military Junta.

The documents also indicate that Hill prepared a report about the coup plotters’ plans for the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in mid-February, a month before the March 24 coup. Undersecretary of State William D. Rogers was in charge of informing Kissinger about the content of the report sent by Hill, called “Possible coup in Argentina.”

“It is to be hoped that (the military government) will be friendly to the United States. However, by intensifying the fight against the guerrillas, an Argentine military government will almost certainly engage in human rights violations that will draw international criticism,” Rogers was quoted as saying. “This,” he added, “could lead to public and congressional pressure in the United States that would complicate our relations with the new regime.”

That wasn’t the case. In fact, during its last three years in power, Argentina’s military junta enjoyed very cordial relations with the Reagan Administration, as the late journalist Robert Parry documented in his 2013 article for Consortium News, “Reagan and Argentina’s Dirty War“:

After defeating President Carter in Election 1980 and becoming President in January 1981, Reagan entered into a covert alliance with the Argentine junta. He ordered the CIA to collaborate with Argentina’s Dirty War experts in training the Contras, who were soon rampaging through towns in northern Nicaragua, raping women and dragging local officials into public squares for executions. Some Contras also went to work in the cocaine-smuggling business. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Much as he served as a pitch man for the Argentine junta, Reagan also deflected allegations of human rights violations by the Contras and various right-wing regimes in Central America, including Guatemala where another military junta was engaging in genocide against Mayan villages.

The behind-the-scenes intelligence relationship between the Argentine generals and Reagan’s CIA puffed up Argentina’s self-confidence so much that the generals felt they could not only continue repressing their own citizens but could settle an old score with Great Britain over control of the Falkland Islands, what the Argentines call the Malvinas.

Even as Argentina moved to invade the islands in 1982, the Reagan administration was divided between America’s traditional alliance with Great Britain and its more recent collaboration with the Argentines. Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick joined the Argentine generals for an elegant state dinner in Washington.

Finally, however, Reagan sided with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose counterattack drove the Argentines from the islands and led to the eventual collapse of the dictatorship in Buenos Aires. However, Argentina only slowly began to address the shocking crimes of the Dirty War.

Today, 46 years later, the scars are still fresh. Political polarisation is once again dangerously high. Historical revisionism is all the vogue in the Casada Rosada. And fears are rising that right-wing authoritarianism may be making a comeback. From AP:

On the campaign trail, the radical libertarian played down the military’s crimes as “excesses.” (Vice President Victoria) Villarruel has described the state terror as “an internal armed conflict.”

Villarruel is the daughter of a high-ranking member of Argentina’s armed forces who refused to pledge loyalty to the constitution of Argentina’s new democratic system in 1987. She has made a name for herself by challenging the decades-long consensus over Argentina’s dictatorship as well as questioning the number of victims, dead and disappeared it left in its wake. The lawyer now seeks to pull off what seemed unthinkable until recently: the political triumph of a revisionist current that challenges not only national court rulings after the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, but also the verdict of history. Back to AP:

Both have rejected estimates that 30,000 were disappeared, pointing to an independent commission that could identify only 8,960. Advocates concede the number is imprecise, due to the state’s failure to return bodies and produce evidence…

In Milei’s first 100 days, his government has banned protests involving roadblocks, scrapped the Women’s Ministry and National Institute against Discrimination, closed Argentina’s state news agency Télam, citing its political bias, and loosened rules on police shooting. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has floated the idea of deploying the army to fight spiraling drug violence, a previously taboo topic that dredges up painful memories.

And if there’s one area in which the CIA can lend its expertise, it is in helping to unify a country’s armed and security forces, so that the military can intervene in internal security. This is presumably why the Milei government is so keen to open the doors to US troop deployments, even if it means bypassing Congress. It is also presumably why Burns met up with Bullrich during his visit to the Casa Rosada: to discuss the finer details of the government’s plans for internal security.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Es s Ce Tera

    The US is feeling a little desperate for friends, it seems. So very high school level…

  2. lyman alpha blob

    Another great post Nick. I really appreciate the continuing coverage of Central and South American politics, because the US corporate media certainly isn’t going to report on it accurately.

    I also enjoyed the unintentionally apt typo –

    “But when, prey tell, was the CIA ever known for its sensitivity?”

    The CIA’s prey generally don’t tell much at all… ;)

    1. Nick Corbishley Post author

      Thanks, Bob. That is indeed an interesting little typo. Almost tempted to leave it as is.

  3. Yaiyen

    Argentina is finished; I was so surprised that they risked so much with Argentina, even though it was controlled by a centrist/left-wing alliance government. Reading this post, the centrist government was worse than I thought. I didn’t know there were so many projects they were slowing down; what’s even worse, all of them would have helped the Argentine people. Was it because of Lula that they went that far, or did they misread all the signals in the air?

  4. The Rev Kev

    I am going to say that the timing of CIA Director William Burns was almost certainly intentional. And that for the Milei government, the 1976 military coup was actually a great thing for Argentina and something to be emulated. Maybe Milei thinks of himself as a tough guy who will knock heads together and make Argentina into a neoliberal paradise with security turned over to the US. And that he wants Argentina to be the main US base in South America who will guarantee that he is not deposed from office.

    But if China is getting ready to pull the plug on their Argentinian investments, that might be a wake up like how the Russians almost did with Ecuador. I think that the Milei government will find that the US will not be so quick to fill that gap as their priority will be extraction of resources and certainly not local development. Their priority will be to have Argentina be dependent on the US to run vital infrastructure like with that river. And Milei seems to be perfectly fine with this.

    1. Carolinian

      Well at least if Trump takes over this meddling in South America will stop oh wait.

      Seems using the continent as a CIA play pen is bipartisan.

  5. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Nick.

    It’s interesting that you mention the ABCD, quartet of commodity producers and traders.

    Their presence, amongst others, in Argentina encouraged HSBC, my employer from 1999 – 2006, to buy out the majority investors in Banco Roberts, from an initial investment by Midland Bank, and make it HSBC Argentina (HBAR).

    From 2003 – 6, I often popped down to work on deals there, often in tandem with Nova Scotia, oddly. Neither my former manager nor I knew Milei, but some colleagues do now recall him. He was a bit anonymous there, but would have come across ABCD for credit risk analysis and be aware of Uncle Sam’s interest.

  6. Yaiyen

    This maybe sound tin foil but what if CIA plan is to use Argentina as a proxy to attack its neighbors. I have a bad feeling USA border will have alot more refugees in the future

  7. CA

    A really fine but ominous post. I am grateful for the ideas.

    I am however puzzled about Argentina’s fresh water supply, when fresh water ib urban life has significant limits and the limits in rural life are severe.

    “Serious gaps in access to water services are also noteworthy, with only 54.7% of the rural population connected to drinking water supply (versus 87% for urban dwellers) and only 6.4% and 58.2% of the rural and urban population respectively connected to sewerage, while only 15-20% of wastewater is treated before …”

    From the OECD

    1. CA

      Unfortunately, little has apparently been accomplished in Argentina since 2015 in water conservancy and services:


      Serious gaps in access to water services are also noteworthy, with only 54.7% of the rural population connected to drinking water supply (versus 87% for urban dwellers) and only 6.4% and 58.2% of the rural and urban population respectively connected to sewerage, while only 15-20% of wastewater is treated before disposal.

      1. Nick Corbishley Post author

        The situation in Mexico City, where I am staying right now, is even worse. In fact, most of Mexico’s large cities have serious water management and scarcity issues. I wrote an article on the topic a couple of years ago. CNN just published a report warning that Mexico City “may be just months away from running out of water.”

    2. Nick Corbishley Post author

      CA, thanks for bringing that up. I was thinking of General Laura Richardson’s words when she spoke covetously of all the natural resources Latin America has to offer, one of which was abundant freshwater. But most of that freshwater is in the Amazon basin, with Brazil alone home to over 10% of the world’s freshwater supplies. Colombia is also extremely rich in H20. By contrast, Argentina is not. Have amended the text accordingly. Thanks for the heads-up.

      1. CA

        “I was thinking of General Laura Richardson’s words when she spoke covetously of all the natural resources Latin America has to offer, one of which was abundant freshwater. But most of that freshwater is in the Amazon basin, with Brazil alone home to over 10% of the world’s freshwater supplies. Colombia is also extremely rich in H20…”

        Again, the post is excellent and important.

  8. Mikel

    “If China decides to call on these loans, the country could face debts of more than USD 30,000 million (USD 18,000 from the swap, USD 4,700 from the dams and the punitive costs that also reach Belgrano Cargas, estimated at just under USD 10,000 million)…”

    The USA probably can’t wait for China to do that. They’ll label it “debt-trap diplomacy/development” or whatever the spin that’s been used. And the Argentine govt will run with that spin too. Truth by the wayside…

    1. Al

      And China can give a rats ass about the label. Hasn’t stopped other countries from signing on to the BRI.

      Remind me which iteration are we on now of the US version of BRI?

  9. timotheus

    Argentina’s dictatorship was notorious for its wanton cruelty even among the appalling South American juntas that proliferated during that terrible period. (See the recent documentary The Trial consisting of 4 hours of almost unwatchable testimony by victims.) in part, the viciousness was ideologically driven by the neonazi elements within the Argentine elite and its military enforcers. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the resurgence given what we are watching in Gaza. Still, it is shocking.

    1. CA

      May 10, 1981


      By Jacobo Timerman.
      Translated from the Spanish by Toby Talbot.

      THE prisoner is blindfolded, seated in a chair, hands tied behind him. The electric shocks begin. No questions are put to him. But as he moans and jumps with the shocks, the unseen torturers speak insults. Then one shouts a single word, and others take it up: ”Jew … Jew … Jew! … Jew!” As they chant, they clap their hands and laugh.

      Germany in 1939? No, Argentina in 1977. Were the torturers an outlaw band, a gang of anti-state terrorists? No, they were part of the state: military men from one wing of the armed forces that controlled the Argentine Government in 1977 and still do.

      And the victim: Was he some unlucky social outcast? No, he was Jacobo Timerman, editor and publisher of a leading Buenos Aires daily newspaper, La Opinion. And in a sense he was lucky. For, unlike 15,000 other Argentinians who were seized by the military over the last five years, he lived.

      Timerman lived. And he has used that grace to write an extraordinary book about his experience. It is the most gripping and the most important book I have read in a long time: gripping in its human stories, not only of brutality but of courage and love; important because it reminds us how, in our world, the most terrible fantasies may become fact.

      Not just autobiography, or political analysis, or a victim’s cry in the night, it is all these things. Timerman describes what he suffered in prison and what he thought, and how he and Argentina got to where they were. The New Yorker came close in the title it used when it published part of the text last month: ”Reflections.” Timerman writes with passion, but a passion controlled almost to the point of detachment. The effect is devastating.

      In spare words, Timerman shows us a sophisticated society falling into irrationality and savagery – a savagery in which nearly everyone silently acquiesces. He gives an unforgettable picture of our century’s special contribution to civilization: state terrorism.

      It happened in Argentina. But those who read this book around the world will understand the universal application…

Comments are closed.