Some will say that the contentious relationship between Brazil and Argentina is all about soccer rivalries. That certainly plays a role - try asking a Brazilian who's the best soccer player of all time, and then ask an Argentine. And even though there's often a begrudging respect for the other country's star players, it's not often admitted. On both sides of the border, there are often mean-spirited jokes and even open hostility in regards to the other country. On the Argentine side, the antagonism sometimes takes a racist tone. But soccer is one of the more obvious components of a very complicated relationship, one that actually goes back hundreds of years and has reached a turning point as Brazil continues to rise and Argentina continues to struggle.
Here's a very brief background on their history. Argentina and Brazil have actually gone to war, both against each other and united. They fought each other in the Cisplatine War from 1825 to 1828. Brazil lost an entire territory it had annexed, which later became the country of Uruguay. But Argentina and Brazil fought together with Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay from 1864 to 1870, and won; the death toll in Paraguay was estimated between 300,000 and 525,000. While both economies grew at the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina enjoyed a golden age; in the 1920s, it was the wealthiest country per capita in Latin America and was amongst the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. That changed after the Great Depression, and both countries shared some similar struggles in the following decades, including populist leaders, military dictatorships, debt, and inflation, amongst other things. In 2001, Argentina's economy crashed, and while things have stabilized, the economy still has not quite recovered, while Brazil's economy booms. Despite all this, the stereotypical Argentine "attitude" is that Argentina is still the most superior country in Latin America, and despite economic hardships, they're still the best -- even better than Brazil.
It must be hard then to deal with some very difficult realities in recent months. President Dilma made her first international visit in office to Argentina, which underscores the importance of the two countries' relationship but also of its power parity. Dilma and Cristina Kirchner signed bilateral agreements, including a nuclear agreement and an agreement to build two hydroelectric plants on the border. While both countries do a large amount of trade, Argentina is more dependent on Brazil. Argentina is Brazil's #3 trading partner after China and the US, while Brazil is Argentina's #1 trading partner. Plus, Argentina's trade deficit is large and growing; Brazilian exports are on the rise while Argentine exports are shrinking. Some Argentine sectors are especially dependent on the Brazilian market, like the auto industry, which exports 85 percent of locally-produced cars to Brazil.
But it gets worse - to add insult to injury, Brazil will actually start printing Argentine money. Brazil is expected to create 16 billion pesos for its neighbor this year, as Argentina again fights an old enemy: soaring inflation, which is hurting the country's poorest. And if that wasn't enough, President Obama has decided to skip Argentina during his brief upcoming Latin American tour, his first ever in the region. This has caused quite a stir, as spurned politicians and diplomats called the decision "unfair." In short, Argentina is essentially living in Brazil's shadow, which looms bigger every day.
And there's that final component that will forever drive a wedge between the two countries: culture. So sure, southern Brazil is in many ways similar to parts of Argentina, what with the gauchos and descendants of German and Italian immigrants. There's the mutual love of barbecue and red meat, of soccer and beer, and close-knit families. But you can't underestimate the influence of the original colonizers and how different it has made both cultures, and how their histories have been shaped apart, despite bordering one another. One of the main elements is the lack of African influences in Argentine culture, and the belief that Argentina is far more European than any Latin American country, as well as the racial implications of considering itself one of the region's "whitest" countries. When living in Buenos Aires, I had the sense that while parts of the culture were considered uniquely Argentine, a lot of the culture seemed to be an adoration or imitiation of European culture, while Brazil has such an eclectic mishmash of cultures from all over the world. While Argentina is very culturally insular, Brazil is wide open, like a blank canvas.
I'm not sure what conclusions to draw here, but one thing is for sure: Argentines will have to learn to get along better with Brazilians, and to better understand them. Apparently, the economic and political future of their country depends on it.