A man holds up an image depicting Argentine President Mauricio Macri during a demonstration on March 15. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

Ahead of President Obama’s trip to Cuba and Argentina next week, nearly all the attention — and controversy — has centered on his visit to the communist island, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years.

But Obama’s trip to Argentina is no afterthought and is arguably more important to the future of U.S. relations with Latin America.

He arrives at a moment of ­epochal political change in South America. After more than a decade of dominance by leftist populist leaders, many of whom thrived on opposition to the United States, the continent is swinging back toward the center. Obama wants to push it along.

Falling prices for oil, minerals and other commodity exports have sapped economic growth and crimped government spending on social welfare programs, ripping bandages off old problems such as corruption, crime and lousy public services. Leftist incumbents across the region who once seemed unassailable are now in trouble.

Argentina was the first pin to fall. In November, voters elected center-right candidate Mauricio Macri, bringing an end to 12 years of rule by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who had aligned the country with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and clashed eagerly and often with Washington.

President Mauricio Macri speaks during an interview on March 16. Macri assumed the Argentine presidency in December. (Victor R. Caivano/AP)

A wealthy businessman fond of jeans and polo shirts, Macri ­presents himself as a problem-solving pragmatist, a non-ideological figure who wants to bring transparency and turn down the temperature of Argentine politics. He promises to deliver growth by attracting new foreign investment and reengaging Argentina with the rest of the world. He is not in the habit of referring to the United States as “the Empire.”

“Argentina is the first country on the continent to turn away from the populism of the previous era, and that has made Macri a regional leader, whether it was his intention or not,” said Dante Sica, director of an economic consulting firm in Buenos Aires.

Macri’s success is far from certain. He moved swiftly to lift Kirchner-era currency controls on the Argentine peso, and since then it has lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar. Domestic food prices soared after he slashed export taxes on Argentine grains. His decision to cut electrical subsidies jacked up Argentines’ utility bills.

Macri and his team of economic advisers, many of whom bring Ivy League pedigrees and Wall Street résumés, insist that these shocks are one-time bitter pills to fix a badly distorted economy. But for a president elected by a narrow margin — Macri won just 51.5 percent of the vote and lacks a majority in Argentina’s Congress — he is under enormous pressure to show results before his honeymoon runs out.

“These changes scare me,” said Vivian Valqui, a Peruvian immigrant who sells mattresses and furniture from a cramped shop in Villa 31, a Buenos Aires slum that sits right next to the city’s wealthiest business districts. Her sales have plunged. “People are worried because they don’t know what is going to happen next,” she said.

As mayor of Buenos Aires before winning the presidency, Macri made an impression in Villa 31 by visiting the neighborhood and supporting projects to pave the streets and install sewer lines. Residents of Villa 31, settled by squatters in the 1930s during the Depression, still lack property ­titles.

Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri, leaves the congress after giving the annual State of the Nation address in Buenos Aires on March 1. (Victor R. Caivano/AP)

Analysts say Macri’s post-inaugural grace period won’t last beyond this year, if that.

If Macri fails, the fallout would ripple across the region, validating skeptics who say free trade and a friendlier approach to the United States remain a losing formula for Latin American governance.

Macri momentum?

Macri scored a major victory early Wednesday when Argentina’s lower house approved his proposed settlement with holdout creditors whom the Kirchners had cast as “vultures” because they refused to renegotiate debt from Argentina’s 2001 default. After a 20-hour debate, the package won backing across the political spectrum. It now faces a vote in Argentina’s Senate that is also expected to break Macri’s way.

A deal would pave the way for a badly needed injection of foreign currency, lowering the demand for dollars and helping stem inflation.

Coupled with the visit by Obama — the first by a U.S. president in nearly 20 years — a settlement would send the signal that Argentina is open for business, said Lucas Llach, vice president of Argentina’s Central Bank. “Obama’s visit is a sign that we are returning to world markets,” he said, noting that it follows visits by the Italian prime minister and the French president.

Macri’s adjustments should start to bear fruit in the second quarter of this year with slowing inflation, Llach said. But they have left him vulnerable to criticism by still-powerful Kirchner loyalists who see Macri as the latest incarnation of the laissez-faire economic policies many Argentines associate with the 2001 crisis that paved the way for the Kirchners’ rise to power.

Macri is banking heavily on his ability to attract new investment from foreign companies, particularly American firms that have been wary of putting money into Argentina over the past decade. Here Obama’s visit is critical as well. To offset the economic downturn, Macri, a civil engineer by training, is planning to launch big infrastructure projects. Advisers say he is acutely aware of the need to create new private-sector jobs as he fires thousands of government workers hired by the Kirchners.

“We’re coming out of an era in which we hid unemployment with public-sector jobs,” Macri said this month.

Mario Blejer, a banker and economist who was an adviser to Daniel Scioli, the candidate from the Kirchners’ party who lost to Macri, said Obama’s arrival could backfire on the new Argentine leader. “His opponents will use the visit to portray Macri as a puppet of Washington, and it’s not going to help that there will probably be a big demonstration against the president of the United States.”

Union leaders and anti-Macri activists will also be motivated by the timing of Obama’s visit. March 24 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1976 military coup, initially backed by the United States, and the seven-year “Dirty War” that left as many as 30,000 dead. Obama will honor those victims and Argentine human rights defenders, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The U.S. will also declassify for the first time intelligence documents and other records from the period to shed new light on human rights abuses, according to a senior administration official.

A thaw with the U.S.

With its on-again, off-again relationship with the United States, Argentina has been a bellwether for relations with Latin America in recent decades.

The country’s ties to the United States were so close in the 1990s under President Carlos Menem that his foreign minister famously called the relationship a “carnal” one. Then came the crash of 2001, which wiped out the savings of millions of Argentine families and left the country deeply skeptical of liberal economic-policy prescriptions.

Elected in 2003, Néstor Kirchner brought stability, then presided over an economic bonanza driven by China’s voracious demand for Argentine grain and other exports.

It was in Argentina in 2005 that Latin America essentially split into two blocs during the Summit of the Americas. President George W. Bush arrived to promote a hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement but faced massive protests and ridicule from Chávez. The free-trade deal failed, and the Chávez-led bloc urged Latin American integration instead.

The United States is now partnering with Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Macri’s win raises the possibility that Argentina might seek to join the alliance.

During Obama’s visit, analysts say, Macri must execute a balancing act by embracing the U.S. president but not appearing too solicitous.

In an interview broadcast this week, Obama told CNN en Español that Argentina was an example of the United States’ changing relationship with Latin America, now that Macri had left behind policies that were “systematically anti-American.”

Macri, Obama said, “recognizes that we’re in a new era and that we should look forward, and that ­Argentina, that has historically been a powerful country, has seen itself weakened by not adapting as efficiently to the world economy as it could.”

If Obama’s arrival — and Macri’s visit to Washington later this month for a nuclear summit — is meant to signal a reset in U.S.-
Argentine ties, the new era may also face an unfavorable comparison to the “golden years” of booming trade with China, said Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Columbia University.

“The risk,” Sabatini said, “is that Argentines will see the United States as a poor alternative to China and, if things don’t go well, they will associate the United States with pain and China with the sunny days of never-ending surplus.”

Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.