Ex president Carlos Menem, political wizard and bon vivant dies aged 90
Former Argentine president Carlos Menem died at the age of 90 on Sunday in a clinic in Buenos Aires, where he was admitted in December with a urinary tract infection. The president ruled Argentina during a time of short-lived economic stability and he enjoyed an often flamboyant lifestyle.
Current Argentine president Alberto Fernandez expressed his condolences and ordered three days of national mourning. Menem’s remains are being mourned at the Argentine congress, since he was a senator until the end of his life
Menem, a Peronist, was president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999, but in 2003, despite winning the first round, he declined another candidacy in view of a looming defeat in the runoff.
Both of his terms of office were characterized by market economy policies and the privatization of state-owned companies. He steered Argentina toward a free-market model that was at one point envied by neighbors and favored by investors.
But Menem’s accomplishments coincided with growing unemployment, economic inequality and growing foreign debt.
Menem was considered a bon vivant and lover of fast cars and beautiful women. He relished the company of celebrities, hosting the Rolling Stones and Madonna in Buenos Aires, and he memorably shrugged off criticism after receiving a red Ferrari as a gift from an Italian businessman in 1990.
A criminal lawyer by training, Menem was also supremely flexible as a politician, beginning his career as a self-styled disciple of General Juan Domingo Peron, who founded Argentina’s populist movement that bears his name and placed the economy largely under state control. But in his two terms as president, he transformed the country but in the opposite direction.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get the country out of its economic problems, but I’m sure going to make a more fun country,” Menem once said.
The son of Syrian Sunnite immigrants who arrived in Argentina in 1920, the family owned a winery and olive groves. Menem was a folksy, three-time governor of the poor northwestern La Rioja Province. Following on the steps of northern Argentina caudillo, he was noted for shoulder-length hair and mutton-chop sideburns when he came to international prominence.
He won the Peronist Party nomination and surged to victory in 1989 presidential elections, capitalizing on economic and social chaos in Argentina. The country at the time was mired in 5,000% annual inflation and the poor were looting supermarkets for food.
Under Menem and his economy minister Harvard educated Doming Cavallo, Argentina registered strong growth, inflation dropped to single digits and the peso, the national currency, enjoyed unprecedented stability as it was pegged to the US dollar.
The long hair and sideburns were gone and the flashy clothes replaced by Italian hand-made suits.
Menem’s recovery plan was based on the withdrawal of the state from the economy, removing controls on prices and interest rates. He sold state-owned phone company, power generating and distribution enterprises, airlines, race tracks, steel mills and the oil giant YPF, then of South America’s largest company.
In foreign affairs, Menem withdrew Argentina from the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era structure that had espoused independence from the United States and — less so — the Soviet Union, and forged strong ties with Washington. Argentine navy destroyers participated in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and joined UN peacekeepers in Haiti, Cyprus and other hot spots including former Yugoslavia.
Menem also renewed relations with Britain, severed after the Argentine dictatorship’s 1982 invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands. With foreign minister Guido Di Tella, an anglophile, they implemented a charm strategy towards the disputed Falkland Islands, which helped to improve relations with neighborly attitudes, overcoming the aftermath of the 1982 armed conflict with the UK.
During his tenure, Argentina was the scene of deadly terrorist bombings against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and a Jewish centre in 1994. Dozens were killed and injured. Argentina accused Teheran of involvement; Iran denied it. Menem was later tried for the alleged cover-up of those responsible for the attack on the Jewish centre, but was found not guilty in a trial in 2019.
Regarding military issues, Menem trimmed armed forces spending, abolished the highly unpopular military conscription system making the forces entirely professional and involving them in UN peace missions.
But he also dismayed human rights groups by granting a pardon to former military junta members serving sentences of up to life in prison for crimes connected to the disappearance of dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The pardon was extended to former guerrillas in what Menem described as a process of national reconciliation.