With the death of Carlos Menem, Argentina fires a man who ruled it for ten and a half years, a charismatic and unscrupulous politician who led his compatriots to the illusion that a peso was worth the same as a dollar. A Peronist metamorphosed into a populist neoliberal who modernized key infrastructures in the country, but who also governed in an environment of dense corruption, suspicions, and dark stories not yet resolved. A president who freed members of the military dictatorship and guerrilla groups from the 70s from jail. A man who left a deep cultural imprint among his compatriots. He was a Peronist like the most, that is to say, populist and neoliberal, according to convenience. Instinctive to know where money and power circulate,” philosopher Tomas Abraham told the press. “It was the populist neoliberal variant, which in this century had another melody” with the Kirchners, synthesizes Jesus Rodriguez, the last Minister of Economy of Raul Alfonsin.
Menem died at the age of 90, after 2020 in which he flirted more than once with death. It was the end of a political career that admits very few comparisons in his country. Governor of the province of La Rioja in 1973, with Juan Domingo Peron still alive, Menem was imprisoned by the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983 and regained the governorship of La Rioja from 1983, when Alfonsin achieved a historic triumph over Peronism. The profuse sideburns he wore gave him a peculiar air of an old-fashioned caudillo, perhaps one of the reasons why many did not take him seriously in 1988 when Peronism held the first internal democratic election to elect its candidate for president. But Menem was surprised by defeating the favorite, Antonio Cafiero – grandfather of Alberto Fernandez’s current Chief of Staff, Santiago Cafiero – and ended up winning the presidential election in May 1989 from the radical Eduardo Angelos.
“If Menem wins, I’m going,” said many in the urban middle classes of the country, shocked by the image of the candidate and his promises, which included a “great salary” and the “productive revolution.” What happened was quite different. Once the elections were won, Menem’s environment maneuvered to accelerate the economic breakdown of Alfonsín, who surrendered power on July 8, 1989, five months in advance amid hyperinflation. Menem appointed as Minister of Economy a representative of Bunge & Born, a food multinational that was a full expression of the Creole ‘establishment’ that it was supposed to fight. Without scruples, the Peronist leader had spurred on the left and was allying himself with the right to govern. Sideburns were trimmed, hair took on a mahogany tint, and tight Italian suits became customary for the descendant of Syrian immigrants.
After another episode of hyperinflation, 2,000% in 1990, Menem gave the helm of the economy to Domingo Cavallo, former president of the Central Bank during the dictatorship and until then chancellor. Cavallo imposed “convertibility”, which with the one peso / one dollar parity wiped out inflation and stabilized the country’s economy. Today President Fernández, who in the Menem years was the head of the Insurance Superintendence, was in tune with Cavallo politically, a position of not negligible power. Without a doubt, he was the best president of the democracy, even though I had many confrontations with him and I left his government,” Cavallo told this newspaper. “For all his flaws, it was the president who made Argentina progress.
Argentina became one of the most expensive countries in the world and industry suffered the negative effects of the model, but the majority of Argentines supported the experiment: it freed them from the endemic evil of inflation, it allowed the middle classes to travel through the world and generated a sense of well-being in a country that began renovating key infrastructures amid a wave of privatizations, which included telephony, electricity, Aerolineas Argentina and YPF. It was in those years that Spain became the main foreign investor in Argentina, a position it no longer holds. Having a home phone line was a process that could take years. That changed with Menem. At the time of his death, Menem was one of 72 members of the National Senate, which guaranteed him not to go to prison after being convicted of smuggling 6,500 tons of weapons to Ecuador, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the War of the Balkans and the one that the Andean country fought with Peru in the 90s.
Argentina was nothing less than one of the guarantors of peace between Peruvians and Ecuadorians. In 1995, the Rio Tercero arms factory was blown up, killing seven people and wounding more than 300. The court determined that it was an intentional blasting to erase evidence of contraband. That same justice, after convicting Menem, acquitted him of arms trafficking in 2018, claiming that 23 years of the process implied a violation of human rights. During the Menem government, there were two extremely serious attacks. A bomb that destroyed the Israeli embassy in March 1992 with 22 deaths, and another that reduced AMIA, the mutual association of Israeli associations in Argentina, to ashes in July 1994, with 85 victims.
Abraham believes that the germ of these attacks was “the dark businesses with powers that financed” Menem in the electoral campaign “and then charged him for treason.” The “AMIA case”, in which the Argentine justice ruled the responsibility of the Iranian regime, continued years later with the death in doubtful circumstances of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, in the final stretch of the government of Cristina Kirchner.Menem, who in 1986 called for “jail for the murderers”, pardoned the military leadership and Montoneros in 1989, whom Alfonsin had sent to jail in the historic judicial processes that marked his Government. A total of 1,200 people were pardoned. From that moment, September 1989, a story that the Argentine president made of a meeting he had with Felipe Gonzalez at the Barajas airport dates from.
Felipe Gonzalez commented to me last night that one of the first measures he took, when he took over the leadership of the Spanish State was to promote a former Spanish combatant to captain-general and put him in charge of a battalion, and that lieutenant general attended the ceremony with a medal of decoration with the swastika cross awarded by the German government of Adolf Hitler, and on that occasion, no one asked a question. “I, a socialist,” said Felipe Gonzalez, “had to abide and accept that situation.” Nothing happened there, no one removed the matter and it was a fact that was overcome by the Spanish. In Spain, there was a pardon due to the tejerazo and the press practically did not deal with the issue, while here we continue to insist on the issue to keep open a wound where the body of the Republic continues to bleed. ”
Those phrases of Menem, rescued this year by the journalist Juan Carlos Martinez in the Paco Urondo Agency, led Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, to complain by letter to Gonzalez. The matter did not pass to greater. Menem, who beheaded an attempted coup in December 1990, maintained throughout his term a very good relationship with the then socialist leader, as well as with the then King Juan Carlos, but quickly tuned in with Jose Maria Aznar when they agreed between 1996 and 1999.
Sympathy and ease of treatment were winning cards from the Argentine president, who put almost any interlocutor in his pocket. It was thus that he maintained good relations with practically all governments, to the point that they became “carnal”, in the expression used by his chancellor, Guido Di Tella, with the United States of George Bush (son) and Bill Clinton. An athlete, he played football with Diego Maradona, tennis with Gabriela Sabatini, and basketball with the national team. He traveled Argentine roads at high speeds aboard a Ferrari and lived moments of the public scandal with his then-wife, Zulema Yoma, who did not forgive his attitude when their son, Carlos, died in a helicopter accident that still remains today. suspected of having been an attack.
Menem connected with his compatriots because he fulfilled what many of them sometimes did and most of the time only dreamed: to take advantage of the advantages that power grants and transgress the law, in this case from the presidency of the Nation. An example? She put the husband of one of her sisters-in-law, Ibrahim al Ibrahim, a Syrian who did not speak Spanish, in charge of Ezeiza Customs, the country’s main airport. Al Ibrahim ended up escaping from Argentina and his wife, Amira, was accused of being a member of a drug laundering gang. The judicial process, in its Spanish leg, was carried out by Baltasar Garzon.
The 1989 Argentina had six-year presidential terms without reelection, but the threat of forcing a constitutional reform without consensus caused Alfonsin to agree to a consensus. It was then, in 1994, that a reformed Constitution was born that attenuated the strong presidential of the country and reduced the terms of office to four years, although with the possibility of re-election. Menem took advantage of it and won with force in 1995 against a weakened Radical Civic Union (UCR). Unintentionally, Menem helped us to have a better Constitution, “says Rodriguez, who today chairs the General Auditor’s Office. Abraham sees another merit in the late president:” He tried to overcome the hatred between Peronists and anti-Peronists, one of the most important cracks serious that paralyzed the country and led it to what it is today. “And, when describing it, he seems to be very clear about who and what he was:” A politician who conveyed good humor, tolerance, cordiality, and a hearty spirit. Of a dark superficiality that could be indifferent to the tragedy of others. I had no hard feelings