Carlos Menem, a brilliant Argentine president who tried to tame inflation, dies at age 90


Mr. Menem, who was ill for several months, served as a national senator until his death.

“There are Argentines who will never forget what Menem did for this country,” Argentine journalist and author Horacio Verbitsky once told the Washington Post. “And there are Argentines who will never forgive what Menem has done to this country.”

Amid a backdrop of hyperinflation and labor strikes, Mr Menem, a popular provincial governor with bushy mutton flaps, narrowly won the May 14, 1989 presidential election. Outgoing president Raúl Alfonsín handed over power five months early on July 8, 1989, so that Mr. Menem began to pull the economy out of stagnation.

“There is no other way to express it. Argentina is broken, devastated, destroyed, destroyed, “said Mr. Menem in his inaugural address. “From these ruins we will build the land we deserve.”

Mr. Menem then surprised his followers by turning his back on the pro-Labor orthodoxy of the great government of his Justicialist Party, a movement inspired by his hero, former powerful man and president Juan Perón. Instead, Mr. Menem sought to deregulate the economy, open the country to foreign investors, expand trade, and repay government debt.

In what Mr. Menem described as an “operation without anesthesia,” he quickly embarked on the privatization of state-owned companies, the return of union power, the reduction of state subsidies, and the dismissal of thousands of civil servants.

These fiscally conservative policies, approved by the International Monetary Fund and known as the “Washington Consensus”, would later rule much of Latin America in the 1990s.

But Mr Menem’s key move, pushed by his influential economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, was to legally tie the Argentine peso to the US dollar on a one-on-one basis in 1991.

The goal of the “convertibility plan” was to stabilize prices and restore confidence in the local currency after a period when out-of-control inflation forced grocery stores to announce price changes through loudspeakers because officials could not re-label all goods quickly enough.

Although unemployment rose, annual inflation fell to low single digits. With state-owned banks, airlines, oil companies, railways and utilities on the auction block, it is estimated that about $ 24 billion in foreign investment arrived in the country in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1997, the economy grew by 6.1 percent per year, the highest rate in South America, and Argentina was hailed as a model for the developing world.

Mr. Menem’s neoliberal economic policy has angered left-wing Peronists, as they are well-known members of the Justice Party. But Mr. Menem was more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

Although unjustly imprisoned by the Argentine military junta in 1976-83, Mr. Menem sought to improve relations with the military that raised three rebellions against his predecessor.

Thus, on December 29, 1990. Menem issued an amnesty cover to the leaders of a military dictatorship that waged a dirty war against leftists, union leaders and other political opponents in which between 9,000 and 30,000 people were either killed or disappeared.

Alfonsín, the former president, called it “the saddest day in Argentine history”. But the amnesty brought Mr. Menem a measure of stability and allowed him to focus on the economy.

A keen free trader, Mr. Menem helped negotiate a common market for South America or Mercosur, a customs union with Uruguay, Paraguay and traditional rival Brazil. He renewed full diplomatic ties with Great Britain, relations that had been suspended since the war in the Falkland Islands in 1982.

He played tennis with President George HW Bush, deployed troops and ships to the first Gulf War, and proved such a staunch American ally that one of his foreign ministers, Guido di Tella, claimed Argentina had “physical relations” with Washington.

Until then, Mr. Menem had arranged the flaps, discarded the loud clothes for the French-tailored suits, and enjoyed the benefits of a high office. When the Italian motorcycle company gave him a red Ferrari for $ 100,000, Mr. Menem initially refused advice to return it, famously declaring, “Ferrari is mine, mine, mine!” (It was later sold at public auction.)

Mr. Menem also liked his reputation as a Southern Valentine cone. He kicked his first wife Zulema Yoma out of the presidential palace and later married Cecilia Bolocco, a Chilean TV star and former Miss Universe who was 35 years younger than him. He flirted publicly with actresses and belly dancers, performed tango on television, and thought aloud about forming an almost entirely female cabinet.

Driving on a wave of popularity and demanding that he remain in office, Mr. Menem reached an agreement with the opposition Radical Civic Union party in 1993 to change the Constitution to nominate the presiding presidents for one additional term. He was easily re – elected in 1995.

During his second term, Mr. Menem seemed to have lost touch. He is widely seen ignoring government corruption, especially embezzlement over lucrative sales of state-owned companies. He packed the country’s Supreme Court with allies, adopted a more authoritarian style of governing, and tried unsuccessfully to secure another constitutional change so he could run for a third consecutive term.

Moreover, his management of the economy – which was a great strength of Mr. Menem – was called into question amid a series of external shocks.

The financial crises came first in Mexico and Russia. Then, in 1999, Brazil devalued its currency, and investors in Argentina discovered that their dollars would go further in that neighboring country. Foreign investment began to dry up, exports fell and the Argentine economy sank into recession.

Through it all, Mr. Menem refused to abolish Peso’s one-on-one peg with the U.S. dollar, even though the exchange rate was no longer in sync with prevailing economic conditions. Politics left his government little tools to respond.

To lose the economy, the Menema government resorted to large borrowings, but this raised domestic interest rates and forced many businesses to close. All the while, investment banks and credit rating agencies from Wall Street were providing dazzling accounts to Argentina.

Mr. Menem resigned in December 1999. Two years later, Argentina is the default on its public debt of $ 155 billion, which at the time was the largest default in any country in history. Amid riots, bank failures and mass layoffs that increased the poverty rate to 58 percent and sparked a crime outbreak, many analysts blamed much of Mr Menem.

“It would be reasonable for Menem to start implementing changes. So in that sense, he was absolutely responsible for the accident, ”said Ariel Armony, an Argentine who is a senior director of international programs at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the University Center for International Studies.

Carlos Saúl Menem was born on July 2, 1930, in Anillac, a city in the poor and sparsely populated northwestern province of La Rioja. His parents were Syrian immigrants. His father acquired a shop and vineyards and transferred all four sons to university.

Born a Sunni Muslim, Carlos Menem converted to Catholicism in his youth. He graduated in law in 1958 from the National University of Cordoba, joined Perón’s Judicial Party and was elected governor of La Rioja in 1973.

In 1976, military officials overthrew the government of Isabel Martínez de Perón, who replaced her husband Juan Perón as president after his death in 1974. A new junta removed all elected state governors and began arresting Peronists, including Mr. Menem, who spent the next five years in prison.

“Experience has left him firm in his character and determination,” Eduardo Menem, Carlos ‘brother, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “When I visited him, he would always tell me,’ When I leave here, he will become president. ‘”

After democracy was restored in 1983, Mr. Menem was re-elected governor of La Rioja and won a third term in 1987, campaigning as a successful outsider who had been in contact with neglected people in the Argentine interior, defeating a senior establishment politician to won the Legal Party ‘s nomination for president in 1988.

When Mr. Menem stepped down as president, the investigation into the official misdemeanor was attacked and he saw that some of his key decisions had been overturned.

In 2005, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Menem’s amnesty to protect military officials was unconstitutional. General Jorge Videla and other junta leaders 1976-83 were later convicted of crimes against humanity and imprisoned.

Mr. Menem was sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison for participating in an Argentine arms smuggling scheme to Ecuador and Croatia in the early 1990s, at a time when those countries were under an international arms embargo. Two years later, Mr. Menem received a four-year sentence for embezzling public funds during his presidency. But he remained a free man because by then he had been elected senator of the province of La Rioja, which enabled him immunity from prison.

Another black mark was the mishandling of Mr. Menem’s government investigation The bombing of the Jewish Common Center in 1994 in Buenos Aires killed 85 people and injured more than 300. It was the deadliest terrorist act in the country’s history, but the crime was never solved.

For the rest of his life, Mr. Menem provided food for the gossips. At age 73, he gave birth to a child with Bolocco before they divorced in 2009. The son of his first wife, Carlos Menem Jr., died in a 1995 helicopter crash.

Mr Menem made his final candidacy for president in 2003, but with polls predicting he was heading towards a crushing defeat in the second round of the presidential election, he withdrew from the race.

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