Thursday, September 16, 2021



I’ve been taking a break. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. In fact, I hardly realized it was happening. I just suddenly awoke to the fact that it was about to be August, and when I looked up at the wall calendar over my desk, it was showing May.

“What the hell?” I thought. Did two months really get completely away from me? It was then too that I realized that I had written nothing for this blog in five months. I mean, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know I hadn’t written anything “in a while”. But five months!

I changed my calendar and promised myself to get it together, to return to my usually highly disciplined writing schedule, to shrug off apathy and start living again.

Then, all of the sudden one morning, I glanced at the date on my laptop, saw it was September, raised my eyes to look at the calendar on my wall, and saw that, there, it was still August. What the hell! Yet another month had drifted past. I was beginning to feel a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but without the state of immortality or all of the quaint and interesting townspeople.

The fact is, however, that I haven’t just been “vegging out” for more than five months. I mean, I’ve been working. A lot. Until two months ago, I was still at least keeping up my literary blog, The Southern Yankee. But I had also gotten impossibly behind on a ghost-writing project.

I was contracted more than a year ago to ghost the autobiography of one of the lesser-known members of one of America’s traditional “royal families”. You would all know the name. Just about everyone in the Western world would. When I was first approached by the publisher for this private edition book and asked to provide a deadline, I said I figured three months give or take.

By the time we’re through, it will be more like a year and three months. It’s become impossibly unprofitable for me, even though I managed to talk the publisher into negotiating a fifty percent increase in my fee. The publisher can’t wait to be done with it either. And like me, they claim, they’re losing their shirt.

But at least they have the advantage of owning a book that, although it is likely to have a very limited audience, that audience is filled with people who might very well entrust them with their own life stories, especially because this promises to be a good book. Myself, I don’t have that advantage. When I’m done, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that a difficult project is finished and pat myself on the back for a job well done. Or then again, maybe I’ll just think bitterly about how much time and energy I put into a book that isn’t mine in any real sense—thousands of hours of time and energy when time and energy are at a premium in this chapter of my own life—for a book that no one will ever know I wrote. Hence the term ghostwriter.  

There was a time not all that long ago when, once I’d given my word, I would have met that deadline even if it nearly killed me. And I would have met it by doing “the best I could” in the time allotted. But there’s something about reaching this stage in life (seventy plus, with a forty-seven-year writing career behind me) that makes you immune to a lot of the rules you once imposed on yourself—or let others impose on you. Priorities change when you are no longer “building a career for yourself”, when your reputation is already well established, and, furthermore, when you know that the time has come for your career, such as it is, to be whatever you want or don’t want to make of it.

It didn’t take long to figure out that I was way off on my estimate. Especially when I had written the first two chapters which contained a great deal about the world-famous family to which the subject belonged, only to have her reject them out of hand. This was her story, she said, not that of the family to which she had often wished she didn’t belong, because it was more of a burden than a benefit. 

So, there was a rather lengthy process of making her understand that while her life might be interesting in itself to a handful of friends and family members, what made it more interesting to a much broader audience was that she was a relatively unknown member of a very well-known family and that even though she might want to be her own person, it was impossible to separate how her life had been from the fact that she came from a very wealthy and very famous clan. The truth was, just about everything that had happened to her was inextricably connected to that fact. There was simply no denying the fact that being who she was born had a profound effect on her being who she had become.  

More specifically, what was perhaps most interesting of all was that the story was her personal history within the environment created by that family. Indeed, how she had coped with that—and how different her life had been from what an outsider was likely to imagine—was the main value of telling her story.

Renegotiating the storyline and the telling of it with her took several months. Then suddenly, one fine morning, she got out of bed on the other side, and it was all systems go. The pause, however, gave me time to think as well, and I decided that I was no longer okay with publishers imposing impossible deadlines on me or setting any but the most basic of rules for how a story would be told. I no longer wanted to feel like I was digging ditches instead of writing, obliged to write for money rather than getting paid for writing the very best way I knew how.

It was a kind of revelation. I discovered that I was no longer capable of writing any way but my best. Not the best that time or publishing constraints allowed, but as well and as authentically as I knew how. As a result, the narrative that I am now very close to finishing for the client—and in which I will have no acknowledgement whatsoever, since that is the fate of the ghost, a job that couldn’t be better named—is of far higher quality and authenticity than could ever be expected for a private edition, such as this will be..

What’s important about this isn’t that I’ve gone above and beyond for the client—which I have—but that I have been true to myself and my craft. I haven’t compromised on research, fact-checking or quality writing, and that achievement is of major importance to me as a writer. What it has meant is that an assignment that could have turned into a nightmare has instead made me feel accomplished—not like a hack to whom the importance of the money far outweighs the importance of the work.

But I can’t blame free-lance work entirely for being as remiss as I’ve been in fulfilling my commitment to my regular readers, or in at least letting them know earlier what was going on.

Regarding this point, I can only say that there were just entirely too many external factors eating at me to permit me to concentrate on more than one creative task at a time. In short, my normally robust multi-tasking mechanism was jammed by extenuating circumstances. My growing concern over these external factors seemed to cut me off at the knees, to partially cripple and disable my usually ample and eclectic creativity.

To start with, in the months since I wrote the last entry here, my sister-in-law passed away. It shouldn’t have been unexpected. She was eighty-two and had been seriously ill for three years—what doctors described as dementia accompanied by Parkinsonism. We, the family, had been supervising her care for that entire time. And we decided early on that we weren’t going to have her placed in “a facility” since she had been single and independent her entire life and had lived in the same century-old apartment on a busy avenue in Buenos Aires for the past three and a half decades. She would, we decided, end her life surrounded by the things she was familiar with.

Twenty-four/seven, she was in the capable hands of a male nurse, who was a friend of my brother-in-law’s, and his sister, who took turns seeing to her many, many needs. Thanks to their effectiveness and care, she didn’t spend a single day in the hospital and they became so attached to her that they considered her a sort of surrogate grandmother—and cared for her more and far better than the majority of young people would care for their real grandmother. Their loyalty to her was absolute.

On several occasions, the work and knowhow of the nurse pulled her out of downward spirals that should have ended her life. And the next day he would again have her sitting at the table for her meals and doing supervised exercises in her bedroom or in the patio, depending on the weather. We had long since understood that this wasn’t like some other terminal illnesses that have a more or less accurate prognosis. We simply were in it for the duration, as she would have been for any of us. So there came a time when we had almost forgotten, as one does, that death would be the ultimate factor.

So, it came as a sort of vaguely anticipated shock when the nurse called to say that, after having her breakfast like any other day, her blood pressure started dropping steadily. He got her on a drip and sought to bring her back the way he had before, but this time she simply went to sleep and slipped away. It was over and the feeling was one of utter emptiness.

Like a lot of other people, I had already become saturated, frustrated, jaded with the general climate in which we are all living—the seemingly endless pandemic and the great divide between science and politics that is perpetuating it; the juxtaposition of democracy and authoritarianism that is no longer the worldwide phenomenon that used to geopolitically divide East from West and North from South, but which now is threatening to end the once largely successful two and a half-century-old experiment in American political tradition, and the general sense of being utterly fed up with an atmosphere in which those who should be representing the people are obsessed with their own selfish political goals and no longer do anything for the good of their constituencies because they are too busy trying to put each other out of business.

Writing last March about the sexual improprieties of a governor I had long admired and whom I’d hoped would one day run for president had, on top of all the rest of this, been highly discouraging. And it seemed to mark a point of inflection in my years of political commentary. There was a feeling that no one could be trusted anymore to do the right thing. It seemed as if everyone had lowered their bar to the dismal standard of ethics set by Donald Trump—as if we’d reached a point of no return. It wasn’t that I made a conscious decision to quit writing this blog. It was just that I could no longer seem to work up the energy to write yet another essay about just how bad things had gotten.  

Never mind that I’ve spent an enormous amount of my career commenting on political and social realities and am bound at some point to keep doing the same because I can’t stop trying to analyze what often seems so utterly incomprehensible. For even an obsessively political person like myself, however, there are moments when you are simply fed up and can’t think about it anymore for a while without feeling nauseous. And the current moment in politics almost everywhere, but especially in my native United States, is a perfect one in which to feel nauseous.

But life goes on. And giving in to despair is not only an attitude of defeat, but also a monumental waste of time. So, I’m back, and with new impetus, and an unwillingness to compromise my vision of the past or of the future in the slightest, whether writing for my literary blog or for my political blog. Because my writing is who I am, and if I can’t be completely honest with myself and with you at this late stage in the game, when will I ever be?


Tuesday, March 16, 2021


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
 In recent days, I have listened to and read about every stance imaginable regarding persistently increasing reports of gender-related impropriety by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The mass media in general have been pretty ready to throw the governor under the bus, and calls for his resignation have been widespread. Even CNN, where Governor Cuomo’s brother Chris is one of the major anchors, has been highly critical and has gone out of its way—perhaps in the interest of perceived objectivity—to bring in critical outside commentators to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, the editorial board of the New York State capital’s top paper, the Hearst Corporation-owned Times-Union of Albany, which had three times backed Cuomo’s gubernatorial candidacy, last week ran an editorial entitled Resign, Mr. Cuomo. Additionally, there is a billboard campaign in New York City demanding that Cuomo “resign now.”

Nor is the media, in this case, in the position of challenging the governor’s party, since New York Democrats have pretty unanimously called on Cuomo to resign, as have US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, US congressional representative for New York Kristen Gillibrand, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It was only among some of my more liberal contacts on the social media and among some other friends and colleagues where I heard calls for leniency, in some cases because they felt Cuomo was too outstanding a leader for the party and the country to lose, and in others because of the “whataboutism” issue of the gutter-low bar set by former President Donald Trump who had apparently done far worse to women and been given (or paid for) a pass.

As often happens with sex scandals, this one comes saddled on the back of an actual administrative scandal—all but proven in a report from the New York State attorney general’s office—regarding a cover-up allegedly orchestrated by Cuomo’s administration to fudge the numbers on COVID-related deaths in state nursing homes by as much as fifty percent. The idea of this maneuver was to make it appear that the state government had the COVID situation in rest homes much more under control than it actually did, the excuse being that Cuomo feared Donald Trump’s team could use the real, devastatingly higher nursing home death toll against Democrats and indeed against the governor himself in the then upcoming 2020 elections. That was at a time when Cuomo was signing a deal for a book about his generally successful fight against the pandemic that had completely crippled New York City, and when there was even talk of his being an alternative to Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination in light of his burgeoning superstar hero status in the war on COVID.

But focus has been almost completely deflected away from the nursing home scandal to the more titillating topic of sexual impropriety, if indeed this can be called that, since what has been described by the alleged victims, though clearly inappropriate, sounds more like gender-related abuse of power and attendant peccadilloes than any sort of sexual assault, especially when compared to accusations regarding Donald Trump’s unpunished sexist exploits.

A half dozen accusers now lead the pack against Cuomo. The first to accuse him of sexual harassment was former aide Lindsey Boylan. In a piece that she posted on the social media platform Medium, Boylan claimed that the governor had created a culture of “sexual harassment and bullying” within his administration. She claimed that this culture was “so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.”

Ruch, Boylan and Bennett, the first three
In the article, Boylan talks about how she learned from colleagues that the governor had developed “a crush” on her, and tells about how her boss, Cuomo’s office director Stephanie Benton, told her in an email that Cuomo thought she and his rumored former girlfriend Lisa Shields looked so much alike that they “could be sisters” but that Boylan was “the better looking sister.” From then on, Boylan said, Cuomo began referring to her as “Lisa” in front of other colleagues and she began worrying about situations in which she might be left alone with the governor.

On one such occasion, Boylan claims Cuomo called her into his office alone to show her a cigar box that Bill Clinton had given him. She found it suggestive and understood that the governor was making a pointed reference to former Clinton intern Monica Lewinsky’s claim that during repeated Oval Office sexual encounters between her and the former president, Clinton had used a cigar on her as a sex toy. Boylan also claims that at another point, Cuomo kissed her without her consent.

A second accuser, Charlotte Bennett, says that Cuomo asked her probing questions about her sex life, asked her if she had ever been “with an older man” and told her he had no problem dating women over twenty-two—Bennett was twenty-five at the time. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me,” Bennett claims, “and was wondering how I was going to get out of it.”

Another accuser, Anna Ruch, didn’t work for the governor but is a former member of the Obama administration and worked on Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. She claims that on her first meeting with Cuomo at a wedding reception in New York City, he took her face in his hands and asked if he could kiss her. She says she found his behavior so inappropriate that she was “confused and shocked and embarrassed.” Ruch says that she was so taken by surprise that she couldn’t find words to respond and simply “turned my head away.”

Still another woman, Karen Hinton, claims Cuomo was already doing this sort of thing over twenty years ago, when he was Housing and Urban Development secretary under Bill Clinton. At the time, Hinton was one of Cuomo’s top aides. She says that when they were working together in a California hotel room, Cuomo started asking her a lot of personal questions. “I was uncomfortable with the conversation,” Hinton said in a TV interview. “So I stood up to leave and he walked across from his couch and embraced me intimately. It was not just a hug. It was an intimate embrace. I pulled away. He brought me back. I pulled away again and I said, 'Look, I need some sleep, I am going.'” Hinton went on to say that, to her mind, “It was inappropriate. We both were married. I worked for him and it was too much to make it so personal and intimate.”

Another former aide, Ana Liss, says that she was made to feel like “just a skirt” in the Governor's presence. Telling her story to the Wall Street Journal, Liss says Cuomo consistently addressed her as “sweetheart”, asked if she had a boyfriend, touched her “lower back” and on one occasion took her hand and kissed it. She says she at first tried to write it off as “harmless flirtations” but that the situation grew ever more uncomfortable. So much so that it was “not appropriate, really, in any setting.”

In its editorial, the Albany Times-Union news management team said that it “had not taken lightly” its decision to withdraw support from the governor, adding that, “He has brought to fruition a host of important progressive goals. But between his manipulation of state ethics bodies, multiple allegations of sexual harassment and these latest revelations on nursing home deaths, he has lost the credibility he needs to lead this state, especially in the midst of a public health crisis.”

If we’re keeping our priorities straight, clearly the main issue here is to what extent Governor Cuomo and his team, for a question of political convenience, sought to manipulate COVID death toll figures in an attempt to keep the real gravity of state nursing home fatalities a secret from the public. Although his actions may not have directly caused any additional deaths, they did indeed skew the level of awareness regarding the effects of the pandemic. Worse still, the inevitable revelation of the attempted cover-up only served to further undermine already abysmal levels of public trust in government data regarding the worst health crisis in a century, at a time when people’s adherence to federal guidelines for bringing this plague under control couldn’t be more crucial.

The hypocrisy of all this is not lost on even mildly objective observers, since Democrats in general and Cuomo in particular have been critical of the GOP under Trump for downplaying the pandemic and for denying the gravity of the rising death toll. Cuomo’s doing the same with the New York State nursing home deaths has immediately permitted Trump supporters to weaponize the revelation. After the many years that he has spent in politics and coming as he does from a bloodline of politicians, the governor should have known that something this big could not be kept secret. Considering that, at the very least, he should have made sure that his otherwise spectacular handling of the pandemic was absolutely transparent from the outset.

Ana Liss and Karen Hinton add voices to the mix
Which brings us back to the other scandal, since what has apparently been in play in both cases is arrogance—that most authoritarian of emotions. The greatest downfall of the powerful is to believe their own hype. There is something chillingly similar, if clearly less crass, about Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and the kind of behavior Cuomo’s accusers are attributing to him. Trump revealed in that now infamous tape that he truly believed that being a star gave him the right to do whatever he wanted with other people, and more particularly, with young women, even to the extent of reaching out and touching whatever part of them he wished whenever he wanted to.

Cuomo has reportedly been somewhat less obvious about this. But if what an increasing number of his female staffers are alleging is true, that idea of his rock star status is at the back of his mind. In his alleged sexual harassment of—or at least inappropriate behavior toward—young women subordinates like Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett or Ana Liss, there seems to be a tacit inference on his part that either any attractive female thirty or forty years his junior should be thrilled to receive the advances of a guy like him because he isn’t just any senior citizen, but a star politician with a whole other aura, or he is so arrogantly authoritarian that he really doesn’t care what these women think because he holds the future of their careers in his hands. In either case, the premise is sexist, elitist and contemptible, because it doesn’t, for a second, take the other person’s rights or desires or personal lives into account.

Cuomo for his part has made a half-hearted and qualified apology in which his quavering voice and damp eyes seemed to indicate sincerity. But his subsequent comments on the affair have tended to dismiss the allegations of his accusers as a misunderstanding and an exaggeration of the facts. Using the excuse, for instance—as Cuomo did about Charlotte Bennett—that her perception of his overly intimate treatment of her as sexual harassment was off base because he considered himself her “mentor” is disingenuous to say the least. It begs the question of whether a young woman in the employ of “a great man” must accept as a normal part of the “mentoring process” being subjected to probing personal questions and sexual innuendo from a male superior old enough to be her grandfather—or from any boss for that matter.

Sadly enough, however, in both the public and private sectors, this is far too often the case. And this is why the MeToo movement was formed, as a means of bringing cases of on-the-job sexual harassment and, indeed, of sexual assault to the forefront and to seek punishment for its perpetrators. The governor is no stranger to this phenomenon and was one of the first of powerful men to come out publicly in support of it. Meanwhile, however, on a personal level, Cuomo can’t seem to shake the antiquated culture of objectifying and sexually exploiting women in the workplace that has sadly been part and parcel of the era in which he was forming his impressive political career.

There is no doubt that Governor Cuomo’s political enemies in the Republican Party and indeed his rivals in the Democratic Party (such as Mayor de Blasio) are milking his current woes for every political point they can possibly gain. But there are a couple of questions that those who have angrily charged that Cuomo “is being framed”—and I confess to being one of them before I gave the matter a lot deeper thought—should be asking themselves.

The first one is this: Why, no matter how hard they tried—and you just know they did—to dig up personal dirt on former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were their political enemies unable to do so? Answer: Because there was no “there-there”. They kept the slate clean in their private lives, and they certainly didn’t seek to intimately fraternize with or sexually exploit their female staff members, but rather, treated them with utmost respect. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, no matter how great his achievements or how beneficial to the country his presidency may have been, will always be remembered at a grassroots level as the perv-president who repeatedly had sex in the Oval Office with an intern half his age.

Cuomo, proud father of three daughters...

And the second one is this: When is “harmless flirtation” or “playful banter”, not merely harmless flirtation or playful banter? Answer: When the person initiating it is someone too powerful to challenge without the threat of damage to one’s career advancement. Worse still, when such “banter” and “flirtation” belies a perceived sexual proposition that makes the target have to ask herself: Is my career really worth challenging this and carrying it to its ultimate consequences (and maybe getting blackballed in the process) or, failing that, is it worth sleeping with the boss in hopes that he will do me no harm in the future?

No subordinate should have to ask herself (or, far less often, himself) that question. And if one does have to pose it, then there is clearly sexual impropriety in the workplace.

Finally, I have a rhetorical question for Governor Cuomo himself. He has three lovely daughters with his former wife, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. By all accounts, Cuomo and his wife did an excellent job of bringing their three girls up and all three appear talented, intelligent and well-educated. The kind of young women that could very well end up working for a powerful man like the governor himself. If that should happen, how will Cuomo feel if he learns that one or all three of them have been made to feel that their careers are in jeopardy if they don’t sleep with the boss? Perhaps he should think that over and re-think his apology.


Monday, February 22, 2021


When former Argentine President Carlos Saúl Menem died on Valentine’s Day, it marked the departure of one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Argentine politics. Just after the news of his death broke, an American friend asked me on Facebook what I thought of him, since, although born in the American Midwest, I’ve lived most of my adult life in Argentina. Her question made me realize that there was no easy answer, so I said, “It’s complicated. Let me think about it.”

Menem - provincial caudillo

I’ve thought about it. It would be easy for me to say I’m no fan of Carlos Menem’s. To state that his presidency and personal life were fraught with controversy and charges of corruption and criminal behavior would be accurate. But it would also be true to say that for almost a decade he provided the common citizens of his country with a kind of on-the-street economic stability like many had never known in their lifetime. And he did so while inserting Argentina briefly back into “the concert of nations”—where it had once figured among the world’s top ten trading countries—if at tremendous future cost to the economy and to political stability. 

It would also be accurate to say that while he wrapped himself in the flag of Peronism and frequently invoked the person and political philosophy of Argentina’s mid-twentieth-century strongman General Juan Domingo Perón—who, although dead since 1974, still today casts a long and enduring shadow on Argentine politics—he turned that movement on its head. Indeed, he basically did exactly the opposite, politically and economically speaking, of everything Perón had ostensibly stood for. Instead of championing state control of the economy, nationalization of foreign assets and a position of non-alignment with the bipolar world powers of the Cold War era as Perón had done, Menem embraced the neoliberal bent of Reaganism, firmly aligned the country with the US, sent troops to be part of Coalition and UN peace-keeping forces in the Gulf and Kosovo, and introduced a wave of privatizations that stripped Argentina of practically every state enterprise that it had ever owned—an enormous state military-industrial complex that had been built over the course of the previous century and that had been expanded in the half-century from the days when Perón was in his heyday. And instead of prioritizing the Argentine worker and the labor unions that Perón had adopted as his own, he gave almost pandering priority to big business and its anti-labor whims.

Fair too, however, would be to say that what Menem most had in common with Perón was political pragmatism. Both were capable of agile shifts in party dogma in accordance with political expediency at any given time. Clearly, in the case of Perón, it was that kind of cynical pragmatism that created a pan-Argentine political movement that spanned the ideological spectrum from the far right to the far left and that fostered sometimes violent in-fighting between the two in the process of using one as a political tool only then to purge it when it had served its purpose.

The last time Perón did this was when, in 1973, he returned to power, after almost eighteen years in Spanish exile. He was able to do so thanks in large measure to armed insurgent pressure brought to bear on the then-military regime by the Montoneros neo-Peronist urban guerrilla organization and the Marxist-Leninist People’s Revolutionary Army. Once reinstalled in the presidency, Perón spurned Montonero demands for the share of political power they felt they had earned and sicked the old ultra-right-wing Peronist “Iron Guard” on them, which would soon morph into the paramilitary Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance after Perón’s death a year later—giving rise to a cycle of tit for tat left and right-wing violence that would eventually be known to historians as “The Dirty War”, and which devolved into a military coup in 1976.

Argentine strongman Juan D. Perón

Perhaps this is why, even today, analysts and historians are hard-put to define what “a real Peronist is”, since that political figure can be whatever the movement’s leadership (which is almost always the product of vicious in-fighting) wants it to be at any given moment in time. As such, Carlos Menem was a Peronist by definition as much as he was not a Peronist at all, although, in his day, he was the unquestionable leader of the movement and therefore defined the meaning of the word according to his own convenience.

The nineties were the era of Menem. He was in office from 1989 through 1999, thanks to a Constitutional reform sponsored by his administration. When he took office, there were no consecutive elections for Argentine presidents, who served a single six-year term, and could only run again after a six-year absence from power. Under the Constitutional reform, the presidential term was shortened to four years, but, as under the US Constitution, with the possibility of re-election for another four years.

It was argued at the time by opposition analysts that while the reform introduced popular and highly accepted measures, such as an anti-discrimination clause and eleven articles specifically safeguarding human rights, these had been employed as a ruse to facilitate Menem’s own reelection aspirations and to provide him with an entire decade in power. As such, it was also argued that this aspect of the new Constitutional reform shouldn’t be applicable to the president who had promoted it or who had been elected under the terms of the former Constitution. He should, then, have to leave office after his original six-year term. But Menem was at the peak of his power at the time and his camp won out.

Not content with that, Menem’s legal eagles tried to make a case for his mounting another run for the presidency in 1999, the argument being that his second term of four years had been served under the norms of a new Constitution and that this gave him the right to run for a second four-year term (a stance that became known as the “re-reelection” scheme), but his Justicialist (Peronist) Party’s loss of the 1997 mid-term elections to an opposition coalition rendered the attempt at remaining in office for a third term untenable.

Throughout his time as president and for several years beyond, he was the head of the Justicialist Party and dictated, to a large extent, its policies. Identifying himself unabashedly as a Peronist, his approach to government nevertheless became known as “Menemism”.

His religion was, first and foremost, politics. Of Syrian-Lebanese descent, Menem was brought up as a Sunni Muslim, but on entering politics converted to Catholicism. His motives for this seem clear, since the second article of the National Constitution (both the original and reformed versions) states that the official religion of the Federal Government is Roman Catholic. His first wife, Zulema Yoma, remained Islamic throughout their twenty-five-year marriage (which ended in divorce during the early part of Menem’s presidency), despite her husband’s conversion.

As I mentioned before, Menem’s claim to fame was his handling of the long recalcitrant Argentine economy. One much-heralded plan after another had failed over the years since the nineteen-sixties when Argentina had first started suffering rampant inflation and currency devaluation followed by one “reset” after another.

When I first arrived in Argentina in 1973, two currencies—new pesos (or pesos ley) and old pesos—circulated simultaneously and prices were often exhibited in both. I recall that, at the time, the cost of a newspaper or a cup of coffee was one peso ley, or a thousand old pesos. In other words, the devaluation had clipped three zeros off of the currency. More surreal still, however, was the fact that under the last Peronist administration headed by Perón himself, which took office practically on my arrival in Buenos Aires, my pay at the newspaper where I was a reporter was equivalent to under fifty dollars a month, but my wife and I could live modestly well on that.

I think the managing editor only made a little over a hundred dollars a month at that time. But it was like Monopoly money. As long as you remained on the game board in Argentina, your pesos had real-economy value. So we all moonlighted as free-lance correspondents for international publications to make some real-world money because, if not, we were basically held hostage by the Argentine economy and couldn’t afford to travel outside of the country’s borders.

Perón’s most eloquent response to criticism about this state of affairs came at a rally where he said everyone seemed to be preoccupied with the dollar-peso parity. Who cared, he asked the crowd, what the dollar-peso parity was? This was Argentina, where people earned and spent pesos. Then pointing to a laborer in the crowd, he said, “How about you, pal, when was the last time you saw a dollar?”

Martínez de Hoz (left) with dictator Jorge R. Videla

This period was followed by a new economic revamp under the military junta that replaced the Peronist government, following a coup d’état and the introduction of the “peso fuerte” with which several zeros were again knocked off of the currency. This time it was pegged to a floating exchange system created by conservative “Chicago school”, Cambridge-educated economist José Martínez de Hoz who served as the regime’s first economy minister. But that system also had disastrous results. I recall that after making the equivalent of less than six hundred dollars a year less than five years earlier, I was now making over forty thousand dollars a year working at the same newspaper, at a time when, in the US, a new Chevy Impala cost under five thousand dollars, and a good dress shirt ran eight dollars. Only problem was, in Argentina an equivalent car cost forty thousand and a similar dress shirt one hundred. This was when Argentines traveled the world, feeling flush and bringing back everything imaginable from abroad that they couldn’t afford to buy at home. Their shopaholic battle cry on these foreign purchase expeditions was “dame dos” (give me two).

With the return of democracy in 1983 and the overwhelming vote to elect Radical Party candidate Dr. Raúl Alfonsín, whose win, for the next five years, managed to push both the Peronists and the military into the background, yet another attempt was made to bring the economy to heel. Once again, several zeros were lopped off of the currency and the government even changed its name entirely, now calling it the austral. The new currency opened at an exchange parity of more than a dollar eighty per austral to which my contacts in the business section of the American Embassy rolled their eyes as if to say, “Yeah, right, like that’s gonna work.”

But Alfonsín created the economic reform in combination with an incipient opening of the economy to foreign investment and expanded foreign trade. Areas like oil and fishing that had long been very limited for foreign investors were suddenly being tendered on the international market and this seemed like a good sign to Western observers. But Alfonsín’s negotiation of the enormous foreign debt that he inherited did not go well and the economy soon went south. President Alfonsín’s legacy to Argentina was new-found observance of the sanctity of human and civil rights and the rule of law, and one of its most democratic administrations in history, which gained ethical respect for the nation in foreign diplomatic circles. But that made no real difference where the rubber met the road, once the bottom fell out of the economy.

Alfonsín and Menem - peaceful transfer
In its final days the Alfonsín government was confronted with mass supermarket lootings and Peronist-led general strikes. After meeting at the Presidential Residence at Olivos with Peronist presidential candidate Carlos Menem, then-governor of his native La Rioja Province, Alfonsín agreed to early elections, which Menem won handily against the Radical Party candidate Eduardo Angelóz. And with hyper-inflation soaring out of control, Alfonsín handed over power to Menem five months before the end of his six-year term. It was the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in Argentina since the nineteen-thirties, and marked the end of constant pendulum swings between civilian and military rule in the country.

At that time, however, I remember standing in line to take a bus and thinking that the bill I was holding in my hand to pay the fare, and from which I would get scant change in return, had been worth a thousand dollars at the outset of the Alfonsín administration. It was not clear to anyone what Menem planned to do to get the country back on track. It wasn’t even clear who he was, other than a mutton-chopped Peronist populist caudillo from a province with a population of only about three hundred-fifty thousand.

But he quickly proved himself capable of shaking things up. Pragmatic as Perón himself, Menem swiftly moved to strike a pact with the most diverse sectors of Argentine society, drawing strongly on support from the most iconic of Argentine businessmen who had long been enemies of Perón, former Montoneros guerrilla organization members, who had once kidnapped business leaders for ransom, military leaders who, after the 1976 coup had held Menem himself prisoner for several years, members of the clergy and members of a stubbornly undemocratic group of field-grade officers in the military who had threatened to overthrow Alfonsín’s government and remained a threat to his successor.

With this broad consensus, Menem struck while the iron was hot and immediately began opening up the economy to foreign investment, vastly expanded imports and foreign trade, initiated negotiations with international creditors and then tackled hyperinflation. He did this by returning to the peso (yet another new peso) which his economy minister, Harvard-educated economist Domingo Cavallo, pegged to the dollar at a constant parity of one peso equals one dollar. This parity was maintained through a policy of so-called “convertibility”, by which pesos and dollars could be transacted, paid, saved and spent interchangeably, thus taking all pressure off of the exchange rate, and off of inflation as well.

What this meant was that, for the first time in at least a quarter-century, Argentines knew what things cost, because the economy was dollarized in terms of both prices and wages. It was a tremendous relief to a population long accustomed to expecting bad surprises with every purchase and terrified of what could happen to loans, mortgages and other types of credit that they might take out for longer than a month at a time. Suddenly, credit was viable in Argentina, and the government moved to quickly “bankerize” the economy with the introduction of bank accounts in both pesos and dollars and the widespread use of credit and debit cards.

The one to one convertibility measure remained in effect for the entire time that Menem was in office and created a kind of domestic confidence in the economy that young to middle-aged Argentines had never known before. And while the unemployment rate tended to run higher than historic levels, there was new demand for highly qualified skills which even brought back Argentine professionals from abroad who had been previously lost to the “brain drain” of earlier decades.

Menem’s government financed all of this by selling off vast government business assets, reducing state employment rolls to bare-bones levels, slashing subsidies and opening the economy to private competition. Over the course of his presidency the state divested interests in oil, insurance, shipping, aviation, electric power, natural gas distribution, telecommunications, steel, tourism, real estate, postal services, health care, meat-packing and a variety of other areas of interest. Many of these divestitures ended up in the hands of foreign multinationals, some of which were also the country’s creditors.

In some cases these privatizations were highly successful, as in the case of the telecommunications system which, prior to its sale to Telefónica of Spain and Telecom of France, was one of the semi-industrialized world’s worst. Phone lines were so scarce in Buenos Aires that people were on waiting lists for literally decades to get one, and the price of an apartment or house could vary by thousands of dollars on the basis of whether or not it came with a telephone line. Ancient exchanges and connections made the phone system completely unreliable, especially for long-distance or international services, which were strictly operator-assisted. The privatization contracts included strict infrastructure and technology goals which took Argentina’s land line system from being obsolete and highly limited to being a modern, well-functioning, ever more available service. And the new cellphone technology that was introduced was state of the art and very widely distributed.

Menem - second term, a decade in power
But many if not most of the other privatizations were plagued by errors, corruption and scant responsibilities for the private investors that took them over and that, all too frequently, held ironclad concessions for decades into the future. The results of these failed transactions only started to become obvious toward the end of Menem’s decade in power and were then passed on to future administrations that have been suffering the consequences ever since.

Of Menem’s highly uneven first and second terms in office, La Nación, a major Argentine mass circulation daily, wrote in its editorial section: “The results of (his) economic policy were reflected in an anticipated entry into the globalized world that was built after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a rapid modernization of the country's productive infrastructure, and stability, which is the basis of long-term growth. Unfortunately, Menem's reformist drive collapsed when his second administration began. His program of structural transformation for the country was interrupted and many strategic changes that were essential in order for the reforms of the previous period to produce the expected results were not executed.”

But the controversies surrounding his presidency expanded far beyond policy. For instance, he was accused during his tenure and later tried for illegal arms trafficking. This involved the clandestine sale in 1991 of Argentine-made military-grade weapons to Croatia, which, at the time, was at war with Yugoslavia, and in 1996 to Ecuador, which the year before had been involved in the brief Alta Cenepa War with its neighbor, Peru.  He was held under house arrest from June to November of 2001, on charges surrounding these arms sales but later fled with his second wife, Cecilia Bolocco, and their infant son to her native Chile. The Chilean government, through it's Supreme Court, refused requests for his extradition.

Photo-journalist José Luis Cabezas

When in 2004, Argentina’s new Peronist President Néstor Kirchner had warrants for Menem’s arrest canceled, the former president returned to the country, where he faced new charges of embezzlement and failing to declare funds that he had in a Swiss bank account. It wasn’t until 2013, under the administration of Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández, that he was acquitted of those charges. He was, however, previously sentenced to seven years in prison for the arms trafficking charge, and eventually to four and a half years for embezzlement and bribery but was immune to incarceration on either sentence due to his status as a member of the Senate. 

Yabrán - the pic that killed Cabezas
Menem was also the subject of a probe into the 1995 explosion of a munitions factory in Río Tercero, Córdoba Province, which killed seven people, injured three hundred others and flattened part of the town. The explosion was suspected of being intentional as part of an attempt to cover up the illegal arms sales for which Menem was under investigation. This incident has continued to haunt him for life. Menem was scheduled to attend a trial this week in which he was to be indicted on a charge of “indirect responsibility”, but died before his court date.

A shadowy figure called Alfredo Yabrán who worked closely with Menem’s government and operated international airport warehousing, was suspected of involvement in the arms trafficking operations as well. After a news magazine photographer called José Luis Cabezas snapped a picture of the elusive businessman at a beach resort on 1997, the reporter was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and his body incinerated in his rented car. The ensuing scandal embarrassed Menem’s administration and Yabrán was suddenly a marked man. During a police raid on his home, Yabrán subsequently died of a shotgun blast to the face. His death was ruled “suicide”.

Israeli Embassy bombing

Perhaps the broadest international coverage was garnered by accusations that Menem had covered up the conspiracy that led to two infamous terrorist attacks on Argentina’s Jewish Community. On March 17, 1992, the Israeli Embassy in downtown Buenos Aires was the target of a suicide bomb attack that demolished the building and left twenty-nine dead and two hundred forty-two injured.  Two years later, on July 18, 1994, a suicide car bomb attack destroyed the Argentine Mutual Israelite Association (AMIA) in mid-town Buenos Aires, killing eighty-five people and injuring hundreds more. Although no one has ever been brought to justice for the two incidents—the two worst terrorist attacks ever perpetrated in Argentina and among some of the worst worldwide—there has been persistent evidence of direct involvement by agents of the Iranian government. Just as persistently, Menem has been accused of involvement in the cover-up surrounding both bombings.

Decades later, during the last year of the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman leveled formal charges at Menem for the cover-up, but the case simply went away after Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, with a gunshot wound to the head. The Kirchner government portrayed Nisman’s death as “a suicide”, but Nisman’s family and independent investigators suspected homicide.

AMIA bombing

Obviously, it was of utmost importance to the former president to remain politically relevant, less because of his leadership vocation than as a means of surviving beyond prison walls. Ever the provincial caudillo, Carlos Menem managed to hold onto his senatorial seat—and his legal immunity—for two decades, until his death earlier this month at the age of ninety, when everything he ever was or had been left the realm of the present and passed into the pages of Argentine history.


Sunday, February 14, 2021



This past weekend, the Republican Party leadership and the vast majority of its politicians decided where they stood. Would they defend the party’s traditions of conservatism, American unity, law and order and liberal democracy, or would they underscore still further the party’s vertiginous downward spiral into the sordid depths of populism, personality cultism, vigilante violence and mob rule over the will of the majority and over the rule of law? In the end—and, unfortunately, surprising to no one—they chose the latter.

Earlier in the week, GOP senators (ad hoc jurors in the second impeachment trial of ex-President Donald J. Trump), like their Democratic colleagues, heard the cogent and well-researched presentation of congressional impeachment managers laying out the case against Trump on the charge of inciting insurrection against the United States of America. Their case was illustrated by all too familiar video footage of the former president’s rabble-rousing speech given on the Ellipse near the White House on January 6th and of the frenzied mob then following Trump’s instructions to go to the Capitol, where its members proceeded to clash violently with police and to enter the building by force, vandalizing the hallowed halls of Congress and searching for narrowly evacuated members of the congressional opposition, as well as dissenting members of the GOP (including Vice-President Mike Pence) whom they were promising to lynch.

But the presentation also included a great deal of new, formerly undisclosed footage that proved graphically violent and from which a number of members of Congress turned their eyes away—some because it was too painful for them to watch, but others because they were seeking, cynically, to demonstrate that they had nothing to do with this process and considered it politics as usual in the era of Trump. It didn’t matter to them that part of what they were watching was the brutal mob-murder of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, or the desperate bravery of Officer Eugene Goodman who, armed only with a billy club, stood off dozens of insurrectionists, making himself their target, until his colleagues could seal the Senate chamber and until he could taunt the rioters up the stairs to where police backup was waiting. It didn’t matter that they were seeing the violation of the congressional inner sanctum, the Executive-inspired terrorist raiding of another co-equal branch of government, the subversion of democracy by the followers of a president sworn to defend it. It didn’t matter that they, as members of the so-called “party of law and order” were watching how seditious thugs clubbed, mauled, abused and injured more than one hundred forty guardians of the Capitol in order to try and stop the democratic process by force and to maintain a would-be tyrant in power.

Their minds were made up before the trial ever began, despite swearing an oath to be impartial jurors, to say nothing of their standing oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United
States of America. They saw what everybody else saw. A national tragedy, unique in the two and a half century-history of the United States. But they simply didn’t care. They put party over country and personality cult over party. They were willing to let democracy and the nation lose in the tenuous hope that they themselves wouldn’t when it came time for the most radical and extreme of the former president’s base to vote in a future election.

Ignoring the evidence, which most top Republicans admitted was compelling, when it came time to stand up and be counted in defense of democracy, the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States, the GOP leadership caved. It claimed there was a technicality that kept the GOP from doing anything but voting to acquit. That technicality consisted basically of the fact that Donald Trump was no longer president and the Senate was, then, supposedly no longer competent to try him. And the GOP leadership continued to maintain this fallacious argument despite repeated statements from experts in constitutional law that it simply wasn’t true, and that there was even at least one historical precedent to prove that it wasn’t. Nor was it upheld by the House of Representatives, which is, according to the Constitution, the sole authority for setting the rules for an impeachment process. 

And then the GOP punted. They couldn’t do anything, they claimed, but there were other competent authorities who could, and they would leave the matter in the capable hands of federal and state justice. In other words, no way we’re going to grab this hot potato. We’re passing the buck to the Biden administration’s Department of Justice and to the courts of Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and other aggrieved swing states. To the civil courts, as well, where Trump and his top surrogates are already being sued in multi-billion-dollar libel cases. And when the crap hits the fan, we can always tell Trump supporters we had nothing to do with it. It was the damned Democrats and a few unholy Republican outliers.

Many media observers were this weekend bending over backwards to pat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the back for giving what amounted to no more than a wink and a nod to justice. In a wriggling and convoluted speech that too many analysts found “important”, McConnell said, in so many words, that the ex-president was indeed guilty of inciting the insurrection that took place on January 6th. Not merely because of the seditious speech that he made that day on the Ellipse, but also through his repeated and endless statements to the effect that the election had been stolen, that his voters had been robbed, that he was the legitimate president, and that if his followers didn’t “fight like hell” they “weren’t going to have a country left.” But that, as he interpreted the Constitution, he had no right to judge “a private citizen”.

McConnell even found a way to blame the House Democrats for the acquittal, saying that while they had indeed gotten a majority to vote to impeach while Trump was still president, they had failed to deliver the article of impeachment to the Senate until after he had left office. He admitted that constitutional scholars on both sides had provided cogent arguments regarding whether or not a former president could be tried by the Senate. While he praised and said he respected both, he clearly decided on the one that was most convenient for his never-ending political career. Namely, that while he laid the blame for the January 6th attempt to overthrow the US government on one man, Donald J. Trump, his hands were tied.

McConnell’s speech was, in a week of GOP profiles in cowardice, the number one most cowardly act. Only seventeen GOP senators out of fifty would have had to do their patriotic duty and vote to convict in order to restore the integrity of American democracy. In the end, only seven did, and despite the fact that they were only doing their duty to the Constitution and democracy, those seven are being held in hero status by small-d democrats all over the country, because they will clearly be dubbed traitors by the followers of the man who has once more sidestepped Congressional authority, played the country, and bolstered the de facto power of what conservative writer George Will has so aptly described as “the Lout Caucus”.

Mitch McConnell could have changed all that. He could have voted to convict and convinced the necessary nine other Republicans to do the same. And by that single act of patriotism and honesty, he could have ensured that no other self-styled despot like Donald Trump ever took office again, and that January 6th, 2021, was a single tragic stain on the fabric of democracy that would never happen again.

But he didn’t. He could have made all the difference in the world to American democracy and he failed to step up. And hopefully history will remember him for it.