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.


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