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Monday 5 June 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Argentina’s former president Carlos Menem dies aged 90
His rule was marked by economic stability and a rapprochement with the US.

CARLOS MENEM, A former Argentinian president who delivered short-lived economic stability and forged close ties with the United States in the 1990s even as he navigated scandal and enjoyed an often flamboyant lifestyle, has died.

Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez confirmed the death of the 90-year-old former leader, who had been ailing in recent weeks.

The dapper lawyer from one of Argentina’s poorest provinces, dismissed by critics as a playboy, steered Argentina toward a free-market model that was, at one point, envied by neighbours and favoured by investors.

Menem’s accomplishments, however, coincided with growing unemployment, economic inequality and foreign debt.

Menem was also supremely flexible as a politician, beginning his career as a self-styled disciple of General Juan Domingo Peron, who founded the populist movement that bears his name and placed the economy largely under state control.

He served two terms as president between 1989 and 1999 and transformed the country, but in the opposite direction.

 “I don’t know if I’m going to get the country out of its economic problems, but I’m sure going to make a more fun country,” Menem once said.

He relished the company of celebrities, hosting the Rolling Stones and Madonna in Buenos Aires, and memorably shrugged off criticism after receiving a red Ferrari as a gift from an Italian businessman in 1990.

“It is mine, mine and mine,” Mr Menem, a car racing fan, said in front of television cameras.

“Why would I donate it?”

Later, he reluctantly agreed to auction off the car for 135,000 US dollars, with the proceeds going to state coffers.

The son of Syrian immigrants whose family owned a winery, Menem was a three-time governor of northwestern La Rioja Province, noted for shoulder-length hair and muttonchop sideburns when he came to international prominence.

He won the Peronist Party nomination and surged to victory in 1989 presidential elections, capitalising on economic and social chaos in Argentina.

The country was mired in 5,000% annual inflation and the poor were sacking supermarkets to obtain food.

Under Menem, the economy registered strong growth, inflation dropped to single digits and the peso, the national currency, enjoyed unprecedented stability as it was pegged to the US dollar.

The long hair and sideburns were gone and the flashy clothes replaced by imported, hand-made suits.

The core of Menem’s recovery plan, masterminded by energetic Harvard-educated Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, was the withdrawal of the state from the economy.

Menem removed controls on prices and interest rates.

He sold the state-owned phone company, airlines, race tracks, steel mills and the oil giant YPF, then South America’s largest company.

He cut the state payroll and encouraged foreign investment.

He curbed once-powerful labour unions that formed the backbone of the Peronist movement and were angered by state payroll cuts that eliminated jobs. 

In foreign affairs, Menem withdrew Argentina from the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era structure that had espoused independence from the United States and — less so — the Soviet Union, and forged strong ties with Washington.

Argentinian troops participated in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and joined UN peacekeepers in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

During his tenure, Argentina was the scene of deadly bombings — against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and a Jewish centre in 1994.

Argentina accused Iran of involvement; Iran denied it.

Menem was later tried for the alleged cover-up of those responsible for the attack on the Jewish centre, but was found not guilty in a trial in 2019.

As president, Menem prevailed in disputes with the Argentinian military, whose 1976 coup had led to the extrajudicial killings and disappearances of tens of thousands of people.

He trimmed armed forces spending and abolished the highly unpopular military conscription system.

He dismayed human rights groups by granting a pardon to former military junta members serving sentences of up to life in prison for crimes connected to the disappearance of Argentinian dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

The pardon was extended to former guerrillas in what Menem described as a process of national reconciliation.

Menem renewed relations with Britain that had been severed after the Argentinian dictatorship’s 1982 invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands.

The invasion ended in Argentina’s defeat in a 74-day war.

Menem was elected governor of La Rioja in 1973, but his first term was cut short by the 1976 coup. 

The military rulers sent him to prison, along with other politicians.

He later was confined for nearly five years in a small village in northern Formosa province.

Various controversies trailed Menem after his presidency.

In 2001, he was detained for several months for alleged involvement in the sale of Argentinian weapons to Croatia and Ecuador in the 1990s, at a time of international embargoes on those countries.

He was eventually convicted in the case and sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison, but he was protected from going to jail because he had been elected as a senator in 2005 and enjoyed immunity.

The case was dropped in 2017.

His colourful political career aside, Menem was a subject of fascination for his personal life.

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