The former president, who ruled from 1989 to 1999, became the most important and controversial figure in Argentine politics in the 1990s.
His tenure meant hard currency and corruption, privatizations and unemployment, easy money, and poverty. Carlos Saúl Menem (Anillaco, 1930), president of Argentina between 1989 and 1999, died this Sunday, February 14 in Buenos Aires at the age of 90, the victim of an infection that was complicated by “basic” heart problems. Menem succeeded Raúl Alfonsín in office and led the return of Peronism to power after the restoration of democracy.
The country was then plunged into a serious economic crisis marked by hyperinflation, which Menem resolved by applying the ultra-liberal policies that emerged from the Washington Consensus. It imposed one-to-one convertibility between the peso and the dollar and began a profound process of privatization. The Argentine economy grew until 1998, while it incubated the imbalances that ended with the debacle of the corralito in 2002. Menem died as a senator, a position that allowed him to evade the prison sentences he had for corruption.
Argentines remember Menem with devotion or contempt, as the father of a great transformation that he led with the stature of a statesman or as the manager of a catastrophe. Those who defend it remember the years without inflation, investment in infrastructure, and the modernization of public services through privatization. The peso’s parity with the dollar turned Argentines into first-class tourists, and imported products flooded the market. Those were the times of “Argentina first world” and of “carnal relations” with the United States, as the then foreign minister, Guido Di Tella, once defined them.
“The nineties” were soon synonymous with Menemism, a movement that accommodated Peronism to the ultra-liberal wave of the decade. His detractors, on the other hand, see in Menem the closure of thousands of companies, record levels of poverty and unemployment, and, above all, the introduction of corruption as a form of politics. The “menemism” was for this group the “menemato”, an allusion to the Arab roots of the president.
Menem had won the elections in 1989 as a caudillo from the interior who promised the “productive revolution” clad in a northern poncho and with long sideburns. But the caudillo soon shaved his sideburns and swapped the poncho for Armani suits. And it dislodged Peronism. He made an alliance with the most conservative sectors of the party and appointed figures from the traditional right to his government. Progressive Peronism soon broke with him and waged war on him. But the economic bonanza stopped the internal revolts. Menem sealed a pact with the radical Raúl Alfonsín to introduce reelection into the Constitution and in 1995 he repeated his mandate. His second term revealed the slow but unstoppable exhaustion of the convertibility model.
During his government, Menem privatized, gave in concession, or dissolved 66 state companies. The sale of “grandmother’s jewels” plus foreign debt flooded the market with dollars. Corruption was the mark of the times. The phrase “steal but they do” was coined then, in opposition to the radicals, types that the Peronists considered honest but lacking the ability to power. They were also years of “pizza with champagne” because Menemism had its own aesthetic, the daughter of easy business and quick riches. The character in the Casa Rosada compensated with charisma and dizzying management of the feeling that something was not right. Menem played soccer, piloted airplanes, drove race cars, and made a name for himself as a playboy. On one occasion, he ordered five hundred kilometers of the highway to be closed to traffic to drive a Ferrari that he just received as a gift from a gambler at full speed. “El Ferrari de Menem” is another indelible photo in popular memory.
Menem’s personal life was an inseparable part of the politics of that time. As soon as he took office, the president expelled his wife Zulema Yoma and their two children, who were crying before the television cameras, from the official residence. On March 15, 1995, another family incident became a matter of State: her son Carlos died in a helicopter accident at age 26. Zulema Yoma always maintained that it was an attack, a hypothesis that Menem ended up accepting years later. It was also during the Menemism that Argentina experienced the only two terrorist attacks in its history: the one that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish mutual Amia in 1994. Argentina still carries the fragments of those unsolved attacks.
In 1998, when the economy was collapsing, Menem tried to be a candidate for the third time, but he could not add support to modify the Constitution again. Peronism finally lost the elections to an alliance of radicals, led by Fernando de la Rúa, and left-wing Peronists behind Carlos Álvarez. The alchemy did not last long and it all ended in the crisis of 2002. Menem added, meanwhile, legal problems. In 2001, a judge put him under house arrest for smuggling weapons to Ecuador and Croatia despite UN embargoes. The former president was locked up for five months, accompanied by his new wife, former Chilean Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco.
In 2003, Menem tried to be president once more but fell to Néstor Kirchner. He took refuge in his native province, La Rioja, which rewarded him with a seat in the Senate. He flirted with macrismo and later supported Kirchnerism in Congress. The privileges as a senator avoided jail and he died in freedom, occupying his seat until the last day.