Carlos Menem, who was president of Argentina for much of the 1990s, died this Sunday at the age of 90.
Menem had been hospitalized for two months in the Los Arcos sanatorium, in Buenos Aires, for a urinary infection.
Previously, the former Argentine president, who directed the destiny of his country between 1989 and 1999, had also spent a couple of weeks at the Institute of Diagnosis and Treatment, due to bilateral pneumonia.
On June 13, 2020, a medical team diagnosed him with severe pneumonia, which in recent weeks worsened due to the diabetes he also suffered.
The president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, decreed three days of national mourning and expressed his “deep regret” for the death of Menem.
“Always elected in democracy, he was Governor of La Rioja, President of the Nation and National Senator. During dictatorship he was persecuted and imprisoned. All my love goes to Zulema, Zulemita and all those who mourn him today,” Fernández wrote in his account from Twitter.
Menem’s sideburns – elongated by the cheeks, half white half black, curly and bushy – marked Argentina.
He wore them to imitate his favorite caudillo, the hero Facundo Quiroga, and they were paired daily by a hairdresser who had a fixed seat on the presidential plane.
Leafy, eccentric, exaggerated, it can be said that the sideburns of former Argentine president Carlos Saúl Menem were a reflection of his extraordinary character, a character that materialized for a decade, that of 1990, the Argentine dream of living in the best of worlds: the funniest, the most authentic, the most pompous.
A native of the far northwest of the country, La Rioja, in 1995 Menem became the first president to be reelected in 50 years.
In his first government he forged an economic boom; in the second, a traumatic crisis.
Lawyer, governor and senator, the Riojan was twice imprisoned during the military regimes of the 70s and 80s and was twice convicted of corruption and arms trafficking. He avoided jail because of parliamentary immunity and, in recent years, he was acquitted.
They called him “the Turk” in reference to his Syrian-Lebanese roots, roots that defined his family, his personality and even his private life, so often the protagonist of the tabloid press.
Peronist with all the letters
Menem is one of the answers to that question that fascinates political scientists around the world about what Peronism is.
A complex answer, of course, because although it accurately sums up the movement, it also complicates the definition of the most important political current in the history of Argentina.
He was at the same time a populist and right-wing politician, pro-United States and jingoist, Catholic and Muslim, who was persecuted by the military regime but later pardoned the repressors and first allied himself but then harassed the Montoneros guerrillas.
Like Juan Domingo Perón, president whom he met, admired and once criticized, Menem used contradiction as a political tool: he promised not to honor the debt but paid it, offered to claim the Malvinas / Falklands Islands but negotiated with the United Kingdom, privatized companies but was he boasted of being a nationalist.
But what for many is a contradiction, for Peronism is adaptation to the ups and downs of politics and life. Menem wrote it in 1988 in an “Open Letter to Hope”: “I always maintained that the politician’s noblest gesture consists in putting one ear in the heart of the people and another in the voice of God to listen with humility to the mandate of the time”.
It is not entirely clear, however, who he was listening to when he decided to privatize the state-owned oil company and airline, dismantle the railways, or put into debt a country historically unable to pay its deficits.
The economic model he promoted was a paradox in itself: savage capitalism at the hands of the United States in the name of a political movement that fought — or fights — in favor of the poor and against the oligarchy.
He deregulated markets, reduced pensions and increased taxes and services without resistance, or rather with the support, of the main losers.
Menem, with the Peronist anti-system discourse, was perhaps the most important shake that there has been within the movement.
The best and worst government
Many consider that, by itself, his first government, between 1989 and 1995, was the best of the last 40 years in Argentina: it eliminated hyperinflation, stabilized politics, promoted consumption and openness, received international support and generated national consensus. to change the Constitution.
But his second term is, at the same time, seen as one of the worst in national history: political and judicial corruption spilled over, the president’s scandals were international shame and the economic model, based on the parity between the dollar and the peso —The so-called “convertibility” —proved to be a fiction that would eventually unleash the worst economic crisis in decades, in 2001.
Although justice is still investigating what happened, there are those in Argentina who believe that one of Menem’s contradictions – being an Arab but maintaining a strong relationship with Israel – had to do with the two fatal attacks on Jewish organizations in Buenos Aires in the 1990s: the blasting of the Israeli Embassy and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).
They think the attacks were “revenge”.
Menem emerged politically worn out — and by constitutional mandate — from the presidency in 1999, but he never ceased to be highly esteemed by some Argentines.
In 2003 he was close to being reelected for the second time, but withdrew in the second round when he was certain that Néstor Kirchner would beat him.
His figure after the presidency was marked by legal accusations, his marriage to the Chilean Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco and two historic votes in the Senate: he rejected the field tax withholdings proposed by Cristina Kirchner in 2015 and the decriminalization of abortion in 2018. Both projects they failed.
Menem was a Senator until his death thanks to his devoted voters from La Rioja, a poor, unpopulated and conservative province in which his family, who arrived from Syria in the first half of the 20th century, built a small commercial and wine empire.
In that arid and mountainous land, he had dozens of extravagant properties, among them “La Rosadita”, a mansion with the same aesthetic as the presidential Casa Rosada.
Eccentricity as an ideology
Egocentric, rhetorical, supportive, showbiz, familiar, resourceful and from below, Menem never stopped being where he liked best: in the center of attention.
His private life was not only a matter of state, but a tool during his political rise to achieve recognition.
On his list of eccentricities are collectible cars, helicopters, exotic animals, the “Menemobile” with which he campaigned and the promise – unfulfilled – of a space flight system with which you could travel from Argentina to Japan in two hours .
An alleged fondness for partying and drugs and his debts from casino games, where he allegedly exchanged chips for bad checks, were repeated concern of the national press.
Since he was a child, he was seen as mischievous, esoteric and flirtatious, according to his biographers, in worlds where machismo was celebrated: the Arab community, La Rioja and Argentine politics.
His relationships with his parents, his children and his first wife, Zulema Yoma, whom he married at the motion of their Arab parents, were always reasons for speculation among many Argentines. And of judicial processes.
His eldest son, Carlitos Nair, also known as “the first heir”, died at age 26 in a helicopter accident that divided the family and remains unsolved between theories that range from an unforeseen event to an attack by narcos or the military or Arabs in revenge for shady deals.
“Here’s to me, the vice president of Argentina,” said Carlos Saúl Menem, standing at a table at a party in 1975. He was not vice or close to being president, but he revealed an illusion. Then he splashed the drink over his head. And that’s how, with his champagne-drenched sideburns, an illusion began to come true.
Cerruti, Gabriela. The boss. Planet, 1993.
Pucciarelli, Alfredo. The Menem years. XXI century, 2011.
Wornat, Olga. Private life. Planet, 2000.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.