Menem, Carlos Saul: 1930—: Political Leader
Carlos Saul Menem: 1930—: Political leader
Twice elected president of Argentina, Carlos Menem's terms in office represented a rare period of political stability in the country. Yet Menem himself was never very far from controversy, both for his vivid public persona and a number of decisions that raised accusations of corruption and deceit. Since leaving the presidency, Menem has continued to be one of Argentina's most recognizable politicians. He has continued to lead his party, the Perónist Partido Justicialista, and has been rumored to be planning a run for a third term in office. Given Argentina's economic troubles, some Menem supporters claim that he is the best person to return the country to relative stability; however, his detractors point to a number of ongoing investigations into Menem's presidential actions that may derail any future political plans of the former president.
Carlos Saul Menem was born in the northwestern Argentina town of Anillaco. One of four sons of immigrants from Syria, Menem was raised in a Sunni Muslim family by his parents, Saul and Mohiba Menem. Saul Menem had worked his way up from being a simple street vendor to owning his own retail store and was proud that all of his children eventually finished college. Carlos Menem entered Córdoba University, located in Argentina's second-largest city, and earned a law degree in 1958. While a student, Menem already demonstrated an active interest in politics. In 1955 he created a chapter of the Juventud Perónista, a youth group for supporters of then-president Juan Perón. Although Perón was overthrown in a military coup that same year and ousted from the country, his party remained a significant force in Argentine politics. Menem continued to support the party and ran as a Perónist candidate in his first bid for elective office as a provincial deputy in 1962. The elections were called off, however, during another one of Argentina's frequent military coups.
Menem set up a law practice in La Rioja, a major city located not far from his birthplace of Anillaco, after his graduation; yet politics were never far from his mind. He worked as a legal advisor for a Perónist trade union group, the Confederación General del Trabajo, and after his first aborted bid for elected office ran again for the provincial leadership position of the Partido Justicialista (PJ) in 1963. As the party of the Perónists, the PJ continued to articulate its founder's platform of nationalism, massive government spending on public programs, and significant subsidies to businesses. Menem would follow these Perónist programs once he finally won elective office as governor of La Rioja province in 1973.
At a Glance . . .
Born Carlos Saul Menem on July 2, 1930, in Anillaco, Argentina; married Zulema Fatimah Yoma in 1966; two children. Education: Completed law degree at Córdoba University, 1958. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Justicialist Party
Career: Private law practice, 1958; Justicialist Party provincial head, 1963; Governor, La Rioja province, 1973-89; President of Argentina, 1989-99; head of Justicialist Party, 1999-.
Address: Political party— Partido Justicialista, Matheu 130 1082 Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Menem met Zulema Fatimah Yoma on a trip to Damascus, Syria, in 1964. Menen had long since previously converted to Roman Catholicism, yet the couple was married in a Muslim religious ceremony in 1966. The Menems had two children, yet the marriage was often the focus of unwelcome attention during the couple's many public spats. Menem deliberately cultivated the image of the successful playboy—typically wearing white suits and keeping his hair (later on, carefully positioned hair pieces) immaculately groomed—and regularly appeared with young models and actresses on his arm. Such antics may have endeared the politician to the Argentine public, but his wife routinely complained about her husband's behavior. The couple separated twice but decided to reconcile both times.
Served as Governor
After gaining the governor's seat for the province of La Rioja in 1973, Menem immediately implemented a Perónist agenda. He doubled the number of employees on the public payroll, even though the action meant that the province had to circulate state bonds in place of currency after the government ran out of money for its payroll. Menem added so many employees to the public sector that it soon became the largest employer in the province, even outnumbering the total number of private sector employees in La Rioja. By lowering the unemployment rate to just three percent, however, Menem's popularity surged. He also claimed to have brought several new employers into the province by promoting tax abatement and investment credit schemes. Although the policies reduced the amount of funds coming into government coffers, they also showed Menem to be a man of action in contrast to the typical Argentine politician.
With Juan Perón's return to Argentina from his exile in Spain in 1973, it appeared that the Perónists would once again dominate the country's political arena. Perón's rule turned out to be brief, however, for he died in July of 1974. His wife and successor, Isabel Perón, was subsequently thrown out of office in a military coup in March of 1976, and another era of rule by various military regimes followed. For Menem, the cost of the political upheavals was high: jailed in 1976 for his Perónist association, he spent five years as a political prisoner before being released in 1981.
Known as the "Dirty War," the period from 1976 to 1982 was one of the darkest in Argentina's history. In addition to political prisoners such as Menem, approximately 9,000 desaparecidos (or "the disappeared ones") were taken into custody by the military government on the pretext of representing a subversive threat. Many were tortured and some were drugged and thrown off of airplanes into the sea. For all the repression, however, Argentina's military rulers could not dampen the unrest brought on by deteriorating economic conditions. After the government hastily entered and lost a war with Great Britain over possession of the Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands in 1982, the junta declared that it would step aside in the face of enormous public opposition and turn power over to a civilian government. Before the transfer of power, however, the military government passed a law that absolved all participants in the deeds of the Dirty War.
Ran for President
After his release from jail, Menem returned to office as governor of La Rioja in 1983. That same year, the first elected government in ten years took power when Raul Alfonsín was elected president. Alfonsín repealed the amnesty law enacted in the last months of military rule and began to investigate and prosecute some of the most serious crimes. Alfonsín's greatest challenge, however, was to bring the Argentine economy back to stability. In 1985 inflation hit more than 1,000% percent annually; as unreal as that figure seemed, it climbed even higher, with reports of 3,000 percent at one time.
Against this backdrop of social and economic unrest, Menem announced his candidacy for the presidential elections scheduled for May of 1989. Riding a wave of popularity, Menem had been reelected as La Rioja's governor in 1987, and he now pointed to his past record as evidence that he could solve the nation's problems. On May 14, 1989, Menem was duly elected—the first time in over sixty years that one elected government had been succeeded by another in Argentina—and the PJ gained control of both houses of Congress.
At the time of Menem's election, monthly inflation stood at almost seventy-nine percent, a rate that neared two-hundred percent by July. With strikes and riots breaking out all over the country, Alfonsín abruptly resigned from office in July of 1989 and Menem's administration took over a few months early. While it was expected that the new president would fill his cabinet with Perónists, he startled many by appointing free-market reformer Domingo Cavallo as his finance minister. Under Cavallo's insistence, the government began to sell off state-owned enterprises and limited inflation by linking the Argentine peso to the American dollar. Menem also attempted to impose spending limits on the government, although this strategy was much more difficult to implement. The most controversial move of Menem's first term, however, came with his decision in October of 1989 to pardon almost three hundred of those convicted or suspected of human rights violations during the Dirty War.
Menem was also criticized for allowing corruption to continue during his administration and for failing to rein in government spending, which doubled during his terms in office. With the peso tied to the dollar, the government resorted to borrowing to pay its way, and foreign debt ballooned to over $142 billion under Menem's rule. Menem remained popular enough, however, to win reelection to a second term in 1994. During his second and last consecutive term, Menem continued to increase government spending and privatize certain state-owned enterprises.
During Menem's last year in office, cracks began to appear in the Argentine economy that showed how little his reforms had reshaped the country's economy. With the peso pegged at an artificially high rate, exports of Argentine products were stifled and labor costs remained high. Menem's feeble attempts to impose austerity measures also meant that the government maintained a large foreign debt, an enormous liability once the global economy slowed down in the late 1990s. As Menem left office, Argentina's gross domestic product growth rate plunged into negative territory and unemployment climbed to over fourteen percent. By 2000 an estimated forty percent of Argentine' people lived below the official poverty line.
After leaving the presidency, Menem remained the head of the PJ, which ruled as the official opposition party in Congress after political rival Fernando de la Rúa came into office in 1999. Unfortunately, a period of economic chaos that rivaled the worst extremes of the 1980s unfolded during de la Rúa's term, and he was ousted from office in favor of a series of short-lived presidents at the end of 2001 and first months of 2002. Given the political and economic upheavals, Menem once again put himself forward as the only person capable of bringing stability back to Argentina.
In preparing his political comeback, however, Menem refused to answer questions about two major scandals that unfolded during his two terms in office. In one corruption and drug-trafficking probe, Menen was even placed under house arrest by a court order; however, he was subsequently freed and had maintained his innocence. In a more far-reaching probe, however, accusations surfaced that Menem had accepted a bribe of ten million dollars to cover up a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed eight-five people. The investigation centered around the testimony of a former Iranian spy who presented evidence to Swiss authorities that Menem's administration had ties to both Muslim extremist groups and to international organized crime syndicates as well. With the investigation taking place in Switzerland—far out of Menem's sphere of political influence—it appeared that the former president's bid for a third term in office would be put on hold.
Castañeda, Jorge G., Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Crassweller, Robert, Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina, W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.
Guillermoprieto, Alma, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, Pantheon Books, 2001.
Rock, David, Argentina 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín, University of California Press, 1987.
America, February 11, 2002.
Business Week, January 21, 2002.
Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 2002.
Economist, January 5, 2002; January 19, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2002; January 24, 2002.
Carlos Sául Menem
Carlos Sául Menem
Carlos Sául Menem (born 1930) was the first Peronist president to come to power in Argentina after the overthrow of Isabel Perón by the military in 1976 and the first legally elected civilian president to succeed another civilian government since 1928. He was also one of the few to serve two terms in succession.
Born on July 2, 1930, Carlos Sául Menem was the son of Syrian immigrants who settled in the interior province of La Rioja, Argentina, and eventually built up a prosperous wine business. After receiving a degree in law in 1955, he practiced law in his native province and became a popular Peronist politician, heading the party's provincial council. He ran for office several times during the 1960s and in 1973 easily won the election for governor. However, his term was curtailed by the military's overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976, and he was arrested along with the other Peronist leaders. He spent the next five years in prison or in internal exile.
In the elections of 1983, which witnessed the triumph of Rául Alfonsín and the Radical Party, Menem was again elected governor of La Rioja province. He was reelected for a third term in 1987 and served until July 1989 when, as the result of his victory in the presidential election, he took over the presidency of Argentina. He would then win each election through 1996. The last was only allowed though constitutional reforms allowing him to run for re-election.
Menem had been one of the leaders of the Renovator, or social democratic wing, of the Peronist Party which emerged with a new national plan in 1985. He was above all, however, a pragmatic politician who, because of his political ambitions, had converted from the Sunni Muslim faith to Roman Catholicism, since in Argentina only Roman Catholics are constitutionally eligible to hold public office. He was, therefore, willing to compromise in his pursuit of the presidency. In the party's first ever presidential primary, held in mid-1988, he sought the support of various Peronist politicians, including a number of the old-line party bosses who were opposed by the Renovators. Promising to represent the workers and the neglected people of the interior, Menem won the primary in July, defeating his main rival and the front-running candidate, Antonio Cafiero, a long-time Peronist politician and governor of Buenos Aires province.
In the presidential campaign Menem promised a production revolution to solve Argentina's economic crisis. He also called for wage increases and jobs for the workers, as well as a corporatist social pact among business, labor, and the state on the economy. In the area of foreign policy he favored a five-year moratorium on Argentina's international debt and implied that he would attempt to regain militarily the British-ruled Malvinas (or Falkland) Islands. He did not, however, promise the armed forces the amnesty which they had been seeking for the violation of human rights in the so-called Dirty War under the military regime, in which thousands of Argentines were tortured, murdered, and/or disappeared—by varying estimates, anywhere from about 10,000 to 30,000 people.
The principal issue in the presidential campaign was the economic performance of the government of President Rául Alfonsín, which failed to provide continued economic stability or halt Argentina's rapidly accelerating inflation despite a series of anti-inflation austerity plans. Vying with the economy as a major issue was the personality of Menem, who cultivated a playboy image and was well known to enjoy racing sports cars, playing soccer, and spending time with glamorous show people.
Menem won a decisive victory in the election held on May 14, 1989, sweeping the Peronists back into power for the first time since 1976 when Isabel Perón was ousted by the military. Winning 47.3 percent of the vote, he clearly defeated his seven opponents, including Eduardo Angeloz, the candidate of the governing Radical Party, who ran second with 37 percent of the votes. Besides winning the presidency, the Peronists gained control of both houses of Congress and most of the provincial legislatures. The election, which left the Radical Party the strongest party in the opposition, was the first time since 1928 in which one democratically elected civilian president succeeded another.
According to the constitution Alfonsín was to hand over the presidency to Menem on December 1, 1989, six months after the election. But public confidence in Alfonsín had sunk to such a low level, primarily because of the failure of his economic plan, he finally decided to give in to the general demand he depart early in order to give Menem a head start with his program to restore Argentina's economy. On July 8, 1989, some five months ahead of schedule, Alfonsín turned over the presidency to Menem.
The Peronist victory occurred at the time when Argentina was facing one of its most serious economic crises. Economically, the primary task of the new Menem government was to solve the problem of Argentina's hyperinflation, which was running at an annual rate of 6000 percent and devastating the economy. In conjunction with his plan of economic restructuring, Menem initiated a program to trim payrolls of the public sector, eliminate government subsidies for the private sector, privatize a number of state-run companies, and increase tax revenues. Although his austerity measures faced substantial resistance from the opposition parties, the business community, and organized labor, by the early part of 1990 Argentina's rampant inflation had subsided considerably and there were signs that the economy was improving.
By pardoning a number of military officers found guilty of human rights violations in the 1970s and by supporting the military high command, Menem managed to ease civil-military relations, which had plagued the administration of Alfonsín. President Menem also exonerated the officers responsible for the Malvinas Islands war and the military personnel involved in the barracks revolts during the last two years of the Alfonsín regime. In addition to pardoning several military men awaiting trial for crimes during the dirty war, he pardoned some of the guerrilla leaders accused of leftist terrorist activities during the 1970s.
On the question of the Malvinas Islands, Menem temporarily put aside the issue of sovereignty and, in what amounted to a major foreign policy coup, renewed full diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Regarding the problem of Argentina's international debt, Menem was quick to visit the United States and the various European capitals in order to assure Argentina's creditors that his government was eager to negotiate a solution to Argentina's indebtedness. Menem suggested negotiating debt relief measures, including a grace period on interest payments to Argentina's creditors. To deal with the international drug traffic, Menem advocated a multilateral approach and created a drug secretariat which represented Argentina in various regional and international organizations. Favoring Latin American economic integration, in August 1989 the government of Menem signed a series of economic cooperation protocols with Argentina's traditional South American rival, Brazil.
But the violence continued. Two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, one on the Israeli embassy in 1992, a second on a Jewish centre in 1994, were not solved. The bombing of the embassy killed between 32 and 40 people, and at least 86 died in the community-centre bombing. Yet, though alleged accomplices were arrested, no one was charged or even credibly named as directly responsible for the bombings.
This was just one of many examples of mishandled Argentine criminal investigations. In July 1996, Menem tried to help the situation by firing his justice minister, who was revealed to have belonged, as a youth, to a Nazileaning group. Menem made fresh efforts to track down known ex-Nazis and stolen Jewish assets, but with little success.
Menem was married to Zulema Fatima Yoma, who was highly visible throughout the presidential campaigns. Menem's brother Eduardo was a senator and one of his chief advisers, while another brother, Munir, was ambassador to Syria.
For autobiographical information and a summary of Menem's ideas see in Spanish his Menem (1986); Yo Carlos Menem (1989); Renovacíon a fondo (1986); and Argentina, ahoca o nunca (1988). Additional information on Menem and the program of the Renovators is provided in Alfredo Leuco and José Antonio Díaz, El heredor del Peron (1989), and Antonio Francisco Cafiero, Hablan los renovadores (1986). For an excellent discussion of the Peronist movement since the fall of Isabel Perón in 1976 see Donald C. Hodges, in English, Argentina 1943-1987; The National Revolution and Resistance. Revised and Enlarged Edition (1988). See also the Economist, (April 26, 1997) and Los Angeles Times, (October 25, 1996). □