Menem was also extremely flexible as a politician and began his career as a self-appointed disciple of General Juan Domingo Peron, who founded the populist movement that bears his name and placed the economy largely under state control. Menem, who served two terms as president between 1989 and 1999, transformed the country – but in the opposite direction.
“I do not know if I will get the country out of its economic problems, but I will definitely create a more fun country,” Menem once said. He enjoyed the company of celebrities where he hosted the Rolling Stones and Madonna in Buenos Aires, and remembered critical acclaim after receiving a red Ferrari as a gift from an Italian businessman in 1990.
“It’s mine, mine and mine,” Menem, a car racing fan, said in front of TV cameras. “Why would I donate it?”
He later reluctantly agreed to auction the car for $ 135,000, with the proceeds going to the Treasury.
The son of Syrian immigrants whose family owned a winery, Menem was a folksy, three-time governor of northwestern La Rioja province, known for shoulder-length hair and mutton beards when he came to international prominence.
He won the Peronist Party nomination and rose to victory in the 1989 presidential election, exploiting economic and social chaos in Argentina. The country was permeated by 5,000% annual inflation, and the poor fired supermarkets to provide food.
Under Menem, the economy recorded strong growth, inflation fell to single digits, and the peso, the national currency, had unprecedented stability when pegged to the US dollar. The long hair and beards were gone, and the flashy clothes were replaced by imported, handmade suits.
At the heart of Menem’s recovery plan, masterminded by energetic Harvard – educated finance minister Domingo Cavallo, was the state’s withdrawal from the economy.
Menem removed controls on prices and interest rates. He sold the state-owned telephone company, airlines, racetracks, steelworks and the oil giant YPF, then South America’s largest company. He cut the state payroll and encouraged foreign investment. He once slowed down powerful unions that formed the backbone of the Peronist movement and became angry over government wage cuts that eliminated jobs.
In foreign affairs, Menem pulled Argentina out of the unadjusted movement, a Cold War-era structure that had supported independence from the United States and – to a lesser extent – the Soviet Union, and forged strong ties with Washington.
Argentine troops participated in the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and joined UN peacekeepers in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.
During Menem’s era, Argentina was a deadly bombing raid – against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and a Jewish center in 1994. Argentina accused Iran of involvement; Iran denied it. Menem was later prosecuted for the alleged concealment of those responsible for the attack on the Jewish center, but was found not guilty in a 2019 trial.
As president, Menem won disputes with the Argentine military, whose 1976 coup had led to extrajudicial killings and disappearances of tens of thousands of people. He trimmed the spending of armed forces and abolished the very unpopular military conscription system.
He appalled human rights groups by granting pardon to former military junta members serving sentences of up to life in prison for crimes linked to the disappearance of Argentine dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The pardon was extended to former guerrillas in what Menem described as a process of national reconciliation.
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