Carlos Menem, who during 10 years as Argentina's flamboyant, scandal-ridden president engineered a stunning economic turnaround only to be blamed for an even more dramatic financial collapse after he left office, died Feb. 14 at a clinic in Buenos Aires. He was 90.
Argentine President Alberto Fernandez confirmed the death in a statement. The cause was a urinary tract infection.
Menem, who had been ailing for several months, was serving as a national senator until his death.
"There are Argentines who will never forget what Menem did for this country," Argentine journalist and author Horacio Verbitsky once told The Washington Post. "And there are Argentines who will never forgive what Menem did to this country."
Amid a backdrop of hyperinflation and labor strikes, Menem, a popular provin- cial governor with bushy mutton-chop sideburns, breezed to victory in the May 14, 1989, presidential election. Outgoing President Raul Alfonsin handed over power five months early on July 8, 1989, to give Menem a head start in pulling the economy out of its tailspin.
"There is no other way to put it. Argentina is broken, devastated, destroyed, razed," Menem said in his inaugural address. "From these ruins, we will build the country we deserve."
Menem then surprised his followers by turning his back on the pro-labor, big-gov- ernment orthodoxy of his Justicialist Party, a movement inspired by his hero, former strongman and president Juan Peron. Instead, Menem sought to deregulate the economy, open up the country to foreign investors, expand trade and pay off govern-ment debt.
In what Menem described as "surgery without anesthesia," he moved swiftly to pri- vatize state companies, roll back the power of labor unions, cut state subsidies and fire thousands of government employees.
These fiscally conservative policies, which were endorsed by the International Monetary Fund and became known as "the Washington Consensus," would later take hold across much of Latin America in the 1990s.
But Menem's key move, pushed by his influential economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, was to legally peg the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar on a one-to-one basis in 1991.
The "convertibility plan" aimed to stabilize prices and restore confidence in the local currency following a period when out- of-control inflation forced grocery stores to announce price changes over loudspeakers because clerks couldn't remark all the merchandise fast enough.
Although unemployment rose, annual inflation fell to the low single digits. With state-run banks, airlines, oil companies, railroads and utilities on the auction block, an estimated $24 billion in foreign invest-ment flowed into the country in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1997, the economy grew by 6.1 percent annually, the high- est rate in South America, and Argentina was hailed as a model for the developing world.
Menem's neoliberal economic policies infuriated left-leaning Peronists, as members of the Justicialist Party are known. But Menem was more pragmatist than ideo logue.
Even though he had been unjustly impris- oned by Argentina's 1976-83 military junta, Menem sought to improve relations with an army that had staged three rebellions against his predecessor.
So, on Dec. 29, 1990, Menem issued a blan- ket amnesty to the leaders of the military dictatorship that waged a dirty war against leftists, union leaders and other political opponents in which between 9,000 and 30,000 people were either killed or disap- peared.
Alfonsin, the former president, called it "the saddest day in Argentine history." But the amnesty brought Menem a measure of stability and allowed him to focus on the economy.
An enthusiastic free-trader, Menem helped negotiate the South American Common Market, or Mercosur, a customs union with Uruguay, Paraguay and traditional rival Brazil. He restored full diplomatic ties with Great Britain, relations that had been sus- pended since the 1982 Falkland Islands War.
He played tennis with President George H.W. Bush, deployed troops and ships to the first Persian Gulf War, and proved such a staunch U.S. ally that one of his foreign ministers, Guido di Tella, quipped that Argentina was pursuing "carnal relations" with Washington.
By then, Menem had trimmed his sideburns, ditched his loud clothes for French- cut suits, and was enjoying the perks of high office. When an Italian motorcycle company gave him a $100,000 red Ferrari, Menem at first rejected advice to give it back, famously declaring, "The Ferrari is mine, mine, mine!" (It was later sold at public auction.)
Menem also relished his reputation as a Southern Cone Valentino. He kicked his first wife, Zulema Yoma, out of the presidential palace and later married Cecilia Bolocco, a Chilean TV celebrity and former Miss Universe who was 35 years his junior. He publicly flirted with actresses and belly dancers, performed the tango on television, and mused aloud about forming a nearly all-female Cabinet.