Carlos Saúl Menem, whose ten-year presidency Argentina in the 1990s transformed the country, died on Sunday, at the age of 90.
One of Latin America’s best-known and most controversial presidents, who had a flamboyant lifestyle and sported lamb chop favorites, Menem presided over the liberalization of Argentina’s economy. He wholeheartedly embraced the free market doctrine of the “Washington Consensus” more than any other leader in the region.
The charismatic leader unexpectedly came to power in 1989 after his predecessor Raúl Alfonsín’s presidency was interrupted during a hyperinflation crisis, quickly stabilizing the economy with a bold economic plan. But he stepped down as president in 1999, leaving behind a failing and deteriorating economy that ultimately collapsed during Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis.
Coming to power as the typical regional “caudillo” (strongman) ruling the remote Andean province of La Rioja, Menem reinvented the populist Argentine Peronist party. He led his return to power after being ousted in a 1976 military coup, two years after the death of founder Juan Perón.
Argentina’s longest-serving president brought an unprecedented, but ultimately unsustainable period of price and currency stability to a volatile economy, after introducing a new currency that was effectively pegged to the dollar for a decade.
Menem’s economic liberalization – which contrasts with Peronism’s core tenets of social justice – sparked a wave of privatizations and an influx of foreign investment in Argentina. Under Menem’s leadership, Argentina was hailed as a poster of free-wheeling capitalism of the 1990s.
Menem boasted of “carnal” relations with the United States, becoming a golf companion to President George HW Bush, and re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom after the Falklands War of 1982 which precipitated the fall of the dictatorship. Argentinian military. He also oversaw the rewrite and modernization of the constitution, which resulted in his re-election in 1995.
He failed in his attempt to regain the presidency in 2003. Despite winning in the first round, he stepped down after admitting he couldn’t get enough votes to win due to his high rejection rates.
His defeat inaugurated the presidency of another previously unknown regional Peronist governor, Néstor Kirchner. The Kirchnerista faction – which frowns on Menem’s legacy as some Peronists think it is bad luck to pronounce Menem’s full name aloud – has since dominated Argentine politics. Despite her criticism of menemism, Kirchner’s wife and successor to the presidency, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now vice-president, expressed her condolences on Twitter on Sunday.
Elected senator in 2005, a post he held until his death, Menem enjoyed immunity from Congress which protected him from corruption charges, including a scandal over arms trafficking to the United States. Ecuador and Croatia for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013. He was also found guilty of embezzlement in 2015.
Menem, who quickly gained a reputation as a playboy and bon vivant, was once criticized for accepting a Ferrari as a gift from local businessmen. “The Ferrari is mine, mine, mine!” he has answered. “Why should I give it away?”
Known as El Turco (“the Turk”), to his Syrian immigrant parents, Menem was born in 1930 in the small mountain town of Anillaco, where he built a special runway for the presidential plane. Although his parents are Muslims, Menem converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult.
President Alberto Fernández, whose political career began under Menem, wrote on Twitter: “With deep regret, I learned of the death of Carlos Saúl Menem. Always elected in democracy, he was governor of La Rioja, president of the nation and national senator. During the dictatorship, he was persecuted and imprisoned. All my affection goes to [Menem’s widow] Zulema, [his daughter] Zulemita and all those who mourn him.
Menem, who married twice, had four children, three of whom survive. Her eldest son Carlos died in a helicopter crash in 1995, which Menem blamed on Hezbollah.
Many other politicians have taken to Twitter to commemorate the former president, who died of a urinary tract infection. They underlined his reformist will, his natural leadership qualities and his ability to dialogue and unite the country – contrasting with the deep political divisions that exist today.
The government declared three days of national mourning on Sunday.