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ARGENTINA | 14-02-2021 13:57

Former president Carlos Menem passes away aged 90

Peronist leader, who led the nation for a decade between 1989 and 1999, passes away at a hospital in Buenos Aires.

Former president Carlos Menem, the Peronist leader who led the nation for a decade, died at a hospital in Buenos Aires on Sunday at the age of 90.

The ex-leader's death and sitting senator's was confirmed by the Télam state news agency and a host of other media outlets.

Menem had been hospitalised several times in recent months for various ailments and had been at the Los Arcos clinic in the capital for the last two months. On those occasions, Zulemita always accompanied him.

"I learned of the death of Carlos Saúl Menem with great regret. Always elected in a democracy, he was governor of La Rioja, president of the nation and national senator. During the dictatorship he was persecuted and imprisoned. All my love goes to [his first wife] Zulema, [his daughter] Zulemita and all those who mourn him today," President Alberto Fernández wrote in a post on Twitter.

Fernández declared three days of mourning in Argentina in honour of the late ex-president, whose body would be taken to the Casa Rosada, the presidency announced. 

Menem, who served as a national senator representing La Rioja since 2005, was still active in politics, serving as a national senator representing La Rioja since 2015. Back in December, his poor health had prevented him from being able to cast a ballot in the Senate vote regarding Argentina's new abortion law.

Ten years in office

Hailing from the province of La Rioja, Menem ruled Argentina for more than 10 consecutive years (1989-1999), the longest period of a democratic leader in modern-day Argentina.

"He had enormous charisma," Fernández recalled this Sunday in an interview with the C5N channel.

His name is synonymous with the "Argentine miracle," a period when his decision to fix the exchange rate of the peso to the US dollar brought economic stability and an end to hyperinflation. 

But this approach is widely considered to have led to the economic crisis of 2001, when debt stood at US$100 billion, the country defaulted on repayment, the currency's value plunged and unemployment skyrocketed.

By the end of Menem's second term, the public deficit stood at US$6 billion, unemployment was at 14 percent and poverty affected a third of the population. But things were to get worse.

"We did not know the neoliberal Menem then, because it was not the subject of his [electoral] campaign," Fernández recalled on Sunday. "And we must always recognise his courage and support for democracy. When the dictatorship came, he was imprisoned for years," she added.

Chile's conservative President Sebastián Piñera, also paid tribute to the late leader, describing Menem as a figure who "marked the 90s in Argentina and was a good friend of Chile."

"My solidarity with his family and the Argentine people and may God welcome his soul," added the Chilean billionaire in a post on Twitter.

Son of Syrian immigrants

Born in July 1930 into a family of Syrian immigrants, which earned him the nickname "The Turk," Menem prided himself on never having lost an election.

He cultivated a playboy image, drove a Ferrari, played golf and was a friend of the jet-set. Despised by the middle class for his flamboyance, the aficionado of luxury watches enjoyed both the admiration of the poor and the self-serving support of the wealthy.

Menem pushed and delivered constitutional reform in 1994, which introduced immediate presidential re-election, in addition to abolishing a requirement that Argentina's head of state profess their commitment to Catholicism.

He also controversially pardoned convicted human rights violators responsible for crimes against humanity committed during Argentina's brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship, including former Army officers and members of guerrilla organisations.

Menem's presidency was tarnished by multiple accusations of corruption and scandals. But while Menem was investigated in several cases, he never served jail time.

In 2001 he was ordered held in pre-trial detention at home for a case involving arms smuggling to Croatia and Ecuador, but he was freed weeks later under a Supreme Court ruling and ultimately cleared.

Menem was also tried for covering up the 1994 attack on the Argentine Mutual Israeli Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people, but again was acquitted.  

In 2018, he was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement, but his parliamentary immunity protected him from going to prison.

The ex-president married and divorced twice, initially with Zulema Yoma and latterly with former Chilean Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco.

Menem had three children from his two marriages. He fathered a fourth child, Carlos Nair, with a lover.

Menem's daughter, Zulemita, said the former president would be buried next to Carlos Menem Junior – who died in 1995 in a helicopter accident – in the Islamic Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

– TIMES/AFP

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