In the last month of the late Carlos Menem’s presidency (also the last month of the century and indeed millennium), I published the following poem in the Buenos Aires Herald’s monthly magazine which still today, over 21 years later, conveys my feelings about the departing (and now departed) chief as well as anything:
THE LOVE SONG OF C. SAUL MENEM
Out of night I entered, the tiger of the plains,
To carve my place in history by clawing greenback gains.
Out of night I entered like an Eastern potentate
To swell a massive ego and to gild your stunted fate.
Let me tell my story with nothing to confess,
Here lies the purest truth of me; the lies are in the press.
Oh let them scream and huddle, those vultures on my grime,
I never heard of any state that never heard of crime.
I was their cause and action, I gave them all their news,
I sized them up for impact, then threw them to my Jews.
I’m mover and I’m motion, too big to have a soul,
Beyond all good or evil or any self-control.
Wake up, Argentina! This century is through
And the carrion’s out to get me, and all I tried to do.
Lest you have forgotten (and this country does forget),
I’ll sum it all up for you, to fit a serviette.
I found my new Damascus with convertibility,
Quick cash from state assets for a consumer spree.
A little man with little men, I faced the men in green,
And put them out for the count of 10, then went to see the Queen.
Reared in rural riches, I faced the collars blue,
And the poorer that I made them, the more I found them true.
My century is over before the Millennium jamboree
But I’ll be catching up with you in two thousand and three.
Wreathed in flowers of plastic, your century goes down,
Not with the bang of Armageddon but the whimper of a clown.”
Two decades later I would hardly change a word but the poem does need more footnotes. “Tiger of the plains” was the self-description of the La Rioja caudillo Facundo Quiroga (assassinated 1835), on whom Menem patterned his hirsute pre-convertibility look. “My Jews” refers to Interior Minister Carlos Corach and presidential chief-of-staff Alberto Kohan, both key spin doctors – there were quite rightly objections to this line at more than one level in the Herald but it survived on the argument that making the politically incorrect use politically correct language sacrifices authenticity. Talking of Corach, “to fit a serviette” refers to the list of subservient judges he allegedly scrawled on a restaurant napkin for the benefit of his Economy colleague Domingo Cavallo. “Damascus” is obviously a dig at Menem’s Syrian origins. “Men in green” are the military whom Menem returned to their barracks, not only by ending the 1987-1990 wave of Army mutinies with his controversial pardons but also by abolishing conscription in 1995. Finally, in 1998 Menem did pay a cosy visit to Queen Elizabeth II, who now survives him.
Mercifully this column does not need to run through a long life since all that “born in 1930, governor in 1973, president in 1989” etc. stuff is elsewhere in this newspaper. Instead I would like to dwell selectively on purely personal memories and perceptions, especially where differing from conventional wisdom – even if this approach makes me a devil’s advocate more than once.
First topic, Menem’s relations with the press. On this front (as others) Menem is often equated with the Kirchners and it was certainly a hostile relationship once the dirt started being dug up (nor does the poem above suggest otherwise) – one survey even identified the Herald’s editorials as the most pro-Menem because only 68 percent were critical. But while I would not question the negative experience of other journalists – such as the nasty backlash suffered by my Noticias colleagues when they broke the secret of his Formosa offspring, Carlos Nair Menem – my own was entirely different. I actually interviewed Menem with then Co-Editor Nicholas Tozer almost three decades ago now and the encounter was so cordial that he invited us to join him in a goat barbecue the same evening – I refused the invitation because I only had that night to write up the interview for our anniversary supplement. Yet beyond this personal experience, I would not equate him with the Kirchners because I saw him as merely despising the press more than anything else – in general he shared the attitude of Frederick the Great: “They can say what they like as long as I do what I like.”
One crime striking at the heart of the press world was the case of journalist and UTPBA trade unionist Mario Bonino, who went missing before being found murdered by the Riachuelo in the spring of 1993 with Menem immediately blamed. The Herald put its top investigative reporter (they still existed then) on such a hot case and his findings pointed in the direction of Bonino also being a minor drug dealer who in all probability ran afoul of his ring and was given the concrete socks treatment. But we could not possibly publish anything like that about a press martyr without absolute proof and so a press martyr he remained.
But Menem was far more widely tagged with impunity for the terrorist bombings of the Israeli Embassy (1992) and the AMIA Jewish community centre (1994), our second topic. Without space for fuller treatment, I’d just like to insert two things here. Firstly, this week’s obituaries are often repeating the widespread misconception that these attacks were payback for Menem’s Gulf War participation. If Iran was responsible (as I for one believe), this simplistic logic betraying ignorance of the Middle East makes no sense – just before the Gulf War Iran had fought a long war (1981-1988) with Iraq costing the Islamic Republic over a million dead, so why on earth should they be angry with anybody for taking on Saddam Hussein? Secondly, however flawed the investigation, I refuse to see Menem as directly responsible for these atrocities – “carnal relations” with the United States were so dear to his heart but after 1992 he could never go there (especially to New York with its huge Jewish community every September for the United Nations General Assembly) without being badgered over this issue, a problem he would never have incurred gratuitously.
As for the gun-running to Croatia and Ecuador (ostensibly Panama and Venezuela), our third topic, my take is different. In the case of Croatia, I see Menem’s role as purely passive – following Irangate, the Republican White House wanted to stand up to Slobodan Milosevic in 1991 without flouting international conventions and went looking for proxies to arm Croatia, with Menem only too willing to step up. The arms to Ecuador in its brief 1995 war with Peru were copycat opportunism at a lower level. The most serious charge against Menem here is not the gun-running as such but that 1995 Río Tercero munitions plant blast.
As for the death of his son Carlos just two months before his 1995 re-election, I do not subscribe to the murder theories – the kid was notoriously an accident-prone speed freak in all probability buzzing his bodyguards or somebody when his helicopter hit high-tension cables. The bullet-holes found in the 1997 Border Guard investigation were not there in the Bell Helicopters internal probe immediately afterwards.
With space rapidly running out, I’d finally like to challenge the perception that convertibility destroyed the Argentine economy. At its best it bestowed on the economy various benefits rarely or never seen in the last century such as high growth, modern infrastructure, strong productivity gains (albeit at the price of doubling unemployment) and mortgages to name a few – at its worst nothing either before or since has been substantially better. What Menem did destroy was Argentina’s social fabric as a middle-class country, something eminently suiting his electoral machine as an alliance of the country’s richest and poorest classes.
And lest anything above makes any reader see me as a Menem fan, just go back to the start and reread the poem.