Choose your own Menem. The political prisoner of the dictatorship. La Rioja’s favourite son as governor and then senator following his presidency. He of the Facundo Quiroga side-whiskers, the hair transplant and the “wasp sting” (as he explained his plastic surgery). The photos with international artists. The “mine, mine, mine” Ferrari. The love affairs while hobnobbing with the jetset. His takeover of the news programme with the highest ratings.
It could take hours to describe the surface level while adding anecdotes, but we need to focus on what Carlos Menem did to the national structures deep down, turning them upside down, and obviously on the effects.
Like a good Peronist, he knew how to adapt to his times. And those times in the 1990s were neo-conservative, exacerbated here by Raúl Alfonsín’s economic debacle. So, although reaching power with promises of massive wage hikes and a productive revolution, after a while (following his own bout of hyperinflation) Menem embraced Domingo Cavallo, convertibility and privatisations. That model with no social safety net sent the poverty indices shooting up as never before. But the party of one dollar for every peso, the eternal aspiration to First World status and the improvement in public services once leased out had its own dynamics.
That strategy formed part of alignment with the United States, restoring relations with Britain and acceptance as a major non-NATO ally, including sending troops to the Persian Gulf without evaluating the reprisals such as the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish community centre.
Those terrorist deeds showed up one of Menem’s darkest colours – his disdain for justice, to which we might add assembling a disgraceful Supreme Court in his own image. Or the pardons for military genocides and former guerrilla chieftains.
To that legacy of injustice might be added its first cousin – corruption. As from Menem, public officials who got rich on the job began to be the rule rather than the exception. Shielded, of course, by an inefficient or directly venal judiciary.
Like everything else, not everything is dark. Menem modernised basic services and infrastructure which were rusting. And he definitely put an end to a stigma which today might seem far back in time but wasn’t then – military power.
The lights and shadows were always coloured by Menem with the same amoral brush. He did things and moved forward without caring how or why. He could sell weapons to other countries illegally and then blow up a munitions plant to destroy evidence, for example. Anything goes, carried to the limit.
The chain of historical processes is formed by various links with each one explaining the other. To understand Menemismo is also to understand Kirchnerismo, which is an abbreviated and partial mutation of those 1990s festivities. Just as Menem did not hesitate in transforming himself into functional for the Ks in order to have political and judicial peace and quiet.
A real amoral fix-it man.