Former president Carlos Menem died last Sunday. He was 90. Menem, president between 1989-1999, dominated Argentine politics for a decade. And his death, for a moment, meant he was all over the news once more. Dead was the man who turned the Peronist party on its head and embraced neoliberal economic policies during his presidency, after running a campaign packed with populist rhetoric that included praise for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and not ruling out bloodshed to recover the British-ruled Malvinas Islands. Once in office, to his foes at least, Menem was Thatcherism with sideburns. Throw in some Ferraris and photo-ops with The Rolling Stones, clad in an egg-yolk coloured wide lapel suit, for good measure.
This columnist interviewed Menem in the 1990s thanks to the generosity of the late Andrew Graham-Yooll, who decided to take a young hack (then running the national news desk at the Buenos Aires Herald) along with him. Surprisingly enough there was no glitz at Government House that evening. Instead Menem granted the interview in his dimly-lit office. Only one sleepy official with a walkman sat behind him recording the conversation, swinging on the two back legs of his chair. There were some books on the president's desk, including two or three sugary romantic novels by an Argentine best-selling writer called Poldy Bird.
Menem took all questions, avoiding any real eye contact. His glassy glare seemed fixed on some far off horizon. Here was a man at ease with himself all the way down to his taste for tacky literature. Menem looked unfazed by the tremendous fuss he was kicking up. He also sounded pretty much convinced that he was performing an economic miracle. The atmosphere was – and this is not intended as derogatory – provincial. Menem might as well have been in his old office back in La Rioja, the scantly populated northern province he governed before winning the presidency against the odds (given the Peronist machine had initially thrown its weight behind another candidate in a primary). Maybe deep down inside Menem considered himself just a laidback maverick governor who made it big and was enjoying the ride without giving a flying thought for what the rest of the world might think.
By 1989 he was president of Argentina. But Menem’s previous stint as governor of La Rioja before the 1976 military coup had landed him in jail. Many years later, Menem lost his grip on the Peronist party when he refused to face Néstor Kirchner in the 2003 presidential run-off. But he knew the intricacies of Peronist party and provincial politics well enough until the very end. He died still holding a Senate seat representing La Rioja. He was laid to rest with full honours. Three days of national mourning were decreed.
Menem, a year into his mandate, famously pulled off an economic somersault by allowing sweeping economic reforms. But that’s only half the story. He somehow also pulled off the political feat in 1994 of convincing the opposition that a constitutional reform was required. Menem certainly needed it because the old constitution only allowed for a six-year presidential mandate with no re-election. The constitutional reform of 1994 now may sound like something reasonable and inevitable, but that's not what it was like at the time. Menem came up with an improbable reform in his head, which he desperately needed to seek re-election, and then hammered out a reasonable deal with former president Raul Alfonsín, his predecessor.
The constitutional reform was the ultimate ploy and it opened the door to many imaginative political moves from then on, initially mainly by the Peronists. Gradually finding ways of bending the rules turned into a game played by all Argentine politicos (like tapping celebrities as candidates, another Menem-inspired idea).
Fast forward to the present and the latest tussle is over growing speculation that the ruling Peronist coalition, with the pandemic still raging, is considering scrapping the PASO primaries scheduled for August, ahead of the midterm elections. The opposition is slowly starting to fume, saying that the primaries must take place in August. But back in 1994, the opposition also fumed that there was absolutely no chance of a constitutional change that would allow Menem to seek re-election. Arguably his successful reform bid, negotiated at the highest level with Alfonsín, triggered this obsession with the constant tweaking of the nation's political rules. The Peronist party in 2003, for instance, allowed three separate presidential candidates (Kirchner, Menem and Adolfo Rodriguez Saá) to run in the election. The PASO primaries were introduced only after 2009 when the Kirchnerite coalition then in power lost the midterm elections in its bastion, Buenos Aires Province, against Francisco de Narváez, a relatively unknown centre-right millionaire who splashed a fair share of his fortune on advertisements.
Menem’s other shock decisions were the presidential pardons he handed down in 1989 and 1990 to members of the military dictatorship and guerrilla leaders. Menem’s constitutional reform sounded like madness at first, but it turned out well mainly because all political parties had the chance to participate in an historic Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. The Constituent Assembly included the bigwigs, but also younger emerging politicians like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Elisa Carrió. Do those names ring a bell?
Menem’s pardons, on the other hand, were a miscalculation in the long run. He set the killers free with a stroke of a pen to appease the bubbling military rebellions that were constantly on the verge of boiling over. But the demonstrations against the pardons were massive at the time, even when much of the mainstream press tried to look the other way. The human rights organisations were not prepared to give up a fight that included seeking the prosecution of military officers who had kidnapped pregnant women and snatched babies. Menem said the pardons were signed for the sake of national unity. There was, he declared, no turning back. But the human rights groups, especially the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in the early years, were the main reason Argentina was a democracy again come 1983. By the time Menem decreed the pardons (effectively quashing the Junta trials conducted during Alfonsín's 1983-1989 presidency) these groups were institutions and a revered part of Argentine civil society. The groups outlived Menem’s decade in office.
After the economic meltdown of 2001 the pardons did not hold. There never was any popular support for them and with the economy in tatters there was little room for pretending that there was. Congress eventually revoked the due obedience laws during Néstor Kirchner’s 2003-2007 presidency and the pardons were declared unconstitutional.
Fast forward to the present again and presidential pardons are an issue once more. President Alberto Fernández is currently under pressure by Kirchnerite groups to pardon the Jujuy Province activist Milagro Sala. Calls have also been made for the pardon of former vice-president Amado Boudou, who is serving time for corruption. The Kirchnerite groups claim Sala and Boudou were framed by a court system working for powerful right-wing political sectors, especially during Mauricio Macri’s 2015-2019 presidency.