Carlos Menem was Argentina’s first post-modern president, ideologically and intellectually liquid mixing everything up at once.
Even when referring to his worst political adversaries, he called them “my friend,” although afterwards he was implacable with them. He pardoned military commanders and guerrillas accused of crimes against humanity, Jorge Videla and Mario Firmenich.
Threatening to resolve the Malvinas issue by fire and blood, he ended up sending teddy bears to the islanders and proposed a “diplomatic umbrella” which led to alliance with Britain and NATO and “carnal relations” with the United States.
Menem transformed himself from being the nationalistic caudillo emulating Facundo Quiroga, with his side-whiskers and poncho, into the president who privatised everything Peronism had nationalised at one time.
He invented Peronist liberalism, whose origins historians trace to Perón’s second term, trying to give it a theoretical framework by calling it “social market economy.”
Yet, at the same time, no president intervened more heavily in the money markets, legally binding the peso and dollar exchange rates – this was named convertibility and lasted a decade. Nobody ever pulled the brakes harder on Argentina’s historic inflation, permitting (among other things) the appearance of the long-forgotten mortgages with long-term credits for housing purchases as in First World countries.
Just like Néstor Kirchner, Menem was president during years of “Chinese,” almost double-digit, growth.
But while triggering a shock of positive expectations, convertibility ended up destroying Argentina over the years as a competitive economy.
Domingo Cavallo was aware that his brainchild needed more flexibility but neither Menem (nor Fernando de la Rúa afterwards) nor society were so inclined and finally it blew up sky-high.
Menem was the emblem of Argentina’s eternal aspiration to be a First World cosmopolitan society. Thanks to an artificially flattened dollar, the middle class could travel all over the planet, protagonising the typical “Deme dos (“give me two”)” attitude of that consumer pandemic.
And, in the midst of those multimillion privatisations, he was an emblem of corruption. Some of his legislators and officials assembled slush funds for themselves and the Crown, enriching themselves. The media, as usually happens when governments are supported by the majority of society, took years to register the phenomenon of corrup- tion.
Noticias magazine and the Página/12 newspaper were among the few exceptions to pull the lid off that era of pizza and champagne.
After his term had ended, in the eyes of the media, the political world, society and business circles, Menem became the incarnation of evil. The demonisation of his figure was on a par with the beatification bestowed on him by everybody when he was at the height of his power.
Argentina’s conceptual grieta chasm is nothing new, generating those one-way outlooks which impo- verish life and political analysis.
Reality is as complex as the life and work of Carlos Menem. His death now should not make him greater than he was, as usually happens with post- mortem opinions, but it will perhaps help us to put things in their place.