Carlos Menem, former president of Argentina, dies aged 90

Menem, who served as president from 1989 to 1999, had been hospitalised for pneumonia several times in recent months.

Argentina’s former President Carlos Menem has died at age 90 in Buenos Aires, the country’s Telam news agency and other media outlets reported on Sunday.

Menem, who served two terms as president from 1989 to 1999 during which he pursued an aggressive privatisation policy, had been hospitalised several times in recent months for pneumonia.

“It is with deep regret that I learned of the death of Carlos Saul Menem,” Argentina President Alberto Fernandez said on Twitter.

The son of Syrian immigrants in La Rioja province, 1,200km (750 miles) west of Buenos Aires, Menem became active in the Peronist party in the 1950s and 60s and visited party founder Juan Peron in exile in Spain in 1964.

He served as governor of La Rioja from 1973 to 1976 before being arrested following a 1976 military coup and imprisoned for five years.

As president, the charismatic leader quashed hyperinflation and won re-election after he privatised state enterprises in a significant transformation of Argentine institutions in the early 1990s. He also built strong ties to the United States and Britain.

“I don’t know if I’m going to get the country out of its economic problems, but I’m sure going to make a more fun country,” Menem once said.

His decision to fix the exchange rate of the peso at one US dollar led to the country’s worst economic crisis in 2001 and he left office under a cloud – charged with corruption and conducting illegal arms deals in the 1990s with Croatia and Ecuador. He was ultimately cleared of those charges.

“Once a hero, his popularity is now 20 percent, and voters can’t wait to be rid of him,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1999 on the eve of his departure from office.

Veteran journalist and television presenter Jorge Lanata told The Wall Street Journal that the phrase “pizza and champagne” was used to describe the “nouveau riche” that emerged during Menem’s presidency.

Carlos Menem stands in front of a giant poster of former President Juan Domingo Peron, as he waves to thousands of followers in River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires in 2003 [File: Rickey Rogers/Reuters]

His tenure “coincides with the peak of cocaine in Argentina, easy money and superficial success”, Lanata told the newspaper, “which we are still paying for.”

In an obituary on Sunday, The New York Times reported that while Menem “led a Peronist political movement when he ran for president … he turned out to be a neoliberal democrat, and something completely different”.

Failed to make return

Menem, who had three children from two marriages, had been a member of the country’s Senate since 2005 – but battled health problems for several years and his appearances in the Senate had become increasingly rare.

Menem had wanted to run for a third term as president but courts ruled he could not.

His elected successor was toppled by street protests, and the next leader dropped Menem’s currency peg as the country descended into a debt default and a deep 2001-02 recession that drove millions into poverty.

Despite the arms dealing and corruption charges, most of which were eventually thrown out, Menem received the most votes in the first round of 2003 presidential elections.

He withdrew from the second round when polls showed he would lose to Nestor Kirchner, a rival Peronist faction candidate, in a landslide.

In self-imposed exile in Santiago, Chile, Menem plotted his return to power.

“With the last breath I take I will remain in politics,” he told the Reuters news agency in a 2004 interview.

He eventually returned to Argentina when judges dropped arrest orders against him and he was elected to the Senate for his home province in 2005.

During his final years, he was investigated and charged over allegations he thwarted an investigation into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina. He was cleared of those charges in 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies