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Money changes everything: Argentines, feeling beaten, turn to exactly the wrong man--Carlos Menem. (Trade Talk).

Latin American political history is full of sinverguenzas--literally, the shameless. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet infamously demanded that his victims' families pay for the bullets used to kill their loved ones. Former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman channeled to himself nearly US$100 million in public money for vacations in Egypt and Bali, jewelry, car pets and perfumes.

Few, however, approach the audacity of Argentina's Carlos Menem, who after 10 years as president left his nation's economy in ruins and stepped down under suspicion of record-breaking illegal enrichment, as well as allegations of running guns to two countries under arms embargoes. Despite this abysmal record, Menem is creeping out from seclusion to take another crack at the top job.

Menem's lack of scruples is easy to understand. What's much more puzzling is why any Argentine in his or her right mind would vote for Menem. According to early polls, not just Argentine but nearly 20% of the voters are inclined to do just that.

Shockingly too, 70% of Argentines say they expect to see Menem return to the Casa Rosada. Even if he doesn't win the April vote, what does it say about Argentina that a man like this still commands enough respect to run for office?

At first blush, Menem's record is impressive: lie served for two terms from 1989 to 1999, enjoying an early bloom of international glory for beating back 5,000% annual inflation and ushering in historic growth. The economy didn't fall apart until his last six months in office, after a decade-long run.

During those years, voters were so grateful that they ignored his many excesses-a red Ferrari, a $66 million private jet, a messy divorce. They also ignored his crooked cronies, including family members involved in bribing foreign companies, selling tainted dairy products and money-laundering for drug dealers.

Menem busted unions; he sold off 90% of state-owned industries, some for less than they were worth; he stacked the Supreme Court with allies; and he tried to rein in a critical press by presenting Congress with a bill to raise libel penalties to up to six years in prison. He pardoned the brutal leaders of the former military junta, which killed as many as 30,000 people. Most recently, he spent six months under house arrest, accused of illegal weapons sales to Croatia and Ecuador, later freed in a controversial court decision.

Nevertheless, Argentina's stomach churning economic straits of late--record unemployment, a five-year recession and a peso worth approximately squat--are so severe that many seem deeply nostalgic for Menem-nomics. It comes down to a hefty measure of blind gratitude, says Buenos Aires political analyst Felipe Noguera. "He has a loyalty that you don't find with any other candidate because people remember that he did something for them," Noguera says.

Married to the mob. Part of Menem's political rebirth is his current wife, 1987's Miss Universe, Chilean Cecilia Bolocco, a 37-year-old sometime TV host whose own father is three years younger than the 72-year-old ex-president. Bolocco has played an active role in his campaign, charming voters and tacitly promising to step into the shoes of a political icon, Evita Peron. Reportedly, she is pregnant. Chileans are aghast.

Longing for the days of caudillismo is not unusual in Latin America. The late Hugo Banzer, a former military dictator, won Bolivia's presidency in 1997. Coup plotter Hugo Chavez is now president of Venezuela. Lino Oviedo, a former Paraguayan general suspected of arranging a hit on Paraguay's vice president in 1999, would likely win May's presidential election, if he were not barred because of a 1996 coup attempt.

Menem covets a comeback as the man who will rescue Argentina from chaos. He reminds voters at every turn that they lived better under his administration. He talks of dollarizing the economy and returning to the boom years of the early 1990s. But Argentines shouldn't send Menem back to the Casa Rosada. They should send him where he belongs--to jail.

For heaven's sake, who's next? Fujimori?

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Comment:Money changes everything: Argentines, feeling beaten, turn to exactly the wrong man--Carlos Menem. (Trade Talk).
Author:Epstein, Jack
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:669
Previous Article:Seed of change. (Trade Talk).
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