The Washington Post
Friday, April 25, 2003; Page A17

As Vote Nears, Menem Is the Issue

Recession-Racked Argentines Sharply Divided Over Ex-President's Legacy

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service

BUENOS AIRES, April 24 -- Pouring coffee at the downtown cafe where he works, Juan Schiavi took stock of Argentina's future and explained why he planned to
vote for Carlos Menem in this weekend's presidential election.

The 51-year-old waiter said he had no particular love for the former president, running once more in a five-way field this Sunday. "But everyone also knows that the
country did better when he was president. The economy was better. We all did better. It is that simple."

Less than a block away, at a curbside convenience store, Gaston Toledo tinkered with a temperamental computer printer and pondered his choice for president. "As
of now, I am not sure who I will vote for," said the 37-year-old clerk. "I only know that I will not vote for Menem. I would never vote for Menem. Why would
anyone give him a second opportunity to destroy this country? Voting for Menem is like voting for the devil."

As Argentines prepare for what could be the closest presidential election in the country's history, much of the attention is focused on the flamboyant Menem. He is
locked in a race with two other members of his Peronist Party, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa and Nestor Kirchner -- the choice of the caretaker president, Eduardo
Duhalde -- and opposition candidates Ricardo Lopez Murphy and Elisa Carrio. Polls indicate no candidate will get enough votes to avoid a runoff between the top
two finishers.

Argentina was once a relatively wealthy, middle-class country in a continent plagued by poverty. Now it has fallen into poverty and recession. Voters here are
searching for answers to the unprecedented economic free fall that followed the steep devaluation of the currency in December 2001. The election this weekend is
largely a referendum on the two five-year terms in office that Menem completed in 1999.

Menem is credited with an economic boom and social renaissance in the 1990s after years of military dictatorship and hyperinflation. But many also blame Menem,
72, for a free-spending government that led to the currency devaluation, followed by extensive unemployment.

"There are Argentines who will never forget what Menem did for this country," said Horatio Verbitsky, a journalist and author here. "And there are Argentines who
will never forgive what Menem did to this country."

With posters meant to reassure voters that "Menem knows how to do it," the former president has hardly shied away from his past despite a series of scandals,
corruption allegations and accumulation of foreign debt that tarnished his government. Menem privatized virtually all of Argentina's 300 state-owned services and
industries, tamed inflation and boosted the flow of foreign-made goods into the country by pegging the value of the peso to the U.S. dollar.

"What do you want?" he asked supporters at a rally here this week. "Do you want to live the way we are now, with a 61 percent poverty rate, or do you want to go
back to better times?"

Rodriguez Saa and Kirchner, like Menem, are members of the Peronist Party, which has dominated politics here since its founding by the late Juan Peron in the
1940s. Menem's polarizing politics and bitter rivalry with Duhalde have divided the party, splitting the vote in a deeply apathetic electorate. Duhalde assumed the
presidency more than a year ago after a series of violent demonstrations drove a succession of presidents from office.

Public opinion polls indicate that nearly half of all voters are undecided. Political analysts say that only Menem inspires any real passions, both positive and negative.
In a poll taken last week, Menem moved slightly ahead of his rivals for the first time, but none of the candidates has managed to muster more than about 20 percent
of the projected vote. A runoff on May 18 is all but certain.

With the campaign drawing to a close, Menem's rivals appear increasingly united in singling him out, saying his spending policies were the cause of the economic

Shortly after Menem left office, the government could no longer control the value of the peso against the dollar. The peso weakened, prices soared and jobs
disintegrated. More than half of the country's 37 million people now live on less than $2 a day; child mortality rates and malnutrition have increased.

Menem's rivals all pledge to revisit his decisions that privatized major industries, including oil production and railroads. Kirchner has even suggested that he would
re-nationalize some businesses.

At a rally last week, Kirchner ridiculed Menem's one-to-one dollarized economy. "When they speak about one by one, I answer: One by one our children left our
country. One by one we have been left with no jobs," he said.

Even Menem's harshest critics acknowledge that he outdistances the pack in charisma. Married to a former Chilean beauty queen half his age, the Ferrari-driving
Menem this week announced that he and his wife were expecting a child.

He was arrested two years ago on charges that he had illegally sold arms to Croatia and Ecuador, and has faced allegations that he accepted a $10 million bribe by
Iranian government officials to cover up any Iranian involvement in the 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish community center here that killed 86 people.

Menem has denied these charges. With Argentina's crime rate soaring, he has even campaigned as the law-and-order candidate, promising to crack down on
carjackers and the jobless demonstrators who shut down busy intersections here almost weekly.

At a news conference this week, where Menem appeared in an expensively tailored suit, with monogrammed shirt and cuff links, he traced the country's decline to
the day he left office because of a two-term limit.

His successors, he said, are accomplished only at blaming "Menem for everything."

As he likes to do, Menem compared himself to Peron, the populist authoritarian president who nationalized local industries and raised wages for public employees
before a military coup drove him into exile.

"It's been 31/2 years since we left the government," Menem said from his podium in a crowded ballroom, as women yelled his name and waved to get his attention.

"General Peron returned after 18 years. How we are shortening the time!" he said as the audience cheered loudly. "And how are we going to shorten the time to take
Argentina out of this dramatic crisis?"

Researcher Brian Byrnes contributed to this report.

                                               © 2003