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
Argentina was once a relatively wealthy, middle-class country in a continent
plagued by poverty. Now it has fallen into poverty and recession. Voters
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.