Smuggling charges 'a plot,' Menem says
Argentina's ex-president calls it political
BY KEVIN GRAY
BUENOS AIRES -- Former Argentine President Carlos Menem defended himself Saturday against charges he led an arms smuggling ring, and said months of house arrest have left him yearning for freedom and a return to politics.
A federal judge placed Menem under house arrest June 7 after accusing Argentina's flamboyant former leader of heading up a small group of former government officials who allegedly diverted weapons to Croatia and Ecuador.
The more than 6,500 tons of weapons had been officially destined for Panama and Venezuela.
``A president can't be controlling every port and airport where the arms could have gone,'' Menem said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, speaking from the suburban mansion where he is being held.
He called the charges politically motivated, dismissing them as ``an invention.''
``This is a political ploy,'' he said, adding ``this is just a plot to attack one of the most successful men in Argentina's history.''
The shipments of cannons and gunpowder, more than $100 million worth, wound up in Croatia in 1991 and Ecuador in 1995 despite international arms embargoes.
If convicted, Menem could face five to 10 years in prison.
For nearly three months, Menem has been sequestered in a lavish mansion on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Allowed only a handful of visitors, Menem said he spends his days reading biographies of former world figures like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Also on his list were books on Aristotle and Plato.
With Argentina wilting under a burdensome debt crisis, Menem suggested he could have headed off the worst of rocky times with strong financial steps.
The 71-year-old former president insisted that Argentina's sluggish economy -- now wallowing in a three-year recession -- is mostly the result of misguided policies by his successor, President Fernando de la Rúa.
He repeated his opinion that Argentina should simply adopt the dollar as its currency.
``For Argentina, the solution to lower interest rates is dollarization,''
he said. ``We don't need emergency bailouts,'' he said, referring to moves
by the International
Monetary Fund in recent months to help stabilize the economy with multi-billion-dollar aid packages.
Asked about his own ambitions, Menem said the confinement has
not dampened his yearnings to run again in 2003. Unabashed about wanting
to be president a third
time, he said, ``of course I want to be a candidate.'' He brushed off polls showing his popularity ratings as low as 11 percent after his decade as president, saying ``those surveys are questionable.''