The Miami Herald
January 27, 2001

 Menem's new courtship romances Argentina

 Associated Press

 BUENOS AIRES -- The last time Argentines tuned in this intently to their favorite
 real-life soap opera, Carlos Menem had tossed his wife out of the presidential
 palace and dumped her bags on the sidewalk.

 Now a new season has opened, filled with passion and thrills.

 That Menem is 70 and no longer president hardly seems to matter. He has again
 nabbed the limelight with talk of marriage to a former Miss Universe half his age.

 One of Latin America's most flamboyant and successful leaders during the 1990s,
 Menem both fascinated and frustrated his countrymen as he blurred the line
 between the serious -- conquering inflation -- and the frivolous -- fast cars, curvy

 Life out of office left him struggling for oxygen; for some weeks he would chair
 shadow Cabinet meetings as if nothing had changed, while his supporters
 blanketed Buenos Aires with posters reading ``Menem, Come Back.''

 Yet nothing has lifted his profile like his very public affair with Chilean TV celebrity
 Cecilia Bolocco.

 For weeks, glossy photos of the ex-president and ex-beauty queen have been
 splashed across newspapers and magazines, feeding a voracious national
 appetite for gossip and prompting questions about a possible run for reelection.

 The elegant, bushy sideburned son of Syrian immigrants is everywhere: Here's
 Menem in Gente magazine, strolling around Patagonia in gaucho gear; and there
 he is in Caras magazine, partying in a black mariachi sombrero -- and never, it
 seems, without blond, brown-eyed Bolocco at his side.

 The latest word Friday in Gente was that a wedding is set for June. Menem's
 office wouldn't confirm or deny it.

 ``I always love the way he behaves,'' Bolocco said when the couple visited Las
 Vegas this month. ``He doesn't hide anything. He enjoys life, in spite of the fact
 that he's had a very hard life.''

 Menem raced cars and danced through a two-term presidency that transformed

 An accomplished diplomat, he reopened ties with Britain after the two countries
 had gone to war over the Falklands. He reinforced democracy by defusing the
 destabilizing grievances of the military. He inherited and tamed inflation as high
 as 200 percent a month, and brought on years of economic growth. His
 government calmed the volatile currency by boldly pegging it to the dollar.

 Meanwhile, Menem's steamy love life transfixed Argentina and led to a bitter
 divorce from his wife, Zulema Yoma, in 1991.

 By the time he stepped down in 1999, his charisma had faded amid corruption
 scandals that engulfed some of his top aides.

 Constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term, Menem was succeeded by
 Fernando de la Rúa, whose somber demeanor seemed to Argentines to be a
 much-needed break from Menem's flashiness. The new president won office on a
 pledge to be ``boring.''

 While Menem cavorts through the celebrity pages, De la Rúa is having a rotten
 time. Trade unions have fomented big strikes over his efforts to restart the
 slackened economy, and his vice president's resignation set off months of
 political crisis. He ended his first year having to turn to the International Monetary
 Fund for a multimillion-dollar bailout.

 Mariano Grondona, a political analyst, says that for the public, Menem's love life
 is a welcome distraction from economic news.

 ``When Menem came to power in 1989, Argentina was depressed, grappling with
 hyperinflation,'' Grondona told Gente magazine. ``But his good vibe triumphed.''

 Recession returned in 1998, and Argentines wanted a change, but ``now the
 apathy has returned, and the good feeling of Menem in love has a therapeutic
 effect,'' he said.

 Menem and the 35-year-old Bolocco have talked of marriage and kids, and polls
 indicate the relationship has paid political dividends. Menem's approval ratings
 edged up to 21 percent from 15 percent recently, compared with 29 percent for De
 la Rúa, according to poll-taker Ricardo Rouvier.

 ``I've had time to reinvigorate my personal life, which is now as lively and vigorous
 as you've always known me to be,'' Menem wrote recently in the daily La Nacion.