Menem's new courtship romances Argentina
BY KEVIN GRAY
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
For weeks, glossy photos of the ex-president and ex-beauty queen
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:
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
office wouldn't confirm or deny it.
``I always love the way he behaves,'' Bolocco said when the couple
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
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
scandals that engulfed some of his top aides.
Constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term, Menem was
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
hyperinflation,'' Grondona told Gente magazine. ``But his good vibe triumphed.''
Recession returned in 1998, and Argentines wanted a change, but
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.