Carlos Sául Menem (born 1930) was the first Peronist president to come to power in Argentina after the overthrow of Isabel Perón by the military in 1976 and the first legally elected civilian president to succeed another civilian government since 1928. He was also one of the few to serve two terms in succession.
Born on July 2, 1930, Carlos Sául Menem was the son of Syrian immigrants who settled in the interior province of La Rioja, Argentina, and eventually built up a prosperous wine business. After receiving a degree in law in 1955, he practiced law in his native province and became a popular Peronist politician, heading the party's provincial council. He ran for office several times during the 1960s and in 1973 easily won the election for governor. However, his term was curtailed by the military's overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976, and he was arrested along with the other Peronist leaders. He spent the next five years in prison or in internal exile.
In the elections of 1983, which witnessed the triumph of Rául Alfonsín and the Radical Party, Menem was again elected governor of La Rioja province. He was reelected for a third term in 1987 and served until July 1989 when, as the result of his victory in the presidential election, he took over the presidency of Argentina. He would then win each election through 1996. The last was only allowed though constitutional reforms allowing him to run for re-election.
Menem had been one of the leaders of the Renovator, or social democratic wing, of the Peronist Party which emerged with a new national plan in 1985. He was above all, however, a pragmatic politician who, because of his political ambitions, had converted from the Sunni Muslim faith to Roman Catholicism, since in Argentina only Roman Catholics are constitutionally eligible to hold public office. He was, therefore, willing to compromise in his pursuit of the presidency. In the party's first ever presidential primary, held in mid-1988, he sought the support of various Peronist politicians, including a number of the old-line party bosses who were opposed by the Renovators. Promising to represent the workers and the neglected people of the interior, Menem won the primary in July, defeating his main rival and the front-running candidate, Antonio Cafiero, a long-time Peronist politician and governor of Buenos Aires province.
In the presidential campaign Menem promised a production revolution to solve Argentina's economic crisis. He also called for wage increases and jobs for the workers, as well as a corporatist social pact among business, labor, and the state on the economy. In the area of foreign policy he favored a five-year moratorium on Argentina's international debt and implied that he would attempt to regain militarily the British-ruled Malvinas (or Falkland) Islands. He did not, however, promise the armed forces the amnesty which they had been seeking for the violation of human rights in the so-called Dirty War under the military regime, in which thousands of Argentines were tortured, murdered, and/or disappeared—by varying estimates, anywhere from about 10,000 to 30,000 people.
The principal issue in the presidential campaign was the economic performance of the government of President Rául Alfonsín, which failed to provide continued economic stability or halt Argentina's rapidly accelerating inflation despite a series of anti-inflation austerity plans. Vying with the economy as a major issue was the personality of Menem, who cultivated a playboy image and was well known to enjoy racing sports cars, playing soccer, and spending time with glamorous show people.
Menem won a decisive victory in the election held on May 14, 1989, sweeping the Peronists back into power for the first time since 1976 when Isabel Perón was ousted by the military. Winning 47.3 percent of the vote, he clearly defeated his seven opponents, including Eduardo Angeloz, the candidate of the governing Radical Party, who ran second with 37 percent of the votes. Besides winning the presidency, the Peronists gained control of both houses of Congress and most of the provincial legislatures. The election, which left the Radical Party the strongest party in the opposition, was the first time since 1928 in which one democratically elected civilian president succeeded another.
According to the constitution Alfonsín was to hand over the presidency to Menem on December 1, 1989, six months after the election. But public confidence in Alfonsín had sunk to such a low level, primarily because of the failure of his economic plan, he finally decided to give in to the general demand he depart early in order to give Menem a head start with his program to restore Argentina's economy. On July 8, 1989, some five months ahead of schedule, Alfonsín turned over the presidency to Menem.
The Peronist victory occurred at the time when Argentina was facing one of its most serious economic crises. Economically, the primary task of the new Menem government was to solve the problem of Argentina's hyperinflation, which was running at an annual rate of 6000 percent and devastating the economy. In conjunction with his plan of economic restructuring, Menem initiated a program to trim payrolls of the public sector, eliminate government subsidies for the private sector, privatize a number of state-run companies, and increase tax revenues. Although his austerity measures faced substantial resistance from the opposition parties, the business community, and organized labor, by the early part of 1990 Argentina's rampant inflation had subsided considerably and there were signs that the economy was improving.
By pardoning a number of military officers found guilty of human rights violations in the 1970s and by supporting the military high command, Menem managed to ease civil-military relations, which had plagued the administration of Alfonsín. President Menem also exonerated the officers responsible for the Malvinas Islands war and the military personnel involved in the barracks revolts during the last two years of the Alfonsín regime. In addition to pardoning several military men awaiting trial for crimes during the dirty war, he pardoned some of the guerrilla leaders accused of leftist terrorist activities during the 1970s.
On the question of the Malvinas Islands, Menem temporarily put aside the issue of sovereignty and, in what amounted to a major foreign policy coup, renewed full diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Regarding the problem of Argentina's international debt, Menem was quick to visit the United States and the various European capitals in order to assure Argentina's creditors that his government was eager to negotiate a solution to Argentina's indebtedness. Menem suggested negotiating debt relief measures, including a grace period on interest payments to Argentina's creditors. To deal with the international drug traffic, Menem advocated a multilateral approach and created a drug secretariat which represented Argentina in various regional and international organizations. Favoring Latin American economic integration, in August 1989 the government of Menem signed a series of economic cooperation protocols with Argentina's traditional South American rival, Brazil.
But the violence continued. Two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, one on the Israeli embassy in 1992, a second on a Jewish centre in 1994, were not solved. The bombing of the embassy killed between 32 and 40 people, and at least 86 died in the community-centre bombing. Yet, though alleged accomplices were arrested, no one was charged or even credibly named as directly responsible for the bombings.
This was just one of many examples of mishandled Argentine criminal investigations. In July 1996, Menem tried to help the situation by firing his justice minister, who was revealed to have belonged, as a youth, to a Nazileaning group. Menem made fresh efforts to track down known ex-Nazis and stolen Jewish assets, but with little success.
Menem was married to Zulema Fatima Yoma, who was highly visible throughout the presidential campaigns. Menem's brother Eduardo was a senator and one of his chief advisers, while another brother, Munir, was ambassador to Syria.
Further Reading on Carlos Sául Menem
For autobiographical information and a summary of Menem's ideas see in Spanish his Menem (1986); Yo Carlos Menem (1989); Renovacíon a fondo (1986); and Argentina, ahoca o nunca (1988). Additional information on Menem and the program of the Renovators is provided in Alfredo Leuco and José Antonio Díaz, El heredor del Peron (1989), and Antonio Francisco Cafiero, Hablan los renovadores (1986). For an excellent discussion of the Peronist movement since the fall of Isabel Perón in 1976 see Donald C. Hodges, in English, Argentina 1943-1987; The National Revolution and Resistance. Revised and Enlarged Edition (1988). See also the Economist, (April 26, 1997) and Los Angeles Times, (October 25, 1996).