WORLD

A BAD-LUCK PRESIDENT

INFLATION AND MARITAL WOES TROUBLE MENEM ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF HIS INAUGURATION

HOLGER JENSEN July 9 1990
WORLD

A BAD-LUCK PRESIDENT

INFLATION AND MARITAL WOES TROUBLE MENEM ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF HIS INAUGURATION

HOLGER JENSEN July 9 1990

A BAD-LUCK PRESIDENT

WORLD

INFLATION AND MARITAL WOES TROUBLE MENEM ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF HIS INAUGURATION

When Carlos Menem swept to power in Argentina a year ago, he promised to revive the nation’s weak economy and provide political stability. Most Argentines welcomed his promise to control the country’s soaring inflation rate. But the national mood has soured since then, and even the sale last week of the inefficient state telephone company to private interests that promise to restore its effectiveness did little to improve the atmosphere. And President Menem will have little to celebrate on July 8, the first anniversary of his inauguration.

The flamboyant Menem scored an easy victory in the May, 1989, general election. But since then, his economic policies have alienated most members of the Peronist movement, the coalition of rightist and left-wing populist groups that brought him to power. He did manage to reduce inflation to less than six per cent from nearly 200 per cent in his first six months in office, but last month it had moved up to about 15 per cent. His wife of 24 years, Zulema, whom he evicted from the palace by presidential decree in mid-June, has joined opposition forces, accusing him of corruption. Now, the 60year-old president has acquired a reputation for bringing mufa, or bad luck, to almost everyone he meets.

That unsought reputation gained credence after tennis star Gabriela Sabatini was sidelined for three months when she twisted her ankle a day after playing with the president. Speedboat champion Daniel Scioli lost his right arm in an accident shortly after racing with the president. And to many Argentines, Menem’s presence at the opening round of the World Cup soccer á matches in Italy guaranteed a humiliating 1-0 defeat for z the defending Argentine ts

champions to lightly regarded Cameroon.

Buenos Aires newspapers are publishing box scores of the misfortunes blamed on their badluck president. So far, it is more of a joke than a liability, and the mufa label may vanish if he can control the spiralling cost of living. Public opinion polls indicate that Menem’s political fortunes are tied directly to the inflation rate:

when it drops, his popularity rises. Last November, after inflation reached its lowest level, the president received an 80-per-cent approval rating. In February, when the inflation rate jumped to 62 per cent, his approval rating dropped to 33 per cent. His rating is now hovering around 42 per cent.

When he was elected last year, many Argentines considered him to be almost a miracleworker. Bom of Syrian immigrants who arranged his marriage to Zulema, the president had a long history of marital disputes and

separations caused by a succession of affairs— but that was regarded as a strength rather than a weakness. In a country where divorce was legalized only three years ago, many Argentines find themselves trapped in loveless marriages and they tend to empathize with politicians who have similar problems. During the campaign, Menem captivated the voters with his love of fast cars and his liaisons with vedettes, the generic name for starlets of strip clubs and tango shows.

He also offered a refreshing change from the fiscal ineptitude of former president Raúl Alfonsín. A longtime Peronist and three-time governor of his native La Rioja province, Menem promised an “economic miracle” and, for a while, it looked as if he would deliver. He bullied business and labor into accepting wageprice restraints that dramatically lowered inflation. He endorsed ambitious plans to sell off such bloated, money-losing government enterprises as the telephone company. He also slashed so-called development subsidies to politically connected businesses.

Impressed by the progress, the International Monetary Fund granted Argentina a $1.7billion line of credit, and foreign banks resumed negotiations on restructuring some of the country’s $73-billion debt. In early June, Argentina made a token payment of $47 million on $7 billion in past-due interest. Government officials are now talking about trying to pay $350 million by the end of the year in an effort to regain access to financial markets that was lost when Alfonsin defaulted on debt payments two years ago.

Still, the economic outlook now is unpromis-

ing. The year-end increase in inflation forced the government to devalue the currency. The austral, worth 17 to the U.S. dollar a year ago, is now pegged at about 5,300 to the dollar. A Canadian dollar currently buys 4,500 australs. Menem’s wage restraints collapsed when the unions secured a 70-per-cent pay increase in April. And Peronist congressmen are beginning to sabotage some of their president’s free-market initiatives, delaying bills that would deregulate the economy and weaken the power of the unions. Party stalwarts also accuse Menem of forsaking his Peronist roots—namely, state control of the economy—which could jeopardize the rest of his pri| vatization plan. Next to go: £ the state-owned airline and y railways.

I Menem suffered a further § loss of stature when he ° moved out of his official residence on May 8, supposedly because Zulema was making life increasingly unbearable for him. Many Latins say that a philanderer may be respected, even admired, in maledominated Argentina, but one who is too frightened to go home is considered a weakling. Menem did, ultimately, move back into the presidential palace after a month of staying with friends. But that was only after the presidential decree removed his wife.

Menem’s 20-year-old son, Carlos, who now lives with his mother and 18-year-old sister in an apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, fuelled the controversy in an open letter to the president, which he distributed to newspapers late last week. “You were not man enough to ask us face-to-face to leave the presidential mansion,” he wrote, adding, “No, you ordered soldiers to throw us out like dogs.”

Those close to the first couple say that their discord results in part from Zulema Menem’s desire to be another Evita Perón, whose husband, Juan, founded the Peronist political movement (he died in 1974). Like Evita Perón, who became a political power in her own right, the current president’s wife wants a government post. But insiders say that Menem has steadfastly refused to provide a position. He, too, harbors a grand ambition: changing the constitution to enable him to seek a second sixyear term as president in 1995. But he will have to survive the first term to do that. And although the army has been docile in recent months, analysts recall that every Peronist government before Menem’s was overthrown in a military coup.

HOLGER JENSEN

CHRISTINA BONASEGNA KELLY