Vanity Fair — November 1997
Carlos Saúl Menem looks like an aging lounge lizard from a nightclub in the provinces. He is tiny and dark with a high forehead, watery eyes, a major nose, a protruding lower lip, and strange skunk-striped sideburns.But, as his wife well knows, women adore all five feet four virile inches of him. His reputation as a night crawler makes Gary Hart look like the pope.
Menem is not a habitué of some remote tango bar, of course. He is the president of Argentina, and he is at the moment engaged in the greatest campaign of seduction in his life. Menem has to convince his despairing countrymen that if they do what he says, their once rich but now economically hemorrhaging land can be rescued from the brink of the abyss. And as with all seductions, this requires a certain bravado. So for several months now, ever since he assumed office this summer, Menem has engaged all Argentina in a calculated game of Quien es mas macho? — Who is the machoest in the land? He has taken to the soccer field, playing respectably for ninety televised minutes with the Argentinean national team. He even scored thirteen points in an all-star charity basketball game. He played tennis with Gabriela Sabatini.
Thus it is not strange to find the fifty-nine-year-old president (his official bio claims he’s fifty-four) in full test-pilot regalia one chilly morning in the military sector of the Buenos Aires airport, his little feet encased in brown combat boots, a white crash helmet cradled in his arm. It is Air Force Day, and five TV crews and a dozen more reporters and still photographers are waiting to greet him as he walks toward the Pampa, a spiffy black-and-red jet. What a conversation opener the new Argentinean ambassador to the U.S. will have when he goes to the Pentagon to try to sell the Pampa as a replacement for America’s deteriorating fleet of trainer jets! He can say to those rich gringo military procurers that el presidente himself, his black collar-length hair protruding from under his helmet, piloted the plane, making a perfect landing forty minutes later.
Waiting to greet their elated leader as he scrambles down from his cockpit bubble on the windswept runway are two improbable crimson-coated waiters, each balancing a tray, one with a champagne bottle, the other with glasses. Before making his toasts, Menem accepts a souvenir cap and sky-blue silk Red Baron scarf from the test pilot who sat behind him in the cockpit. He dashingly knots the scarf, the exact color of the Argentinean flag, and then with a flourish accepts his champagne from the head of the air force. A few minutes later, having changed into a blue business suit, the president, who is also, naturally, a Formula One racecar driver, gets behind the wheel of his red Renault, bodyguards in back, to plunge into the winner-take-all Buenos Aires traffic, an ambulance trailing behind.
“You know, it’s really the country that needs the ambulance,” cracks a bystander.
Since he took office last July 8 (an astrologer pointed out that the ninth, Argentinean Independence Day, was not propitious), Menem, the son of a Syrian merchant who immigrated to La Rioja, a poor province in the far northwestern end of the country, has been cast as the savior of Argentina. There is not a great deal in his past to suggest he can fulfill this role, though he, himself cultivates it by adopting as his administration’s theme Christ’s words to Lazarus: “Get up and walk!” Advice even his most enthusiastic subjects are finding a little difficult to follow. In the last year, Argentina, which has always prided itself on being more European than Latin-American, experienced galloping inflation that had soared to nearly 200 percent the month Menem took office, and that has caused the once vast middle class to vanish in a twisted tango of capital flight and endemic corruption.
Menem, who had been governor of La Rioja since 1973 (with a hiatus of seven years, five of which he was jailed by the repressive right-wing generals who were running the country), won the presidency as an outsider, first defying his own party’s favorite in the primary and then rolling over the Radical Party opposition in May. He wasn’t even supposed to assume office until December, but after bloody food riots broke out in two cities, incumbent president Raúl Alfonsín threw in the towel.
So far Menem has taken the exhausted country by storm, practicing a “politics of surprise” and suggesting the unthinkable: rapprochement with Britain (relations with whom have been cut off since the 1982 Falkland Islands ‘War) and the possibility of a pardon not only for the imprisoned generals who caused thousands of citizens to “disappear” in the “dirty war” of the late seventies, but also for some of the jailed left-wing guerrillas they pursued. As a first step, Menem announced in September that he would pardon about twenty generals and admirals still facing trial or not yet sentenced.
Perhaps most stunning of all for someone who represents the party of Juan Perón — the party of the labor unions, which was founded on hatred of the rich and dedicated to maintaining insular, inefficient state-run enterprises — is Menem’s embrace of an economic plan espoused by a team from Argentina’s only multinational corporation, Bunge & Born, an ultra-capitalist conglomerate — a plan that, so far, using strict wage and price restraints, has lowered the inflation rate dramatically. The calls for the privatization of money-losing state-owned industries, and will have serious consequences for the heavily featherbedded unions that have dominated the country’s economic policies for the last forty years. Menem’s free-market approach also calls for a revolution in the Argentinean (non)work ethic. His aides call it Menemstroika.
Cerainly Menem is no longer a traditional Peronist, but he doesn’t fit in with the elite of Buenos Aires either. They seem astounded that this earthy primitive has landed in their midst, this turco (as Arab immigrants and their descendants are referred to) with his corny muttonchop whiskers and his messy and outrageous (even for them) sex life. A man with a history of contradictions and lies. The word used most frequently to describe him is insolito, “eccentric.”
Menem, however, is convinced of his destiny, and given that his stage is Argentina, he may be taking the only sensible approach. “He’s charming, absolutely charming,” says Maximo Gainza, the aristocratic right-wing publisher of the Buenos Aires daily La Prensa. “But I’ve never met a con man who wasn’t charming.”
“There is the most beautiful Sargent right over the mantelpiece. It is such a pity that you cannot see it.” All is dark inside one of Buenos Aires’s great mansions, which has been converted into a museum of decorative arts. My guide is a reigning Buenos Aires beauty from the forties who used to dance in the elaborate three story-high ballroom seen now only in the dimmest of shadow. One can barely make out an intricate parquet floor and enclosed overhead balconies, a Hollywood set for a Napoleonic masquerade. The three attendants with holes in their cashmere sweaters deeply apologize to the elegant senora who has offered to show me the Barrio Norte, the exclusive residential part of this city, with its once manicured parks and chic shops that still prompt the comparison of Buenos Aires to Paris.
Not so much anymore, of course.
Because of energy shortages caused, everyone says, by the failure of the government to maintain the equipment in the hydroelectric plants supplying the capital, vast sections of the city have been without electricity for three to five hours a day — the newspapers published a box detailing when and where. Television used to go on in the early morning; now it doesn’t broadcast steadily until six P.M. There is no change to be had. Foreigners and the rich who live off hidden dollars (it is estimated that Argentineans have $46 billion in foreign banks) can only obtain bills of 50,000 australes. In September there were 560 australes to the dollar; two years ago there were fewer than 10.
“We used to have such wonderful parties here,” my guide reminisces. “Everything was imported. The architect for this house was French. In those days when families traveled to Europe by boat they would bring their own cow along for milk. Oh, they’d be gone for months at a time — six months here, six months there.” “And the wealth was from cattle?” I ask. “Always from cattle,” she replies.
Today, when Menem has to juggle the demands of a restless military — the Sword of Damocles hanging over any democratically elected civilian president — an unproductive and intransigent labor force, entrepreneurs not used to competition but merely living off sweetheart deals with the government, one can only imagine how very rich Argentina once was, with its thousands of acres of fertile pampa yielding wheat and cattle, its Andean mineral resources and Patagonian oil.
“Oh, God,” goes a Chilean joke. “It’s not fair. We have nothing — no resources, no agricultural land. The Argentineans have everything, all those resources, oil, and millions of acres of the richest soil. It’s not fair, God.” Then God answers, “Ah, but I also gave Argentina the Argentineans. “
In 1934, Argentina had a G.N.P. greater than that of Canada. In 1946, when Juan Peron, who was a great admirer of Mussolini’s, staged his revolution of the descamisados (the shirtless ones), displacing the colonial oligarchy with demanding urban proles eager to gobble up his demagogic nationalistic appeal, there was so much gold bullion stacked inside the national bank that Peron could not make his way down the corridors. Then, instead of the rich, the poor — made bold by the exhortations of their patron saint, Evita — could begin the pillage. It was the turn of rapacious union leaders, petty bureaucrats, and the fascists who ran the enterprises of the Peronist corporate state.
Today the country lies in virtual ruin, like a great ravaged beauty who never bothered to care for herself. Yet even today there are 50 million head of cattle in Argentina and an official literacy rate of 94 percent. But the government also estimates that nine million people live at the poverty level (thirty dollars a month) and that many go hungry. The external debt alone is $60 billion. Tax evasion is a way of life. Due to a scam at the federal mint, 40 percent of all the currency in the country is probably counterfeit. The system of government rots from within, and the result is paralysis and cynicism, plus an almost childlike hope among both rich and poor that somehow Carlos Saul Menem will save them.
One night, for example, I visit the studio of a popular TV talk show, Tiempo Nuevo, hosted by the powerful and controversial Bernardo Neustadt, who looks like a shrewd Humpty-Dumpty. His guest is a young investigative journalist, a Wharton grad, Patricia Gomez Aguirre, who catalogues the excesses of the National Congress: 15,000 staff people for 254 deputies and forty-eight senators; 2,000 of these 15,000 fail to show up for work at all. Important committees almost never meet, and if they do almost no one attends. The next day, a leader of the Radical Party, which holds the majority in the chamber until the end of the year, when Menem’s elected deputies will take over, threatens Neustadt with jail for “a pile of felonies,” unspecified of course.
Neustadt is delighted. “This sort of investigation is totally new for Argentina,” he says from his modern apartment overlooking the railroad yards next to the river. “This is a decaying society in which the middle class has disappeared — it was once very strong. We have no quality of life anymore; we have a bad education system, terrible universities; the people work little and badly — they speculate more [in currency] than they work. Look out this window — these trains lose almost $2 million a day. Everything is gratis here — the railroad workers ride for free, the light workers don’t pay for lights, the water workers don’t pay for their water. Somebody has to pay. [Menem has recently raised the cost of gas and electricity.] Sometimes foreigners look at this city and say, ‘It can’t be, what you say. This city is splendid.’ But it’s not true. Three million in this country live very well — the others, no.” And Menem? “He’s a miracle. It’s absolutely incomprehensible what’s happened. He came in alone, owing no one. He’s put in a right-wing free-market economic plan. The anti-Peronists love him! Everybody says I am a Menemist now, but I didn’t vote for him. I haven’t changed. It’s he who changed.”
Politically, yes, Menem seems to have changed. Personally, it’s another story.
According to all of Buenos Aires, the First Lady is depressed. For the moment, Zulema Fatima Yoma de Menem is receiving no one. Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, the vivacious billionairess “cement queen” who serves as Menem’s ambassador-at-large, explains that the president’s wife “is depressed first about her biopsy and then about her son. Two depressions at the same time are too much.” The biopsy — for breast cancer, it is said — took three hours, according to Fortabat. On top of that, her son, Carlitos, twenty-one, was injured in a motorcycle accident, and his mother was leaving any day to accompany him to the Mayo Clinic, where a nerve in his leg would be operated on.
She is undoubtedly depressed also about her husband. All of Buenos Aires knows that Menem and his fifty-year-old bottle-blonde wife have a beyond-soap-opera marriage that has included two major separations and many public, mutual recriminations. It is said that they aren’t even living together in the president’s official residence, Olivos. Menem denies this, but the very night his wife left for the U.S. he showed up at my hotel in a flurry of security to claim his regular suite. “We attend him well here,” a waiter said with a wink.
According to those who know her, Zulema is domineering, tempestuous, ambitious — a storm cloud waiting to burst. One report places her and Menem at dinner with another couple in a Buenos Aires restaurant shortly before the election. At around eleven P.M. a white Volvo pulls up with a luscious blonde at the wheel. The blonde gets out and beckons Menem. Without much adieu he follows her into the night. Infuriated, Zulema says she is sick of his “exhibitionism” and vows that someday she will put a knife in his back. Is that story merely gossip? Most people found it plausible. And it’s certainly true that she would not go, nor even let the children go, to their father’s birthday celebration in La Rioja a few days before his inauguration. “I had a Lear waiting,” says Fortabat, “but she would not allow them to leave.”
Everyone in their hometown of La Rioja, where her family did well selling textiles and remained firmly Muslim while his family had the children baptized Catholic, is convinced Menem had to pay Zulema a million dollars to come back to him during his second campaign for governor. She denied that, but shows off the sapphire-and-diamond pin he gave her to commemorate their latest reconciliation — just in time for the presidential campaign.
Interestingly, the Argentinean Constitution has a special clause, Article 19, which stipulates that the private actions of people which do not cause hurt (to society, not necessarily to wives) are outside the law and to be judged by God alone. In Menem’s case, God intervened. A high-ranking Catholic clergyman let it be known that the Church would not look kindly on a candidate with an “irregular” relationship. Though formal separation proceedings had begun in 1987, Menem got the message. He even went to the trouble of personally demonstrating for the repeal of the Argentinean divorce law.
Menem and Zulema met in Damascus in 1964. Zulema’s father had returned to live out his last years in the land of his birth. Carlos had been taken to Syria by his strong-willed mother, who was determined to find a suitable wife for her lawyer son — not the divorced young mother, Ana Maria Lujan, with whom he was deeply in love. (Today, Lujan is the secretary for culture in La Rioja.) After a completely chaperoned whirlwind courtship of twenty days, Menem left for Spain. It took him two years to propose by mail, and then the couple was wed by proxy. Zulema’s father traveled with her to Argentina later to make sure they had a proper Muslim ceremony, which they did in October of 1966. Since then, it appears, Menem has said “I divorce you” about three thousand times.
Their son, Carlitos, was born in 1968. When he was about a year old, Zulema returned to Syria with him. Ana Maria Lujan seems still to have been in the picture. “He continued to see her many times with the help of my sister-in-law, the wife of his brother, Senator Eduardo Menem,” Zulema claimed in 1984. After her husband pleaded that she come back, she did; their daughter, Zulema Mana Eva (named for Eva Peron), was born in 1970. Zulema says she suffered three miscarriages during the early years of the marriage — “probably my marital insecurity had a lot to do with it.”
Now Zulema wants an official job at the ministry of social welfare, in imitation of the still-mystical Eva Peron. But Menem won’t let her. He doesn’t want her to be Evita II. “She is a woman of very strong character, very sweet, who is not very happy … She’s been told that she is going to work at the ministry but that because she is the wife of the president she doesn’t need a title,” says Amalia Fortabat. “He treats her officially much nicer than she treats him.”
No wonder. In the five years after his arrest by the military, Menem was sometimes only under house arrest, and according to Zulema he began living with the daughter of a lieutenant-colonel cellmate while she and the children were in the same small town. Later, Menem was transferred to a village near the Paraguayan border. He was reminded of that stay last year. At one of his campaign stops a provincial deputy representing his opponent turned out to be the mother of a son fathered by Menem during the last months of his house arrest. But nothing seems to mortify Menem. During his recent trip to the U.S., for example, the Today show brought up his reputation as a “playboy.” “Why should I change?” he countered. “Maybe I couldn’t be re-elected.”
When Zulema reconciled with Menem the first time, it was just days before his election as governor of La Rioja for his second term, in 1983. But their donnybrooks continued, occasionally spilling over into public fits, like the one during which Zulema threw an ashtray at an eighty-year-old official who had called her a “shit busy-body.” Meanwhile, Menem was linked to a number of actresses who passed through La Rioja and a number in Buenos Aires as well. “He is famous for denying no one,” a man in La Rioja told me. “He is always ready to be the conquistador. Actually, women like him for being macho like that.” The man’s wife nodded in agreement.
Zulema herself did not remain idle. Rumors swirled about her and the police chief of La Rioja, Hector Garcia Rey. Menem wanted the chief and his family off the premises of the governor’s residence, where they had been living in the guesthouse. Zulema took umbrage at this and gave the chief a room in the governor’s mansion to hold a press conference denouncing Menem for the “leftists” in his government. (Zulema held her own press conference under the covers in her bedroom.) Menem then said that if Garcia Rey wasn’t out by the following morning at nine A.M. he’d send the police in after him.
Zulema countered. Martha Mitchell-style, with the charge that “there is a conspiracy to declare me insane,” and that she was being asked to get out. She hotly denied the rumors about her and the police chief. “I swear it as a Muslim on my own Koran…. This is infamy … it is very easy to defame a woman.” The governor had his press secretary issue a denial that she was being asked to leave. She then went on the radio. “Even if it costs my husband the governorship, I’m going to keep talking.”
“Does she have emotional problems?” Menem was asked. “I am not a doctor,” he replied, “but I hope she gets better. She needs help, but more than I have done I cannot do, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Not long after, in a major Buenos Aires daily, Clarin, Zuleina’s personal physician issued a statement that his patient was in good health and “does not have psychological problems.”
But she didn’t stay out of the limelight long. Within a month, there Zulema was in another magazine, asserting that she would go back to her husband only “if he cleans up La Rioja’s government.” She would not accept “the lack of respect even if it costs me the position of First Lady.” But she was already figuring the odds. “If a marriage doesn’t work as a couple, perhaps it can work politically.” Yet as late as February 1988 Menem still considered the marriage off, telling a magazine, “The reason I do not remarry is that I’m trying to become president.” That prompted his children to take out a newspaper ad declaring that their parents did live together and that gossip about a separation was harming the family.
By the summer of 1988 it was more or less the best of times, the worst of times. In July, Zulema went to visit a famous Brazilian plastic surgeon. During a tummy tuck, she lost a lot of blood but refused a transfusion for fear of contracting AIDS; she remained very weak. The month before, she and Carlos had been sailing happily down the Lujan River. “Actually, Carlos and I were never separated,” Zulema declared. “If we had fights we weren’t different from other couples. We knew how to solve our problems and our differences. I think our problems were motivated by capricious circumstances.”
“People fantasize about hisabout his sexual capabilities,” write Jose Antonio Diaz and Alfredo Leuco in their indispensable biography of Menem, The Heir to Peron. “What matters is the image. No one cares if Menem really does sleep with [actresses]. It’s all a dream game. … Menem knows this and sometimes he hides the image — other times he flaunts it. The list never stops.” Another man who used to watch Menem pubcrawl through the cabarets of Buenos Aires says,”He’s insatiable. it’s a sexual sickness.” If it is, a lot of Argentineans apparently would like to catch it.
The governor’s mansion in the dusty little provincial capital of La Rioja, where temperatures often soar to 110 degrees, operated as if it were an apparition of of Garcia Marquez: late into the night an incredible circus of humanity entertained the governor and competed for his ear — at dinner there would be all manner of schemers and inventors, diplomats from exotic, obscure locales, women of indeterminate virtue. It drove his ambitious wife to distraction as she tried to be the gatekeeper — Zulema once complained that his major fault was that he was “too easily influenced.” Perhaps. But if so, then how much substance actually lurks behind that colorful facade?
“Nobody has real influence over Menem, proffers Julio Aiub Morales, political editor of the scrappy La Rioja daily, El Independiente. “He’ll listen to people, spend the night with them, and then do what his intuition tells him.” Menem, who came up through politics as a lawyer defending out-of-favor Peronsits, is impatient with protocol. “He’s the most intuitive man I’ve ever known,” says his top aide and alter ego, Alberto Kohan, a half-Jewish, half-Catholic agnostic who is currently the secretary-general of the presidency.
Kohan, forty-three, first met Menem in 1973, when he came to work in La Rioja as a young geologist. From the very beginning, he says, he believed that Menem wanted to be president and would be. Kohan is widely viewed as Menem’s fixer. He arranged Menem’s meeting with the pope in 1986, and Ted Kennedy’s visit to La Rio a the same year. He is said also to travel in the murky netherworld of Latin-American military-intelligence circles.
“He carries the black bag for Menem,” says one source. Kohan, who “operates with a lot of mirrors,” can charitably be seen as trying to ride herd on the more sinister military elements for Menem. Certainly Menem’s appointments to SIDE, the Argentinean domestic-intelligence agency, include people deeply implicated in the dirty war, the idea being that they are better “on the inside.”
Very little is straight-ahead in Argentinean politics, but what is clear is that in the last two years Menem, accompanied by Kohan and a small band of others, simply out-hustled the opposition. He barnstormed every forgotten little corner of the country, making ten complete trips around Argentina, which is roughly the size of India. Since the Radical Party government controlled the television stations and there was almost no TV coverage on Menem until very late in the primary, few of the movers and shakers in the capital had any idea of his popularity. Menem profited by not being taken seriously.
Ironically, and not without consequence, Alberto Kohan says he considers Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There as pertinent politically as Machiavelli’s The Prince. Kosinski’s hero, Chauncey Gardiner, a simpleton who wins national acclaim by spouting ridiculous platitudes, had nothing on Menem as he toured the countryside in his Menemmobile, making pronouncements about Argentina’s “greatness,” blessing the multitudes from a converted bus a la John Paul II in his Popemobile.
Even the Prince, however, might have been taken aback. First, Menem got caught sending good-luck telegrams to both sides in the Chilean plebiscite on General Pinochet. He lied about his age, of course, and late in the campaign he called for Argentina to win back the Falklands, even if it meant “the spillage of blood.” That statement was immediately retracted after another garbled denial that he’d ever said it. “It got so we’d wonder, What mistake will he make today?” says a journalist who covered the presidential campaign. Even after the election, Kohan took a sudden vacation out of the country when Menem announced that he would nationalize the banks. Menem’s brother Eduardo, the leader of the Senate, who is friendly with big business, reportedly went ballistic on that one.
Menem remains ever calm amid the turbulence. After all, he grew up hearing that at his birth the Virgin appeared to his mother. Menem’s parents were humble. His father, Saul, owned a general store in La Rioja and later went into the wine business. Both he and his wife, Mohibe, were Syrian immigrants who had come halfway around the world to settle in exactly the same kind of god-forsaken arid land they had left behind. Mohibe fell into a delirium minutes after
the birth of her firstborn. “Don”t you see her, Saul?” she reportedly babbled of the Virgin to her uncomprehending husband. “Look how pretty she is.”
Neither of Menem’s parents was particularly religious. They were lapsed Muslims, part of a great wave of Arab immigration to Argentina in the early part of the century. Although Menem’s parents never fully embraced Catholicism themselves, their children received the sacraments. The Koran, magic, and mysticism were all a part of the ether of their childhood as well. To his parents, “Carlitos” was like a little Dalai Lama-marked by miracle.
Carlitos was “a born politician,” according to his half-brother, Amado. “He could enter a strange house and feel completely at ease immediately. He was very easy to be friends with.” “He was always very attentive, especially to the girls,” recalls a high-school friend. The family was not political. It was only when Carlos went off to the University of Cordoba to study law at a time when Peronism was in full flower that he began to take an interest in a political career.
Menem won the governor’s seat in 1973 and quickly developed a flair for the dramatic. In 1974, for example, he made a trip across the Andes to Chile on a mule to demonstrate La Rioja’s need for a road to give it access to Chilean ports. In those days he was a fairly orthodox Peronist championing an insular corporate state. It was only after his years in jail, where some nights he could hear the screams of those being tortured, that Menem became a defender of democracy. When Raul Alfonsin was elected president in 1983, Menem formed part of the loyal opposition, quickly defending the primacy of constitutional government over the military whenever a crisis arose. Once he started running hard for the presidency himself, however, he began to hedge his bets somewhat. For example, after asking to be received by Jimmy Carter, whose administration did much to promote human rights, Menem canceled Carter three times in order to visit his old friend General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, hardly a champion of human rights but certainly in a position to contribute heavily to Menem’s campaign. After flirting with “privatization” and foreign investment, Menem reverted to a standard Peronist stump speech promising business as usual with higher wages.
Above all, Menem is a pragmatist. Says Amado, “He’s very open in his politics. He’s not ideological.” Another explanation is heard frequently in Buenos Aires. “He”s an Arab, don”t forget,” people say. “He has a very Oriental way of thinking.” And “He’s not an Arab of the mosque, he’s an Arab of the bazaar.” This Middle Eastern mysteriousness seems to serve Menem very well among his racially sensitive countrymen. They long for him to cast a spell so they can forget their terrible reality and go back to the old dream that Argentina is a rich country.
One afternoon I drive south for a half-hour through the bleak working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to see a shantytown with raw sewage running in the muddy street — a typical vista of any poor Latin-American barrio. The cabdriver offers to wait — it is understood for nothing; fares are scarce enough. In a dingy day-care center with a dozen filthy mattresses on the floor, more than seventy toddlers are being attended to while their parents work or look for work. The center exists on charity alone — there are no government programs to help it. For many, the lunch of rice and carrots is the only meal of the day. A short distance away two men are hauling a cart, coolie-style, picking up cardboard to sell. I encounter a woman in tattered clothes in the muddy path. She tells me she too likes Menem. “He has soft eyes. I like him very much. I view him as sincere.”
Ironically, there are many portenos, as the denizens of Buenos Aires are called, who refuse to believe such poverty exists — they certainly won’t go to see it — and it’s also hard for them to comprehend that their former way of life in the middle class is no longer extant. (“You cannot treat me like I am in a Third World country,” charges the forty-seven-year-old owner of a fleet of rental cars, who has seen his savings vanish and has not bought new clothes in three years. (Naturally, he wears only cashmere.) “My parents were immigrants, but they still could give me a car; I was able to travel abroad. You can’t tell me to go home now at five o’clock and turn out the lights and not watch television. I”m not some Bolivian who’ll obediently go back into my little hut. This is not Paraguay or even Peru. We are Argentineans!”
Indeed, the lines to see the Marc Chagall exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts on a weekend stretch for at least
five city blocks. The theater goes on — Noel Cowards Hay Fever plays alongside Social Security, though both “hits”‘ are able to fill only a few rows of seats. Directing and starring in Hay Fever is one of the country’s most distinguished actresses, the Uruguayan-born China Zorrilla. She has always been politically active — championing human rights and conspicuously supporting the Radical Party. But she too has been received by Menem in his first month in office. “I’m one of the Argentineans whom he’s buying little by little,” she confesses. At a large dinner they both attended, Menem summoned Zorrilla to his side. “He embraced me warmly and said, ‘We need you. I want everyone to be near us.’ I told him the line of Borges, when somebody asked, ‘Do you think we have the right to be hopeful?’ He answered, ‘No, we have the obligation to be hopeful.’ Menem loved that.”
The following Sunday, Zorrilla takes me to Patio Bullrich, a sparkling mall that rivals any U.S. galleria, where scores of
Sunday shoppers, far better dressed than one sees at home, crowd to drink their coffees in the central cafe, out of habit
perhaps, for the fashionable shops are nearly devoid of customers. “It’s as if I say to you I want to buy that telephone for a hundred dollars,” Zorrilla explains in a shop offering exquisite and inexpensive hand-embroidered baby clothes. “Then I come back two months later and they tell me, sorry, it now costs $3,500. That is the reality we have been living with.”
Et tu, Amalia? “There’s not one of us … everyone has to lower their standard of living — yes, even me,” sighs Amalia Fortabat, the richest woman in Argentina, perhaps South America, a woman who buys $7 million paintings and curiously
mixes them with Keane-like portraits of her grandchildren in her lavish Buenos Aires apartment. Fortabat rises from her chair in the chandeliered library, its hand-carved wood paneling acquired from San Simeon — “one of those times when Hearst was poor” — and goes over to switch off the lights. “Ah, but it”s too dark,” she says. The lights go back on
But why have things come to such a sorry pass? I ask. “We are a nation of immigrants,” Fortabat answers, “and there are many people who have made their fortunes who don’t feel they are Argentine. They don’t make any efforts to better the country, and they don’t have any sense of community.”
In lieu of jewels, both of Fortabat’s wrists are tied with bright-red ribbons — undoubtedly, she is about the biggest present Menem has ever received. Amalia Fortabat is his entree to the international rich and famous, the most influential hostess of his administration. But, most important, Fortabat is Menem’s personal link to Argentina’s ruling elite — who have never before in recent times gone out front to take responsibility for whether the country rises or falls, and certainly never for a Peronist. Fortabat, who freely admits she is one of “four or five upper-class Peronists, but of course now everyone is Peronist,” was recruited to the cause by Menem’s brother Eduardo.
With Fortabat, Menem organized a secret team of four rich industrialists to advise him before the election, even during the time he said nothing in public about his plans for the Argentinean economy, when everyone assumed he’d just throw the traditional freeloader Peronist program out there. “One could never believe that he had the four of us meeting with him; we never thought he would say, ‘Well, I must go to Bunge & Born now,'” says Fortabat. “Suddenly we were playing politics. We were not politicians, but we were playing politics. We had meetings with union leaders — I never felt anything so fantastic.”
What got Fortabat about Menem was the courtly “old Spanish way” he treated her, the widow with the billion-dollar fortune, an extraordinary woman who has continued paying the salaries of thousands of workers when there is no work for them to do. How did Menem get Amalia? Audaciously. He never asked for money.
“Finally, one day during the primary I said, ‘But, Carlos, I think maybe you will need some help. Can I give any help to you?’ And then his eyes became literally wet. ‘Please, between you and me, never a question of money. Talk with my brother, who admires you and is a very good friend of yours’ — but he never asked me.”
On Sunday evening I am summoned to the headquarters of the president, Casa Rosada (the Pink House), to wait for Menem. The entrance of Casa Rosada is impossibly ornate — the ostentatiousness of much of the Argentinean capital, in fact, is almost overwhelming. Here in the grand entry room the ceiling is of gilded-and-white-painted hexagons, supported by golden marble columns anchored in large black and white tiles. The entry is guarded by two wedding-cake soldiers, red plumes on their silver helmets.
Suddenly the familiar red Renault pulls up and the impeccably groomed little president alights on the burnished-gold carpet. He briskly walks to where I stand on a marble step, seizes my hand, and leans forward on tiptoe. I instinctively draw back. “Senora, Como and, bien?” asks Carlos Saul Menem. And then he disappears down a dark corridor.
“The president leaned up to kiss you,” admonishes the press secretary.”When you leave you will correct your mistake.”
Inside Menem’s outer office there are at least thirty people, including a chubby nine-year-old girl, an aide-de-camp dripping gold braid, a huge bodyguard, and a miniskirted blonde about forty, legs crossed, her brown Emba mink thrown on the back of her chair. She is smoking a bright-red cigarette in one hand and dangling expensive worry beads in the other. While sections of the capital may be without power for five hours a day, at least the president understands that ideology is no substitute for electricity. Two huge banks of spots have been set up inside his office, generating enough light to shoot a major motion picture.
A big 35-mm. Arriflex camera is mounted just outside the door. “Is there going to be a press conference?” I ask. “No,” I’m told. “Just a filming.” Menem’s office is outsize and lavish. The carved mahogany walls have areas of padded white leather encased in wood frames that are themselves embellished with jewel shapes. Three crystal chandeliers also blaze — the gilt is nearly blinding. By far the largest piece of furniture in the room is the glass-topped Cabinet table with its matching high-backed, overstuffed white leather chairs, which are embossed with the presidential seal — in gold, of course.
Galloping around the office, his shoulder-length hair flying, is Eduardo Scuderi, one of Argentina’s best-known directors of commercials. Waiting for the president, should the need arise, are a dozen shirts and ties to try on, four producers, each with a production assistant, functionaries, functionaries of functionaries — a crew of dozens milling around, not to mention the entourage. Fewer than ten are actually needed.
“What exactly is going on?” I ask Scuderi’s still photographer. “Oh, this is an insert of the president we’re shooting for a commercial about working.” How ironic. But, hey, even in the president’s very office, revolutions aren’t made in a day. So far the crowd has withstood two attempts to clear it out. The press secretary tells the blonde she can forget getting an interview tonight. She hikes up her skirt a little bit higher and stays.
Carlos Menem looks very small and very arabe behind the glass table, seemingly oblivious to all around him, pretending to read a sheaf of papers for a long shot. “Un et,” he says softly. Several people break into a dead run. Within seconds the waiters appear with hot tea. Finally Scuderi is ready for the close-up. He whispers in Menem’s ear and races back behind the camera. “Accion!” Scuderi yells. Menem leans forward. Everyone else in the room leans forward too. Will he speak? Apparently not. Now he moves, tugging on his immaculate shirt cuffs, then ever so slightly pushing his sleeves up. The gesture takes perhaps four seconds. “Excelente!” screams Scudefi. Then he makes Menem roll his shirt sleeves up seven more times. “Do the shirt sleeves faster, Presidente.” One can just imagine all of Argentina rising up and grabbing their work tools. About the fourth take in, Menem, who clearly enjoys this time in the limelight, begins to crack a little smile. Scuderi acts thrilled. “Excelente, eso es!”‘ Each take the smile gets a little broader and a little more studied. Now, in one magic moment, the shirt sleeves fly up and a smile positively bursts across Menem’s face. Scuderi is in ecstasy. The entire room breaks into applause.
The theatrics over, the press secretary makes one last attempt to extricate the blonde as I am ushered to a small reception room to wait for Menem so we can talk one-on-one. Given all I’ve heard about his warmth, his charisma and intuition — “He can know you completely in five minutes,” his brother Amado assured me — I am ready to be charmed. But Menem isn’t wasting a drop of charisma on me. Still in those shirt sleeves, he is unsmiling as we greet each other again, all business, certainly not the “very tender, very sweet, very calm” man Amalia Fortabat described. He paces back and forth to a corner of the room. “There are three essential steps to being successful” he tells me in Spanish. “One, the information. Two, the secrecy of the information. And three, the element of surprise. When you think the right moment has arrived, you put your plan out there and wait to see the reaction of the people. If you’ve done your homework the people will approve. But you must have the confidence to know the plan will be approved when you launch it in this unexpected way. I have always operated like that and here I am, president of Argentina.”
And so he is. A few days before, he stunned the country, not just because he proposed absolution for both sides in the dirty war of 1976-81, but because of the way he did it — pure Menem. At first, the form of forgiveness was unspecified. Menem told me it could range from outright amnesty, which, it turns out, only Congress could grant, to a suspension of sentences. (The generals do not wish to be pardoned, just released, because they argue they have done nothing wrong.) At the same time, Menem trotted out Jorge Born, a Bunge & Born heir kidnapped by the Montonero guerrillas in 1974. Born reputedly paid $60 million in ransom, yet he declared to the press he was willing to forgive everything. (The public, however, was not. A poll taken later showed that a large majority were against releasing or forgiving the guerrillas; Menem has since modified his stand.)
But that night, when I contrast his position on amnesty to that of the previous government, Menem grows testy, arguing that the last government also passed two laws to limit further trials and to absolve over a thousand of the military who claimed that they had merely been “following orders.”
“But aren’t you afraid, Presidente,” I ask, “to let those generals and guerrillas who committed brutal and cruel acts back out on the street, to take the risk of things like that happening again?”
“That won’t happen again,” Menem pronounces impatiently. “Argentina needs peace. Anyway, I don”t understand why the foreign press is so worried about those things which concern only the Argentinean people.”
“Because human rights are universal.”
Now Menem, who sat down briefly, jumps up and locks me with a cold stare. “Really, if they are universal they should be respected all over the world. I can bring up a lot of things which have happened in this world that occurred as a result of the interventionist politics of certain powers. Do you think that providing the contras in Nicaragua with armaments is respecting human rights? Let’s not talk about it anymore, O.K.?”
But he continues, his soft voice gathering steam. “In Uruguay and Brazil, where there was a similar situation to ours, amnesty has been granted. In Chile, because they are going to have to vote for a constitutional government, it will happen again. What’s. this rage about Argentina?
“We have public-opinion polls we took which show 90 percent of the population agree with the amnesty,” Menem declares of the situation many say is still a painful open wound in Argentinean society. “Only the left-wing parties and small minorities don’t.”‘ (A few weeks later 80,000 people marched in Buenos Aires to protest his plan, and polls were running very heavily against it.)
Yet Menem, who is said never to forget a name or a face, claims to understand exactly what the Argentinean people want. He has been out campaigning for years now.
“In my trips I realized the country yearned for drastic political change,” Menem says. “They wanted to finish with the corruption; they were tired of the inefficient and oversize government. … When someone storms the government like we did, it is because you are sure of being successful. . . . I think I’m doing what the country is clamoring for. The Radical government was abominably bad; they instituted a policy of confrontation — they went against the trade unions, the military, the business class, the Church. On the contrary, we are forming a government of national unity. Argentina has changed. We have established credibility. We will implement a drastic program that will make Argentina a worthwhile country to live in.” (Menem’s self-confidence reminds me of a Garcia Marquez joke: “The human ego is the little Argentine inside all of us.”)
“But, Presidente,” I say, “it is generally understood that to be a politician here is to have your own means of robbing the country. What are you going to do to change that?”
Menem accepts the premise, but counters, “It doesn’t mean that if in past governments they stole they are going to keep stealing.”‘
“But how?” I ask. “How do you change the mentality?”
Menem reverts to the quick fix, skewing his answer toward public relations. “We will send out constant messages saying what’s best for the country. These things require a lot of time, but it is the best way to govern, with examples, with concrete facts.”
I ask him how that meshes with what I heard in La Rioja, where another message altogether had been sent, because the president’s plane has landed there numerous times, “filled with friends of yours.”
Menem explodes. “Who said that?” he challenges. “The presidential plane went twice. I can’t believe it! I assume a Radical gave you that. Did you ask a Radical?”
A good source, the editor of El Independiente in La Rioja — on the record. “Was he lying?” I inquire.
“Of course he was lying.”
(After the interview I called Leandro Lopez Alcaraz, the editor, back. He confirmed the story and pointed out that his paper had written about it.)
As if on cue, the press secretary starts warning me about time. “Tell me, Senor Presidente,” I say, “if you were not a politician, what would you be?”
Menem’s whole demeanor suddenly changes. His shoulders relax and he smiles. “If I wasn’t a politician? A politician! I love politics. It is my passion. I’ve assumed it as my cause — I was born to work for my country.”
“I hear that many years ago an astrologer told you that you would be president. Is that right?”
“Many years ago I had the desire to be president and someone said that a man from the north of Argentina would govern the country — that happened thirty or forty years ago. It was more like a prophecy, and, well, I am from the north of Argentina and I am president of the Argentinean Republic. “
“You are so sure you will be a success, aren’t you?”
Menem gives a little laugh of dismissal. “I am totally convinced of it.”
A month later, after snagging a confidence-boosting $1.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund on his trip to the U.S., Menem declared, “in seventy days of government we have done more than forty years of anyone else.”
There is this hole. A vast, dry, empty dust-bowl hole stretching almost as far as the eye can see. It has cost millions, this hole, only a stone’s throw away from the Menem-family land about sixty miles outside La Rioja, in a place where rain does not fall nine months of the year. Into the unyielding earth the backhoes have been scooping and the bulldozers shoving dust for nearly five years now, in an attempt to transform this parched desert country into a garden spot for trout and tourism — it’s to become an expensive dam and lake fed from hidden springs in the mountains above, all for the benefit of the people who reside in the tiny Menem-family village of Anillaco, not to mention the president himself, who is having a new home built here.
This public-works project of the government of La Rioja Province, which was originally estimated at $2 million, has soared in cost over the years, inflation aside. But who’s counting? The contract for the “dam” has been conveniently let to Maciel Construction, the company that is building Menem’s new house. It is owned by Menem’s former secretary of public works, who also runs the local gas company and owns a major newspaper in the province. The hole is nowhere near finished, but do the people of La Rioja know how much it is costing them? Certainly not. Nowhere has the phrase “throwing money down a hole” been so strikingly illustrated.
In Carlos Menem’s fiefdom nobody ever knows where the money goes. Not once after his re-election as governor in 1983 did he present a budget to the state legislature for discussion before approval was rubber-stamped. Never was the one elected representative from the opposition Radical Party consulted, nor was he included in any budget meetings. (The Radical Party usually manages to get 30 percent of the vote but somehow only one representative.) When Patricia Gomez Aguirre was working on an article last year for Gente magazine about Menem’s performance as governor, different agencies gave her completely contradictory versions about how money was being used.
What kind of president will Carlos Menem make? What kind of a governor was he? In La Rioja, opinion is divided.
“In Argentina there is no politician who transmits confidence except Carlos Menem,” says Agustin de la Vega, a provincial deputy who has known him since childhood. “If he doesn’t do it, nobody else will.” “I have fundamental doubts about his ability,” says Leandro Lopez. “As head of state here he was a good politician, not a good governor.” Even Amalia Fortabat acknowledges that as governor Menem was only “comme ci,comme ça.”
The governor lived well in La Rioja — there are two spacious residences, one for summer and one for winter, both with swimming pools. But La Rioja is one of the poorest provinces in Argentina, the kind of place that might not have developed at all if there hadn’t been wandering Arab immigrants looking for some new dust to kick up. The landscape is sparse, sprinkled with donkeys and cactus. Interestingly, however, La Rioja seems to have more new houses under construction than Buenos Aires. When I mention this, my guide, a twenty-eight-year-old secretary named Alicia from the local transport-company office, laughs derisively. “You know how it goes. People go to work for the government and then within two or three years they get new cars, they build a house, they start to travel to the ‘exterior.’ How? Well, how is the question. These people were robbing the country. There’s no other explanation. “
Menem is widely hailed in La Rioja for his warmth and tolerance. “As you see him now,” says his old friend Josa Cipollina, “is the way he”s always been, very protective and simpatico.” “‘It comes naturally to him to hug dirty kids in the street,” says Leandro Lopez. Menem was greatly aided in the election by the perception that he was a champion of the forgotten interior of the country, a courtly provincial ready to do battle with the city slickers who hoard the scarce resources. But how did he help La Rioja?
Two of Menem”s proudest accomplishments are a new industrial park and a model agricultural project to grow seedless grapes and harvest jojoba. But the land is so unfertile, reports Gomez Aguirre, that three years and $10,000 per hectare are needed to produce anything at all. The industrial park mostly assembles small goods brought in from elsewhere to save on taxes. Menem began an apparently successful program to use schools as centers of community action, with emphasis on the poor learning to help themselves. He founded sixty-four secondary schools in the interior, although according to figures published in Argentina the total amount spent on education during his term in office actually declined.
But the real story of Menem’s tenure is how he bloated the public sector and bankrupted the state. Although La Rioja’s population of 200,000 increased by only 10 percent during his administration, government employment rose 54 percent. Forty percent of the employed of La Rioja work for the state. “Every family has at least one,” says Alicia. “If I wanted a job from him I’m sure I could get one.”
To pay for these unneeded workers, Menem, with no money left in the treasury, began to pay the salaries with special La Rioja bonds, good only inside the province. In 1983 the provincial Bank of La Rioja was solvent; by 1988 loans to the bankrupt government made up 40 percent of the bank’s assets, and the bank had been excluded from the national banking system. Checks drawn on La Rioja’s bank could be deposited nowhere else. “During the campaign he’d say, ‘Come to the paradise of La Rioja,'” recalls Alicia. At the same time, the state was a month behind in paying salaries even with the bonds.
Most of the time he was governor, Menem was away campaigning. He left La Rioja in the hands of squabbling officials. Nevertheless, they were rewarded. “On New Year’s of 1986 he threw a dinner for his Cabinet,” remembers journalist Julio Aiub Morales. “He gave them all vacations in Buenos Aires in expensive hotels, including whores. How do I know? They all came home and bragged about it.”
Whenever questions have arisen about the impropriety of any of his people, Menem always has the same response: “Until someone is judged guilty by the court,” they are allowed to go about their business as usual.
Out by the hole, at an empty tourist hotel perhaps not so inexplicably built by the Automobile Club of Argentina, I run into a national deputy and a judge having coffee, both of whom extol Menem for winning by “beating the system.” “What’s going to happen,” I ask, “when your president asks you to cut back on your payroll, when you have to say to half the people you put there that they no longer have a place because everybody has to work now? Will you do it? The deputy, not quite convinced, finally nods yes silently. The judge laughs nervously. “I’m keeping quiet on that one.”
On the long drive back in the dark, Alicia brings up the question of amnesty. “I don’t believe Menem should give it.” She begins to talk about how hard it was for her generation to come of age during the military regime, when families in fear spent years whispering to one another inside their own homes. I tell her of the defiance toward Menem’s plan I saw a few days before from the mothers of the disappeared in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, who have marched for twelve long years demanding to know what happened to their sons. Some of the sons’ own children are marching now too.
“You have to understand. Everyone knows somebody who disappeared. I still have a hard time opening up to people, because I was made to be so afraid as a teenager. It was prohibited to discuss ideas in school. We would be at a party dancing and the police would come, cut off the lights, and throw everyone out. There was no free expression. I spit on them. If the military come again I will cross the Rio de la Plata and live in Uruguay, no matter what.”
Sometimes the politics of surprise backfires.
The day after I return from La Rioja, I make an excursion to the annual cattle-and-livestock exhibition, where Menem is to announce a reduction of cumbersome export taxes on Argentinean agriculture. The show — with its parade of colorful gauchos from every part of the country, with its dashing young polo stars and beautiful women who barrel-race atop Arabian stallions, not to mention entire families outfitted in nineteenth-century British finery commanding ponies pulling wicker carriages — makes one realize what a spirited and beautiful country this is.
Menem is preceded into the exposition plaza by a mounted guard, their red plumes flashing atop chin-strapped patent-leather caps. The mounted marching band of the “army” — led by a conductor on a prancing white stallion who guides the musicians by brandishing a sword — includes dozens of drummers, a pair of large red-and-gold felt-covered kettledrums slung over each side of their saddles, followed by trumpeters and tuba players, and in the middle of it all Carlos Menem standing up and blowing kisses to the crowd from a 1954 black Cadillac convertible once used by Juan Peron.
“I come to wake up a sleeping Argentina!” Menem announces to an attentive crowd, fully aware that one year ago President Raul Alfonsin was booed on this very platform, drowned in catcalls and whistles. “Argentina, I say to your men and women, get up and walk!” The audience of gentry, diplomats, socialites, and hoi polloi loves it. “It’s easy to talk about the blame of yesterday instead of talking about the challenges of today and tomorrow. My government won’t do that. I’m not going to deal with the Argentina of the past … disunion is the principal illness of the democracy. I want a contemporary society not ashamed of itself…Money is not God. The economy is not God. The dollar is not God. Only God is God. I don’t want us to spend half our lives saying what we want to do and the other half explaining why we couldn’t do it!” The crowd roars. The livestock show has become a revival, and the yearning to believe that Carlos Menem can save Argentina has become almost palpable.
But still, but still. Argentina is always ready to break your heart. Menem had to wait almost an hour before he gave that speech, impatiently twisting the large onyx ring on his left hand while other politicians droned on. The crowd was not so constrained. They had been diverted. For right in the middle of the speeches calling for the dawning of a new era, Peron’s black Cadillac convertible had stalled. They couldn’t get it off the field. As the inspirational rhetoric was beamed live on national TV, a mechanic in overalls walked across the plaza, lifted the hood of the car, and — practically under Menem’s nose — started to tinker with the engine. The Cadillac sputtered to life after a while, and lurched off.
Sometimes you can’t help wanting to cry for Argentina.