© Reuters. Former Argentine President and Senator Carlos Saul Menem attends a Senate session in Buenos Aires
By Jorge Otaola
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Flamboyant Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem died on Sunday aged 90 after battling long-term health problems, the country’s current president Alberto Fernandez said in a tweet.
Menem led a tabloid personal life while pushing Argentina into economic recovery, but his two-year presidency from 1989-1999 collapsed under the weight of corruption scandals and he spent years planning an unlikely comeback.
With his black mane of hair and bushy gray sideburns, Menem entertained the Rolling Stones in his residence at his height and put Argentina on the international stage to send troops to the Gulf War and Bosnia.
“Most of all, he leaves us with memories of a good person whom I will remember with great fondness,” tweeted former President Mauricio Macri.
Menem died of a urinary tract infection, heart problems, and other health problems at 11:20 a.m. (1420 GMT) after spending several weeks in the hospital.
His body will lie in the Capitol before being buried in an Islamic cemetery in Buenos Aires Province.
Menem won re-election after privatizing creaky state-owned companies in a massive change in Argentine institutions in the early 1990s and the economy flourishing.
But he left his post under a cloud – charged with corruption and illegal arms deals in 1991 and 1995 with Croatia and Ecuador.
Ten years later, he was cleared of arms smuggling charges, but Menem could never shake off the widespread suspicion that he was involved in shady business, even if he had never been convicted.
Menem, the son of a lawyer for Syrian immigrants in the province of La Rioja, 1,200 km west of Buenos Aires, became active in the Peronist party in the 1950s and 1960s and visited the party founder Juan Peron in exile in Spain in 1964.
He was governor of La Rioja from 1973 to 1976.
After a military coup in 1976, Menem was arrested and imprisoned for five years. He devoted this time to planning his application for the presidency.
After his release, he was re-elected governor twice.
A charismatic speaker who preferred stylish silk and linen suits, Menem saw himself as the successor to his political mentor Peron, who died in 1974 after his return from exile.
While some Peronist leaders sought to strike a calm middle ground with the divided party, Menem enlivened the political boss, or Caudillo, the origin of the party, courted union leaders and rallied extreme factions from left and right to win the party’s primaries in 1988.
Under Menem Argentina emerged from the polarization of the “Dirty War” dictatorship from 1976-1983, in which up to 30,000 suspected dissidents were killed. He pardoned military chiefs and guerrilla leaders on both sides of the conflict.
He inherited an economy ravaged by rampant inflation, and despite running on a populist platform, he began selling state-owned companies and instituting free market reforms that transformed the economy and were praised by Washington and international lenders.
He also adopted the controversial one-to-one peg of the peso currency to the dollar.
Its policies were praised while the economy grew vigorously in the early 1990s. However, he was later blamed for high unemployment, corruption, and overspending that undermined the benefits of his free-market policies.
A year after he became president, he had a sharp breakup with his wife, Zulema Yoma, who was dissatisfied with his rock star lifestyle and devotion to fast cars, golf, and glamor. Menem threw her out of the president’s residence in front of television cameras.
His daughter Zulemita stayed close to him after the split and served as his first lady, although they later clashed over his second wife, Chilean former Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco, who was 35 years his junior.
That marriage ended in divorce in 2011, several years after he and Bolocco admitted they were separated. Chilean and Mexican media had published photos of them hugging another man.
Obsessed with returns
Menem wanted to run for a third term, but the courts ruled that he could not, and economic and political chaos ensued in Argentina shortly after he left power.
His elected successor was overthrown in street protests and the next leader dropped Menem’s currency peg as the country plunged into debt default and a deep 2001-2002 recession that drove millions into poverty.
Despite the arms trade and allegations of corruption, most of which were eventually dismissed, Menem won the most votes in the 2003 first-round presidential election.
He withdrew from the second round when polls showed he would lose in a landslide to Nestor Kirchner, the candidate of a rival Peronist faction.
In self-imposed exile in Bolocco’s luxury apartment in Santiago, Chile, Menem received union leaders and planned his return to power.
“With my last breath I will stay in politics,” he told Reuters in a 2004 interview.
He eventually returned to Argentina when judges dropped arrest warrants against him and he was elected to the Senate for his home province in 2005, where he remained until his death.
In his final years, he was investigated on charges of thwarting an investigation into the 1994 Jewish community center bombing, Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack. The case made international headlines in 2015 after a prosecutor investigating the case was found mysteriously dead.
He did not appear for a court hearing in 2015, despite responding to prosecutors’ questions on the case in September 2016, saying he does not know or does not remember the answers to their questions, Argentine state news agency Telam.
Menem had postponed his plans to become president again in 2007 and looked frail in the years leading up to his death as his Senate appearances became rarer.