Peronist presidential candidate Carlos Saul Menem’s campaign offered a free lunch Saturday and about 8,000 Argentine retirees came, forming a vast street party that had the air of a victory celebration.
Menem, the flamboyant populist governor of rural La Rioja province, demonstrated his campaign magic in the working-class Buenos Aires district of La Boca, the riverside entry point for millions of immigrants to Argentina over the years.
The sit-down lunch stretched for five city blocks along a closed-off avenue. Pensioners danced to tango music and ate plates of noqui --small, boiled pasta dumplings served on the 29th of each month for good luck. The stage bore a huge portrait of Gen. Juan D. Peron, the party’s founder, and his second wife, Eva--"Evita,” as she was always known.
Two Weeks Until Vote
Two weeks before the May 14 election, Menem leads in virtually all opinion polls, by a range of 4 to 9 percentage points, over Eduardo Cesar Angeloz, candidate of the ruling party, the Radical Civic Union. Angeloz is governor of the industrial province of Cordoba.
A crushing economic crisis, described by many Argentine analysts as the worst in this century, has left Angeloz battling to distance himself from the Radical party’s incumbent, President Raul Alfonsin. A burst of inflation, estimated at up to 40% for April alone, has generated pervasive disenchantment with the Radicals, offering fertile campaign ground for Menem.
Angeloz, a fiscal conservative, has pledged to privatize inefficient state-run companies and streamline the bureaucracy to free private industry and end decades of state domination of the economy. Menem, offering few specifics, promises a “productive revolution” that would restore workers’ evaporating buying power.
‘Caravan of Hope’
Menem proclaimed that his “Caravan of Hope” through city streets en route to the lunch had been transformed into “the caravan of triumph, not for a political party but for all Argentines.”
Answering Angeloz’s campaign ads showing an empty chair--symbolizing Menem’s refusal to agree to a public debate--the 58-year-old Peronist told the retirees: “If I have left an empty chair, it is because I want to spend my time talking to the people. . . . I am not afraid of anyone.”
“No one has anything to fear,” he said. “We Argentines just want to be able to work. We don’t seek confrontation between business and workers, between civilians and the military (but) to end this suicidal tendency for conflict among ourselves.”
When Alfonsin hands over power to his successor in December, it will be the first transition from an elected civilian president to an elected civilian successor in 61 years, after decades of periodic military intervention in government. Alfonsin’s administration has survived three military rebellions and a bloody leftist attack on an army base in January.
A subconscious theme of Angeloz’s campaign is that a victory by the Justicialist Party, as Peronism is formally called, would mean a return to the style of Peron, who ruled as an elected president from 1946-55 and again briefly in 1973-74. Both Peron governments ended in social conflict and military coups, the second time against Maria Estela Peron, the general’s third wife and vice president who took office upon Peron’s death in July, 1974.
Menem’s campaign, therefore, has devoted much energy to ensuring that the events are peaceful and upbeat, with heavy security to prevent incidents. Empresario Jorge Cysterpiller handles organization with the same deft hand that he employed as manager for Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, with minute-by-minute planning and added touches like video screens for those far from the stage.
Stresses Organizing Ability
“Our defeat in 1983 (when Alfonsin was elected) owed partly to disorganization--the failure to reach people,” Cysterpiller said in a recent interview. “We want to show we are capable organizers in the campaign, just as we will be in government.”
Menem, whose rhythmic, resonant voice captivates crowds with a message of unity and productivity, told the elderly audience, “Many have tried to explain this transcendent mobilization--to explain the ‘Menem Phenomenon.’ But it is no phenomenon, it is simply the response to the love that I have for my people.”
He said he hopes to provide all pensioners in the country the same benefit offered by his provincial La Rioja government: 82% of their final pay, and pensions for domestic workers as well.
Angeloz has attacked Menem’s performance as three-time governor of La Rioja, charging that the number of state employees has skyrocketed, the budget deficit has surged and the bankrupt province has printed “bonds” as a form of local currency, unusable outside La Rioja.
Menem said in his speech that such problems have resulted from central government neglect of the interior and a national economic disaster that has brought record inflation and devalued the Argentine currency to the point where “pensions are now worth $20.”
This crowd was convinced. One man, dancing and clapping, cried out, “This is true happiness, without tricks.”
“Menem will bring us social justice,” said Osvaldo Ledesma, a 57-year-old railways auditor who said his salary has fallen in dollar terms from $400 to $200 since Alfonsin took office in 1983. “This is a country that can’t fall any further. The workers are willing to give Menem a chance. They believe in him.”