The Longest-Running Soap Opera in the Americas : While the Argentine President Flirts With Actresses, Races Boats and Fights With His Estranged Wife in Public, His Once-Rich Nation Falls Deeper Into Despair

Times staff writer Santiago O'Donnell reported from Argentina.

It's siesta time, but hardly anybody in Argentina is sleeping. Instead, millions are glued to their television sets, watching the country's most celebrated womanizer, President Carlos Saul Menem, demonstrate his technique. Menem's target today is Mirtha Legrand, the ranking glamour queen of Argentina, who hosts two-hour interview lunches in the state-owned television studio. At 61, Menem is small, dark-skinned and dapper in his French-cut blue suit. Silver sideburns sprout from his head of jet-black hair into bushy, old-fashioned mutton chops. As he strolls onto Legrand's set, flashing his trademark winner's smile, he looks more like a triumphant jockey than a modern-day Valentino.

Voluptuous, blond and blue-eyed, Legrand is to Argentina what Elizabeth Taylor is to America. Menem, son of a Syrian door-to-door carpet salesman in the poorest province of northwest Argentina, reduces her to mush in minutes.

"I'm enchanted by him!" Legrand exuberantly confides to the nation. Then, turning to Menem, she coyly asks the question on everybody's mind. "All the women are crazy about you! How do you do it?"

Menem looks straight into her eyes: "Sometimes I go crazy, too, Mirtha," he murmurs. The innuendo is so bald even a child could get it. It works, too. Legrand is thrown off balance for all of Argentina to see. She fumbles to collect herself, to restore the interview to its proper course with an abrupt change of subject. Five days earlier, 13 rebels had died in an attempted coup against Menem. What about that? she asks.

Gone in a flash is the seductive purr. Now comes Menem, the smoldering master of macho. "The rebels are just a bunch of outlaws, traitors, criminals," he replies. "I didn't hesitate at all. I simply told the army chief of staff, " A deguello (throat-cutting time)!" Minutes later, the subject is back to women. "Would you like to have a woman appointed to your cabinet of ministers?" Legrand asks. "I'd like to have a whole bunch!" Menem blurts out, giggling. Then it's time for a tango. Legrand leads Menem onto the dance floor. He pulls her firmly against his body, and they dance cheek to cheek. Legrand closes her eyes. Menem grins at the camera. As the credits roll, Legrand backs away from Menem and, dreamy-eyed, says with a sigh, "If this were the last program I ever taped, it would be the perfect way to end my career."

She is right. That afternoon, her program breaks rating records for its time slot. The next morning, every major newspaper in Argentina raves over Menem's charm. Like Legrand, all of Argentina seems caught in the spell of spry, wiry, charismatic Carlos Menem, latest pretender to the throne of Juan Peron.

Like Peron and his second wife, the famous Evita, Menem knows how to captivate a nation into at least periodically forgetting its problems. Whether he's flying a helicopter, flirting with actresses or throwing his wife, Zulema, out of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, Menem is a master of flamboyance, the king of Latin machismo. For the amusement of the masses, the tireless Menem plays soccer with Diego Maradona and tennis with Gabriela Sabatini--and holds his own.

But unlike Peron's proud nation, Menem's Argentina is devastated. While Menem takes part in high-speed motor boat races for the TV cameras, inflation soars and coups are hatched and quelled. While he shoots hoops with the national basketball team, the famed mothers of Argentina's "disappeared" march weekly around Casa Rosada, demanding justice for their missing sons and daughters. While he roars around town in his Ferrari with glamorous actresses and brags about his prowess as "a seducer," his estranged wife publicly accuses him of betraying the nation. "I can't give out my secret," he protests when asked about women during an interview. "If I tell you, I'll lose my edge. Besides, I might want to sell my formula abroad, since we are in need of foreign currency."

IF MENEM WOULD RATHER PLAY SOCCER than statesman, it's understandable. If Argentines occupy themselves with the soap opera of Menem and his estranged wife instead of demanding that he get real, that's understandable too. Anything is better than having to face the question that haunts every Argentine: How did it come to this?

Only four decades ago, Argentina was regarded as having the potential of a Canada or an Australia. A vast nation of 30 million, Argentina is so rich in natural resources that investors from all over the globe drooled, so promising that millions of European immigrants, at the turn of the century, chose it as the place to pursue their American Dream. Here, in this lush and romantic land, the sky was presumably the limit.

Instead, Argentina turned into one of the world's most sluggish, embarrassing nations, a debt-ridden, Third World pariah. Where democracy should have taken hold, directed by educated European burghers, authoritarianism took root instead. From the rise and fall of Peron in the 1940s and '50s, the descent of the nation has been steady. Once its universities produced world-famous scholars; now they languish as second-rate diploma mills. Once known for a dynamic film industry, for scientists such as Nobel Prize winners Bernardo Houssay and Federico Leloir, for novelists Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, Argentina now produces little more than famous soccer players.

Today, Argentines don't even read nearly as much as they used to. "People used to read the classics, the great Argentine essayists," laments Daniel Daviccino, who runs a bookstore in Buenos Aires' once-famed, now-decaying Corrientes Avenue literary district. "Now the biggest sellers are books on karma and reincarnation, people who returned from Mars and all that esoteric stuff. Now that we've got Menem, it's like everybody's looking for some magic solution."

In this tired, confused country, it's been a long time since the death of Peron, the first and last Argentine leader to make the Western history books. Peron's legacy is still debated, but this much is clear: He gave hope to Argentina, as no one else has--until the advent of Menem. Peron was a populist leader, and he was wildly loved by most of Argentina and despised by the U.S. government, thanks to his affection for Nazis and Italian Fascists. But when Peron shed his jacket and tie and came onto the balcony of the Casa Rosada to tell the hundreds of thousands that they were the "rich people of tomorrow," Argentines believed.

Carlos Menem, in power for the last two years, is the ghost of Peron, a shrewd politician who revives memories of what Argentina should have been. With his unique brand of populism, free-market economics and hardball politics--his "New Peronism," as the people call it--he has revived dreams of glory. The game isn't over yet, Menem tells his nation. And Argentines believe him, just as they believed Peron. But Menem shows every sign of confusing his mandate--which is, in the words of Peron, to uphold at all costs the dignity of the working class. Menem has embarked on the most sweeping fiscal-reform program in Argentine history, cutting off most of the subsidies and protectionist policies that traditionally sustained the domestic economy. In less than two years, he has cut 50,000 state workers from the payroll and trimmed the federal budget by selling the telephone company and the national airlines to foreign firms, paying off one-fifth of Argentina's foreign debt, now about $55 billion. The national currency has been strengthened with a huge trade surplus. In less than one year, Menem has brought inflation down from triple to single digits. Not least, for the first time in decades, the army and the trade unions have bowed to the president's authority.

Menem has improved Argentine relations with the United States--it was the only Latin American country to participate in Operation Desert Storm. He has even re-established relations with Great Britain for the first time since the war over the islands Latin Americans call the Malvinas, otherwise known as the Falklands.

But Menem also has created a whole new set of troubles. His austerity program has created massive unemployment (about 11%), and wages are at the lowest level since 1962. The annual per capita income is about $2,000, the same as 20 years ago; the bottom 40% of Argentina shares 14% of the nation's wealth. The heir of Peron presides over a nation owned and operated by the elite the old dictator despised.

Menem swears that Peron would approve of him, and most Argentines, according to the polls, believe him. Not even a drug-trafficking and money-laundering scandal involving his wife's family can shake his followers. In September's elections, Menem's Peronists are expected to lose their Congressional majority and a few governorships. But he remains Argentina's most popular politician because most Argentines feel that without Menem there is no hope, and after hope is gone, there is nothing.

LONG CONSIDERED THE PERONIST CAUDILLO , or chieftain, of arid La Rioja province in northwestern Argentina, Menem burst onto the national scene during the 1989 presidential campaign. A lawyer who eventually rose to governor of his province, he spoke the language of the working class. Like thousands of other Argentines following the overthrow of Peron's third wife, Isabel, in 1976, Menem was a political prisoner, jailed for five years, but was never formally charged. He emerged determined to become president.

"He came out of the imprisonment fortified in his character and determination," says Eduardo Menem, Carlos' brother, now the senate majority leader. "When I'd visit him, he would always tell me, 'When I get out of here I will become president.' "

During his presidential campaign, when all about him were calling for more sacrifices, Carlos Menem promised prosperity for all. He canvassed the country aboard the "Menemobile"--a rented minibus painted with the national colors, white and sky-blue. He promised large wage increases and repeated Peronist slogans of helping the poor. "Follow me!" Menem cried at every public appearance. "For the hunger of the poor children, for the sadness of the rich children, follow me! I'm not going to deceive you!"

Resurrecting memories of Peron, he patronized cabarets and had his picture taken with second-rate actresses sitting on his lap. "Maybe those who studied in the great universities of the United States and Europe are more capable than I," he said. "I don't think so. I am the son of immigrants like many of you. There is the university of the streets, the university of life . . . the university of prison."

He never outlined his economic program, and he was elected by a comfortable margin. "The only things I can offer my people are work, sacrifice and hope," Menem told the nation in his inaugural address. "There is no other way to put it. Argentina is broken, devastated, destroyed. . . . This is perhaps our last chance."

Within weeks, the true, right-wing President Menem emerged. First, to the shock of his followers, Menem abandoned the free-spending policies that had marked his three terms as governor, opting to trim the federal deficit with a tough diet of layoffs and social-program cuts. The "huge salary increase" he had promised was a onetime bonus equivalent to $12.25 per worker.

Hardest hit by Menem's change of heart were the poor who had voted for him en masse. Even before Menem took over, their situation was critical--one out of 10 Argentines suffered from chronic malnutrition and 2% bordered on starvation. Right after he took office, Menem eliminated a food-basket program that served 1.2 million families and crippled a school-lunch program serving 1.5 million children. Even Menem's appearance changed--he trimmed his long hair and traded in his black leather jacket and his cowboy boots for a closet full of expensively tailored Parisian suits. His Menemobile was replaced with a scarlet Ferrari.

ONE DAY LAST DECEMBER, MENEM DEscended in his helicopter to the sprawling slums of Villa Soldati on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He had come to inaugurate his first government-sponsored, low-income, 125-apartment housing complex, where 2 million slum dwellers subsist precariously in dozens of villas miserias .

A ragged mob of hundreds of unemployed workers gathered in unnatural silence, their measure of respect. Menem strutted in, grinning, oblivious, posing for cameras, the perfect politician. A brass band played. The crowd was clearly divided into two groups. One was cheerful, the other sullen. One had new Menem homes, the other, larger group, had none.

"We came to see if he remembers us," said one of the latter, Pablo Daniel Troncoso, 39, a tired-looking man who stood at the edge of the crowd with his wife, five children and two worn horses, his family's only assets. A former trash hauler for the city, Troncoso lost his job eight years ago when the previous government privatized city sanitation. Now he makes his living scavenging cardboard and bottles with the help of his children. Sometimes Troncoso makes enough money to buy rice and milk, but usually the family survives on bread and mate , a pungent beverage brewed from the leaves of the mate tree. They sleep in a tiny wood-and-tin hut in a homeless encampment that, with mathematical detachment, Menem's government has labeled "Villa No. 3."

"My father always told me how Evita used to take food and shoes to the schools, but now we get nothing," Troncoso said. "Menem knows how to look good on television, but he seems to have forgotten the Peronist doctrine of helping the poor."

Menem's speech was uninspiring, his Peronist platitudes routine. "It's going well, and it will soon be better," he intoned, improving on his 1989 campaign slogan, "We're in bad shape, but it's going well." The crowd stared. When he was done, they barely applauded. Troncoso watched from a distance. He was getting tired of broken promises, he said softly. "I campaigned for Menem, you know? We all did. But next time he shows up, I'm staying home."

TO SPEAK OF ARGENTINA TODAY IS TO remember Juan Peron. More than any other figure in Argentine history, he is responsible for the country's current condition. Scholars will go to their graves arguing over whether he was devil or saint.

One thing is certain: Peron was no democrat. He allowed free elections and did not invade other nations, but in almost everything else he copied Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Peron organized Argentina's trade unions and co-opted industrial leaders by protecting them from outside competition. He expanded his power base by giving women the vote. He signed Argentina's first significant labor legislation, giving workers the right to collective bargaining and benefits--workers have remained loyal to his party ever since. But there was little room for dissent--opponents were jailed or exiled by the hundreds, and peaceful demonstrators were clubbed by police.

The wealthy cattle barons who had ruled the country since its independence in 1816 hated Peron, but he swept into office in 1946 with 52% of the vote. Peron and Evita. She was a 24-year-old aspiring actress when she met Col. Peron in 1943, and she married him soon after. She died of cancer in 1952 at age 33, as much the star of Argentina as he was, so young, so pretty and always the champion of the poor. To Peronists, she was a saint. To anti-Peronists, she was the ultimate demagogue. So controversial was she that the musical "Evita" never opened in Buenos Aires--Peronist governments rejected it for making fun of their leader, non-Peronist governments considered it dangerous propaganda.

By the early 1950s, Peron had jailed or exiled a long list of dissidents, so alienating the Roman Catholic Church, students and the middle class that his downfall seemed inevitable. In 1955, a group of pro-U.S. military leaders joined forces with the cattle barons and threw Peron out in a bloody coup. For the next 17 years, Peron lived in exile in Spain, while one Argentine general after another toppled a series of puppet civilian governments. The country stood still.

Gen. Alejandro Agustin Lanusse, weary of the disruptions, decided that the best course was to let the wolf return to the den. So in 1973, at age 78, the ailing Peron, along with his new wife and running mate, Isabel, was elected president again. But eight months after his inauguration, Peron died, passing the party mantle to Isabel, a cabaret singer he had met during his exile. She fell prey to incompetent advisers, chief among them Jose Lopez Rega, a former police corporal. Within days of her ascension, he had organized an army of right-wing death squads. The purge of left-wing Peronists began.

In 1976, amid the chaos, the military, led by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, returned to power by popular demand. Lopez Rega slipped out of the country. Isabel and most of her closest aides--including Carlos Menem, then the governor of La Rioja--were thrown in jail. The de facto governments of Videla and his successors proceeded to kidnap, torture and kill between 10,000 and 30,000 mostly left-wing Peronist dissidents and pro-democracy intellectuals. The word disappeared was added to the lexicon of human horror, next to pogrom and holocaust .

Meanwhile, trade barriers had been lifted and Argentine currency was artificially strengthened; the result was a massive flight of capital, coupled with a devastating recession. National industry collapsed. "For all of Latin America, the 1980s are the Lost Decade," says Jorge Balan, a prominent Argentine sociologist. "In Argentina that decade lasted 15 years."

By 1980 Argentines were desperate enough to challenge a government they had inherited. Protests began with a group of mothers who sat on the benches in the plaza in front of the Casa Rosada. Every Thursday since 1977 they had marched, demanding that somebody account for their loved ones, the "disappeared." Police tried to remove them, but they wouldn't budge. At last, the world took notice, and soon the opposition movement snowballed. Isabel was released from jail and expelled from the country. Protest became legal again, and by the spring of 1982, thousands of Argentines had gathered the courage to march on the palace to demand democracy. The generals searched for a way to revive national support. Within weeks, Argentina had invaded the Falklands, which Britain had occupied since 1832.

When the troops returned, defeated and humiliated after a brief war that cost 300 Argentine lives, the generals gave up and called elections. A Radical Civic Union candidate, Raul Alfonsin, won by vowing to put the generals on trial. But that promise was short-lived. Dozens were indicted, and a few were tried. But each time there was a trial, the military rose up in violent insurrections. And the return of democracy only worsened the economic picture--by early 1989, as inflation surpassed 100% a month, food riots exploded for the first time in this food-rich country's history.

The Peronists pounced on Alfonsin's perceived weakness. The unions started striking, the military increased its protests, and the Peronists' rhetoric blasted him for his economic failure. Alfonsin abdicated six months before his term expired, handing the government to Menem.

EVERY THURSDAY AT THE CASA ROSADA Menem hosts a breakfast for selected journalists. At one such breakfast last December, Menem was in high spirits. George Bush had just been in town. Menem made the most of Bush's two-day stay, parading him through Buenos Aires and trading tennis strokes with him for photographers. In return, Bush praised Menem for dispatching two ships to the Persian Gulf.

"Argentina has re-entered the world, recognized by the great leaders of the world!" Menem proclaimed. "If you read the comments of my good friend Mr. Bush, or Mr. Gorbachev, I don't have to add anything else."

Then he added in perfect Bushspeak: "A new world order is being formed. The Cold War is over, and the walls have come down. There are no longer two powerful blocs, just one world, and, more than ever, Argentina is part of it."

His ease among journalists notwithstanding, Menem is increasingly becoming the target of criticism from intellectuals and opposition politicians. "The president has shown a complete lack of interest for the institutional framework in which his government should operate," says Balan, the sociologist. "He appears to have no awareness that the means are just as important as the end result, and that ethics matter. Menem obtains results with lies and deceptions."

Specifically, Balan is outraged at Menem's recent decision to expand the five-member supreme court to nine--appointing loyal Peronists to the four new seats. Menem also routinely bypasses the Congress, legislating instead through presidential decree--most notably, he acted alone when he committed the two warships and 300 soldiers to the Persian Gulf.

Senate minority leader Adolfo Gas of the Radical party fumes over Menem's imperial style. "He is sending out the message that democracy is a big risk, that Congress is useless, that politicians are worthless," says Gas. "He is setting the stage for some messianic military leader to abolish the institutions altogether."

Unfazed, Menem marches on, conquering enemies and dismissing critics. The little man is no pushover, and he's not afraid to draw blood. A group of young military officers found that out the hard way. They call themselves the "Painted Faces" because they cover their faces with black shoe polish whenever they stage rebellions. On the morning of Dec. 3, 400 of them occupied three barracks and a tank factory. Although Menem had pardoned all officers still charged with human-rights violations, the Painted Faces were protesting that he had not given the army enough credit for saving the nation from communism. At Menem's orders, tanks surrounded the barracks, and the rebels were blasted out. Thirteen died, 60 were injured. The next morning the walls of Buenos Aires were plastered with posters of Menem wearing fatigues and a black beret. "Argentina proudly salutes the commander in chief of our armed forces," they read.

Argentina's union leaders aren't doing much better in their clashes with the cagey country lawyer. Chief among them is Saul Ubaldini, until recently the undisputed Peronist labor-movement leader. After supporting Menem in the primary, Ubaldini complained about Menem's economic program. Menem's answer was swift: He threw his support to Ubaldini's rival in the next union election. Ubaldini lost, but, charging fraud, refused to concede, causing a huge split in the unions.

Menem's popularity with business has soared with his success in taming the unions. "Menem has been a pleasant surprise," says Eduardo Tramutola, a top business leader.

But Menem's administration has yet to succeed in attracting foreign investments. In a 1990 Euromoney Magazine survey of international lenders, Argentina was ranked 95th out of 135 countries in reliability--lower even than Bangladesh. And the investment climate has worsened following a string of corruption scandals involving the family of Menem's estranged wife, Zulema Yoma.

The Yomas, like the Menems, were Syrian immigrants to La Rioja. The couple met in 1964 in Damascus, where she was studying, and were married two years later in a Muslim ceremony. Menem soon converted to Catholicism--a constitutional requirement for executive office. His wife remains a Muslim, just one of the couple's many differences. Like a long-running soap opera, the Menems' squalls have kept Argentines entertained for years.

Zulema is nobody's typical first lady. She publicly accused him of betraying Peronist ideals and befriended the Painted Faces, disgruntled union bosses and anybody else who loathed her husband. "She used her soapbox to get back at him for their lousy marriage," says a personal friend of Zulema's.

The marital crisis climaxed a year ago when Menem locked Zulema out of the presidential palace. While the couple's son and daughter tearfully begged him to let her in, live television news cameras rolled. Menem never did let his wife back home--she has since acquired her own apartment in Buenos Aires. Lately she has adopted a lower profile, surfacing only a few times this year--once, in January, to condemn Argentina's participation in the Gulf War and again in February, to announce she was filing for divorce.

Instead, it's her family that is making headlines. In January, U.S. Ambassador Terence A. Todman complained to the Argentine government that the U.S. company, Swift-Armour Co., had been solicited for a bribe. Todman did not name the government official involved, but newspapers reported it was Zulema's brother, Emir, a presidential adviser who promptly resigned.

"Corruption is a sickness, a cancer, a calamity," Menem lamented in a televised address after the scandal surfaced. Weeks later, a Spanish magazine reported that members of the Yoma family were involved in a Madrid-based drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation. Zulema's sister Amira, a palace official, and Amira's former husband were recently indicted on corruption charges.

Menem ignored the whole mess. "There is nothing to accuse my political family of," he said a month ago.

DESPITE HIS SEEMING LIGHTheartedness, accusations of corruption within his political family and his government are a very real and very dangerous threat to Menem's presidency--bowing to public demand, he recently auctioned off his Ferrari. From his office window, he can hear the mothers of the plaza, still shouting after all these years. On the eve of Bush's visit, the women spray-painted on the plaza pyramid: "Menem: Bush's lamb." Angrily, Menem threatened to ban them. But the following Thursday they were back.

"This president has betrayed us," says Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the "disappeared." "He told me he was committed to human rights, to helping the poor, that he could never pardon the generals. But he has done nothing but serve the power elite."

Menem's response is that the human-rights movement in Argentina is unwilling to move forward for the sake of national unity. "They are out of date," he says with a paternalistic smile.

But in fact, Argentines are increasingly reverting to social protest, forming community groups to denounce corruption. Of all the protests, the most damaging centered around the murder last September of a 17-year-old girl in the dirt-poor city of Catamarca. Many were convinced that the son of a local congressman had killed her, and that the police were covering it up. Nuns at the girl's school held a candlelight vigil. A week later, thousands attended another vigil. The death of Maria Soledad Morales came to symbolize the corruption of the entire government.

Menem appointed a special investigator and had the Catamarca chief of police fired, but soon the nation was following the vigils every Thursday on television. More heads began to roll. The congressman's son was arrested and charged with murder. The congressman said in the newspaper that if his son were involved in the murder, no body would have been found. For that, he was expelled from Congress.

In December, Menem appeared slightly irritated but not concerned. "The case of this girl in Catamarca disgusts me, but it's no different than what happened in Tres Arroyos," he said, citing another murder-rape. "But how many marches have taken place in Catamarca, brother? And I ask, are they adding anything to the investigation?"

Finally, as the marches escalated, Menem removed Catamarca's governor, Ramon Saadi. It was a drastic step: Saadi had been a close Menem ally. His family had ruled Catamarca much like the Menems had ruled La Rioja, filling government posts with friends and relatives.

After Saadi was deposed, the protests died down. The people of Catamarca stopped marching in anticipation of the accused murderer's trial. But it was a close call, and the issue remains a powder keg. Like the mothers of the plaza, the Catamarca marchers were protesting a regime that has gone too far. In their indignation and their willingness to challenge the odds, these protesters, not the bombastic Menem, may be Argentina's only true hope.

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