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Foreign Policy Troubles Blow the Whistle on Argentine Chief : Latin America: While he still gets high marks for economic policies, Menem’s popularity has plummeted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As tens of thousands rallied outside Congress to condemn a deadly bombing at a Jewish community center here last month, a speaker announced the arrival of President Carlos Saul Menem. The rain-soaked air was suddenly filled with whistles--the Argentine equivalent of boos and hisses.

Apparently chastened by the unfriendly reception, Menem, who rarely misses a chance to address a crowd, chose not to speak.

The bombing, questions about the lax security that allowed it and doubts about the government’s ability to investigate it are only the latest in a series of troubling challenges to Argentina’s 62-year-old president.

Menem has watched his popularity plummet to its lowest level in two years, and the luster of his self-proclaimed “economic miracle” is beginning to show signs of tarnish. The timing is especially bad because Menem has just won permission to run for reelection, thanks to a new constitution that he spent months lobbying to have rewritten.

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While he still gets high marks for economic policies that have spurred healthy growth and slowed runaway inflation, Menem has stumbled in recent weeks on foreign policy matters, giving the appearance that his government suffers from disorganization and internal discord.

Eager to please Washington and move once-isolated Argentina from its tradition of nonalignment, Menem was quick to offer Argentine troops for a U.S.-led invasion of Haiti. Two days later, he retracted the offer amid protests from his own military as well as the public.

In the wake of the July 18 Jewish center bombing, which killed nearly 100 people, the president stated he would break off diplomatic relations with Iran if it is proven that Iranian diplomats assisted the terrorists.

“Diplomatic services and embassies are there to consolidate relations between countries and not to participate, if this turns out to be the case, . . . in this type of act,” Menem told reporters.

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Barely a week later, Menem again backtracked. His government said Tuesday that even if the Iranian Embassy is implicated in the bombing, it would be unwise to rupture ties because Iran might retaliate.

And once the federal judge in charge of the case issued arrest warrants for four former Iranian diplomats, Menem said expulsion of the Iranian ambassador might be appropriate--but not a break in diplomatic relations.

“His foreign policy is coherent in its objectives--aligning Argentina with the West and the United States--but it has been rather improvised in its execution,” political analyst Rosendo Fraga said. The miscalculations extend to most areas of government except economic policy, Fraga said.

Fraga and other analysts add, however, that there is still time for Menem to recover before the presidential election next May, depending on actions he takes in the crucial months ahead and whether the Jewish bombing case is satisfactorily resolved.

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“We’ll see him deepen his economic plan, but to improve his image he will have to come up with some novel things . . . (such as) a strong anti-corruption move, social action, initiatives on education or law and order, the things people care about,” pollster Manuel Mora y Araujo said.

Menem’s popularity dipped to a two-year low in a Gallup poll published late last month by La Nacion newspaper. It showed a 27% approval rating, down from 50% last October.

October was a high point for Menem, analysts say. His party scored impressive victories in congressional balloting, and a confident Menem launched his campaign for reelection.

To be able to succeed himself, Menem, a Peronist, had to have Argentina’s 141-year-old constitution amended. He struck a deal with the opposition Radical Civic Union, led by former President Raul Alfonsin; Alfonsin agreed to a reelection clause in the new constitution, in exchange for limits on presidential power.

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Menem’s good standing began to erode after that deal, which was reached in secret and accompanied by rumors of payoffs. Then the constituent assembly, convened May 25 to draft the new constitution, descended into near-violent debates and projected a rather negative image of politicians.

Riots last December in the province of Santiago del Estero and a massive protest rally outside the president’s Casa Rosada last month underscored the weaknesses in Menem’s much-vaunted economic program.

The protesters in both cases complained that free-market reforms were widening the divide between rich and poor. Menem’s program, under the direction of Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, has sustained 30% growth in the past three years and slashed inflation from 5,000% in 1989 to 7.4% last year.

But figures released in July showed a record unemployment rate of 10.8%. The currency is overvalued, and Argentina’s huge trade deficit soared even higher during the first half of the year.

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And although Menem weathered allegations that linked his former wife’s relatives to money-laundering for drug traffickers, a series of corruption scandals involving his party further dented public confidence.

In international affairs, Menem has been determined to end Argentina’s isolation, epitomized when the South American nation declared war on Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982. But his efforts to lock-step with Washington have meant at times turning aside the Latin American tradition of nonintervention.

The Haiti matter was particularly awkward. As a member of the U.N. Security Council, Argentina was the only Latin country to vote last month in favor of a resolution authorizing military force to restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

As he did in the Persian Gulf War, Menem offered to send troops. The United States followed the offer with an announcement that it was leasing a tank transport vessel to Argentina despite a British-inspired arms embargo. Officials in Buenos Aires and Washington denied the ship was a reward for Argentina’s cooperation on Haiti.

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But Menem apparently failed to calculate domestic opposition. Defense Minister Oscar Camilion publicly criticized the offer. And an opinion poll published in the newspaper Clarin showed 82.3% of the respondents were opposed to sending troops to Haiti. Only 14.4% were in favor.


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