Carlos Saúl Menem, who as Argentina’s president from 1989 to 1999 fostered a striking economic recovery and renewed ties to the United States and Britain, but was later convicted of graft and accused of covering up evidence in a deadly anti-Semitic bombing on his watch, died on Sunday in Buenos Aires. He was 90.
According to The Buenos Aires Times, he was hospitalized in December with kidney failure, and was put in a medically induced coma. His death was reported by the local press.
In a nation of chronic political and economic turmoil with a tolerance for military juntas, Mr. Menem seemed to many of his fellow citizens to be a charismatic strongman like Juan Domingo Perón, the neofascist, postwar dictator. A flamboyant provincial governor, he led a Peronist political movement when he ran for president. But he turned out to be a neoliberal democrat, and something completely different.
He was a Sunni Muslim of Syrian descent in a Roman Catholic land. For a time, he had shoulder-length hair and bushy 19th-century-style cheek whiskers. He liked ice cream suits and white shoes, kept 20 perfumes on a vanity table, drove racing cars and dated models and movie stars: a throwback to archetypal patriarchs known as caudillos.
Mr. Menem, who converted to Catholicism because it was a constitutional requirement for the presidency, assumed office five months early when President Raúl Alfonsín resigned as the long-troubled economy finally collapsed and looters invaded the supermarkets.
It was the worst economic crisis in Argentina’s history. Poverty gripped a quarter of the 32 million people. Inflation was nearly 5,000 percent. Foreign debt was $60 billion and domestic debt $7 billion. There were power failures, factory closings, widespread layoffs and shortages of everything.
“The only things I can offer my people are work, sacrifice and hope,” Mr. Menem said on July 8, 1989, in the first peaceful transfer of power from one constitutionally elected party to another since 1916. “There is no other way to put it. Argentina is broken, devastated, destroyed. This is perhaps our last chance.”
In a remarkable turnaround from a government-dominated economy to free markets, he cut public employment; slashed agency budgets; stabilized the peso by tying its value to the dollar; privatized state industries, utilities, airlines and railroads; cut import duties and drew in torrents of foreign goods and investments; raised tax collections; and began paying back debts.
In a year, Argentina was on its way to recovery. By 1993, inflation was down to single digits, and while unemployment remained high, the economy was one of the developing world’s top performers.
Mr. Menem and President George Bush before a private meeting in Buenos Aires in 1990.Credit…Marcy Nighswander/Associated Press
Mr. Menem also transformed foreign policy, ending years of isolationism and turning Argentina into the United States’ closest ally in South America. His navy joined the United States-led coalition that defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. At Washington’s behest, he promised not to sell weapons or advanced technology to Iran, Libya or Syria. He became the first Argentine president to visit Israel.
He also re-established diplomatic relations with Britain, suspended since the 1982 Falkland Islands war; halted Argentina’s nuclear weapons program; and resolved longstanding territorial disputes with Chile. His domestic reforms promoted health, education and anti-poverty programs.
Calling for national reconciliation after years of military dictatorships, he pardoned imprisoned leaders of the junta that had tortured and killed thousands in a “dirty war’’ on dissidents from 1976 to 1983, as well as guerrilla leaders who fought the regime. He also cut military budgets, abolished conscription, crushed a revolt by army officers, and, with new generals, undermined military influence on political life.
The moves drew strong protests in Argentina, where much of the population had supported the juntas and regarded dissidents as communist subversives. But he won praise abroad, especially in Washington.
“Argentina is assuming its rightful place as a leader in the democratic community of nations,” President George Bush said in welcoming Mr. Menem to the White House in 1991. “Under your leadership, Argentina has become one of the hemisphere’s strongest defenders of democracy, both at home and abroad.”
But terrorist assaults with hidden implications struck Argentina. In 1992, a car bomb killed at least 28 people at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Another car bomb killed 85 more at a Jewish community center in the capital in 1994. Security guards had vanished before both blasts. They were the worst anti-Semitic attacks in Argentine history, yet investigations were desultory and the crimes remained unsolved during Mr. Menem’s tenure.
After arranging a constitutional change to allow himself another term, Mr. Menem won re-election. His second term was marked by a series of setbacks, with rising interest rates, trade deficits, crime and poverty, and with falling productivity, consumer confidence, imports and foreign investments. National debts soared to $139 billion.
Mr. Menem was dogged by accusations of corruption from his opponents. He controlled the police and courts and was not charged. But after leaving office, he was accused of embezzling $60 million in prison construction deals; of extorting $10 million in an arms-smuggling scheme that sent war matériel to Ecuador and Croatia, in violation of international embargoes; and of evading taxes and hiding millions in Swiss bank accounts. He was held under house arrest for nearly six months in 2001 in the arms-smuggling case.
In 2002, The New York Times, quoting sealed testimony by an Iranian intelligence defector, reported that Iran had masterminded the Jewish community center bombing, and had paid Mr. Menem $10 million to conceal its involvement. The testimony supported long-held suspicions of Iranian complicity and Argentine investigative misconduct in the bombings.
Mr. Menem, who denied the accusations, ran again for president in 2003, but dropped out after falling behind in polls. Subpoenaed in graft cases, he fled to Chile and claimed asylum. Extradition efforts failed, but he returned home in 2004 after the arrest warrants were canceled. He won a Senate seat in 2005.
In 2011, he was acquitted in the arms-smuggling case, but an appeals court reinstated the charges and in 2013 convicted him and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Given his age, 82, officials said he would serve the sentence at home. In 2012, he was ordered to stand trial on charges of obstructing justice and concealing evidence in the Jewish community center bombing. A court in 2019 acquitted him.
Carlos Saúl Menem was born in Anillaco, Argentina, on July 2, 1930, one of four sons of Saúl and Mohibe Akil Menem, who were Syrian immigrants. His father, a merchant, sent all his sons to college. Carlos Saúl attended the National University of Córdoba, in Argentina’s second city. He earned a law degree in 1955 and became a passionate Peronist.
In 1966, he married Zulema Yoma. They hadtwo children, Zulema Menem and Carlos Saúl Jr., and were divorced in 1991. In 2001, he married Cecilia Bolocco. They had a son, Máximo, and were divorced in 2011. Carlos Saúl Jr. was killed in a helicopter crash in 1995.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Menem was briefly jailed when Perón’s nine-year dictatorship was overthrown in 1955. He later joined the Justicialist Party, successor to the Peronist Party. In 1973, after returning from exile, Perón seized power again. Mr. Menem, leading his provincial party, was elected governor of La Rioja Province.
Perón died in 1974 and was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, who was deposed in 1976 by a junta that also ousted and imprisoned Mr. Menem for several years. In 1983, after the junta collapsed, Mr. Alfonsín was elected president and Mr. Menem was again elected governor of La Rioja Province. He was re-elected in 1987.
In 1989, as Argentina’s economy went into steep decline, Mr. Menem was elected president, despite wide uncertainty about what he stood for. Analysts said that his popularity, like Perón’s, lay in his personal appeal, rather than in any programs, which he did not detail.
“Menem is a sort of Reagan,” a prominent Peronist told The Times during the campaign. “He’s a great communicator with a dozen basic ideas, who has a great instinct for handling people, but has little interest in detailed programmatic ideas. The result is inevitably some ambiguities, but this doesn’t worry his followers.”