BUENOS AIRES – Argentine President Alberto Fernandez expressed on Sunday his “deep sorrow” over the death, and his “respect for (the) opposing opinion,” of former President Carlos Menem, who died earlier in the day at age 90, going on to decree three days of national mourning.
“It was with deep sorrow that I learned of the death of Carlos Saul Menem,” posted Fernandez on his official Twitter account.
“Always elected in democracy, he was governor of La Rioja (province), president of the nation and a national senator. During the dictatorship, he was persecuted and imprisoned,” Fernandez wrote.
“All my love to Zulema, to Zulemita and to all those who weep for him today,” said Fernandez in closing, referring to Menem’s ex-wife and to his daughter, respectively.
Later, Fernandez told television channel C5N that it was Zulemita who on Sunday morning relayed to him the news of the death of the former president.
Fernandez noted in that interview that he was an official in Menem’s administration – namely the superindent of insurance – and that he left the government when the ex-president unsuccessfully sought a third term.
“Menem was well aware of my thinking,” said Fernandez. “He tolerated my critical writings regarding my understanding of the way he managed the country’s economy.”
“Menem was a man of politics. very respectful, very tolerant, … (who) respected contrary opinion,” the president said.
Despite their differences and the fact that Menem “awakened love and awakened anger,” Fernandez preferred on Sunday to emphasize that “one must respect what he objectively was, a man who did not come into politics through the window.”
The president said that Menem “had that enormous charisma that even captured those who did not love him.”
“The reality is that Menem was a unique character … (who) made himself very lovable” despite “all (our) differences,” Fernandez said.
The president decreed three days of national mourning starting Sunday to pay tribute to the memory of the man who was elected twice to lead Argentina, and the government said that a wake for the fallen ex-leader in the National Congress has not yet been organized.
Fernandez also noted that a few months ago, a bust of Menem was prepared to place in the Casa Rosada, the seat of Argentina’s executive branch, and he hoped to be able to do that at a special ceremony when Menem’s family is ready.
Menem died on Sunday at age 90, as was confirmed to EFE by spokespeople with the Los Arcos Sanatorium in Buenos Aires, where the former leader had been admitted on Dec. 15, 2020.
His parents had emigrated from Syria and Menem was born a Muslim, but became a Roman Catholic as a young man, nevertheless maintaining a strong affinity for his parents’ homeland.
An attorney by profession, Menem served two consecutive terms as president from 1989 to 1999 after having governed La Rioja, his home province, from 1973 to 1976, the year when he was arrested after the coup d’etat resulting in Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. He then was installed as La Rioja governor again in 1983, serving in that role until he launched his successful presidential campaign in 1989.
When he became president, Menem inherited a country trying to heal after years of harsh repression, the dictatorship’s killing of thousands of dissidents, a bitter defeat by the United Kingdom in the Falklands War and the implosion of its formerly strong economy.
He opened the country to trade and foreign investment, undertook an intense program of privatizing public companies, resumed bilateral and productive relations with the UK and turned Buenos Aires’ relationship with Washington 180 degrees to one of almost full and unconditional support.
Yet, his administration became mired in financial scandal and was pummeled by accusations of rampant corruption, skyrocketing unemployment and massive borrowing which ultimately led to an unprecedented economic catastrophe in the early 2000s.
In recent years, Menem was under almost constant investigation for a number of offenses, including illegal financial transactions.
Charges were filed against him for illicit enrichment and he was arrested in 2001 and was placed under house arrest for six months for alleged illegal arms sales to Croatia and Ecuador, although ultimately, he was exonerated.
He was also convicted of paying excessive bonuses during his administration, but he was never arrested after he became a senator in 2005 due to parliamentary immunity.
Nevertheless, at the time of his death, Menem was also facing charges in the explosion at a military factory in 1995 that left seven people dead and 30 injured.