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From the October 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 10)

Argentina

Has a Free-Market Warrior Fallen?

Alfred Seymour Hopkins, World Press Review correspondent, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Carlos Menem
Carlos Menem, photographed in Rioja, Argentina, July 25, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
The alleged existence of Swiss bank accounts of questionable origin in the name of former Argentine President Carlos Menem has raised eyebrows in Argentina concerning his unabated political ambitions for yet another turn at the “Casa Rosada.”

“Can a man who openly lied about his personal wealth be president?” asked Veintitres after a recent front-page article in The New York Times charged Menem with having received multimillion-dollar bribes for covering up the identity of the  perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. “In any relatively serious country such a question would sound absurd. It only makes sense in the Argentina of pragmatism and impunity,” Veintitres (independent newsmagazine, July 25) concluded. Argentina is limping toward presidential elections next March, in the wake of an unprecedented economic and political crisis, and Menem is a first-line candidate for the ruling Peronist party.

Most of the information about an alleged US$10-million bribe to cover up the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association in 1994 was based on the testimony of a former Iranian intelligence agent, Abolghasem Mesbahi (“Agent C”), and previously published by the local press. In a July 28 interview on TV Channel Azul, recently acquired by media investors close to Menem, the former president charged: “There are people in the government who want to discredit me.” Página 12 (center-left, July 28) concurred: “What is certain is that the accusation against Iran and Menem in the second lead article on the first page of the world’s foremost daily newspaper is hard to justify from the journalistic point of view.”

Menem admitted having a $650,000 account, which he said was the $200,000 plus interest he had received as compensation for his confinement during the dictatorship. But he denied that he had an account of more than $5 million, alleged to be the leftovers of bribes related to the terrorist attacks or proceeds from the black-market sale of weapons to Croatia during the Balkan war. In sworn statements during his presidency and in 1999 before the Anti-Corruption Office, Menem denied holding any foreign bank accounts. Under Argentine law, he could be charged with “malicious falsification.”

According to Clarín (independent, mass-circulation, July 26), Menem’s private secretary, Ramón Hernández, has a $6-million account recently discovered in Switzerland. The suspicion, now being investigated by Argentine and Swiss authorities, is that bribe money was deposited in the names of third parties. Adding fuel to the fire, Página 12 reported (Aug. 8) that Hernández, a former policeman, was living at the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires at $410 per day, while Menem recently visited New York with 20 guests and paid $2,000 per night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Página 12 also said (Aug. 2) that the net worth of Menem’s daughter, Zulemita, rose from $425,916 in 1996 to $6 million in 2000.

The fact that Menem, an ardent free-market advocate and a self-declared “friend” of George Bush, is suspected of corruption has fueled charges that the country’s current economic crisis is rooted in the unrestrained application of market economics, a certain subject for debate in the presidential campaign.

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