Argentina: Menem Under Arrest

The June 7 court order confining former President Carlos Menem to house arrest has transformed the inquiry into illegal Argentine arms shipments during the 1990s into a landmark test of the nation’s judicial independence and democratic institutions.

With federal Judge Jorge Urso’s ruling to detain the former president pending further investigation into his role in covert Argentine arms sales to Croatia in 1991 and Ecuador in 1995, “Menem becomes the first ex-chief executive who has been imprisoned in Argentina during a democratic period as the result of a judicial case investigating acts of corruption,” reported the center-left Clarín of Buenos Aires (June 7).

Menem’s house arrest marked the climax of a lengthy investigation that has produced testimony and documentary evidence linking high officials in his administration to the illicit arms sales by the government-controlled Fabricaciones Militares. The inquiry also has led to the jailing of presidential adviser Emir Yoma, former Defense Minister Antonio Erman González, and former army chief of staff Gen. Martín Balza.

Buenos Aires’ conservative La Nación (June 5) reported that a “visibly dejected” González conceded in early June that the orders authorizing the arms sales constituted executive branch decisions. A central allegation in the case against Menem, La Nación added, is that “the maneuvers were carried out under the shelter of three secret presidential decrees signed by Menem and his ministers in 1991 and 1995, which established that the arms were going to Panama and Venezuela when, in reality, they were shipped to Croatia and Ecuador.”

Menem’s defense strategy regarding the weapons shipments to Croatia, which violated a U.N. embargo on arms sales to the Balkan region following the breakup of Yugoslavia, rests in part on the assumption that “the United States made a request or suggestion that Argentina should arm the Croatians,” observed Jorge Urien Berri in La Nación (June 5).

But Berri noted that U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cast “a bucket of cold water on the defense strategy” and effectively distanced the Bush administration from Menem’s legal fate with his terse response that “we have no knowledge of any action of the government of the United States that would have encouraged the transfer of arms from Argentina to Croatia.”

Columnist J.M. Pasquini Durán, writing in the center-left Página 12 of Buenos Aires (June 7), asserted that Argentine democracy “has no cause to fear the results of this...investigation” and noted that democratic institutions in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela have been strengthened by similar legal probes involving sitting or former presidents.

In Durán’s view, Argentine society still bears “wounds that have not healed” and government institutions are struggling to rebuild their credibility nearly two decades after the return of democratic rule. “If in this case there exists the sense of justice delivered,” he wrote, “it will breed a new climate among the disenfranchised who have succumbed to skepticism...fueled by the dangerous mix of society’s failure to satisfy the minimum common good and the impunity of those who have the most.”
December 2001 (VOL. 48, No. 12)Overline Overline Overline OverlineHeadline Headline Headline HeadlineName
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