Carlos Menem, who has died aged 90, was elected to his first term as president of Argentina in 1989 on a platform of leftist nationalism, which he immediately ditched in favour of a drastic programme of neoliberalism. So skilfully did he perform this political conjuring trick that he was able, via a constitutional change, to obtain a second term in 1995.
Argentina would baulk when, in 1999, he proposed a third. By then, the magic had long been rubbing off. But Menem never ceased to believe in his own ability to reinvent himself. Although pursued for corruption and illicit arms deals, and at one point placed under house arrest, he always seemed able to bounce back.
Menem was born in Anillaco, in the poor and backward northern province of La Rioja, to well-to-do Syrian immigrant parents, Saúl and Mohibe Akil Menem, and from an early age he was attracted to politics and the law. While he was a student at Córdoba University, a defining early moment came in 1951, when the university basketball team of which he was a member visited the capital, Buenos Aires. There he met President Juan Perón and his wife, Evita. An inspired Menem became an instant and lifelong Peronist.
Just six years later he found himself – for the first time but by no means the last – under arrest on political charges. In the same year, 1955, that he graduated as a lawyer, Perón was overthrown in a coup and Menem began defending political prisoners. His detention, which lasted a few months, was for supporting a counter-coup.
In March 1976, when Perón’s widow, Isabelita, was ousted by the military, Menem was governor of La Rioja. Picked up again, he spent the next two years in custody, before being conditionally released. After the debacle of the Falklands war in 1982 and the fall of the military regime, he was once again elected to the governorship.
The Peronist movement was split between traditionalists and the “Renovadores” of the reformist wing of which Menem was a leader. In July 1988, he beat the rightwinger Antonio Cafiero in the first-ever internal primaries held by the Peronist Justicialist party, and became its presidential candidate. The following year he defeated the candidate of the ruling Radical party (UCR), obtaining almost 50% of the votes.
The outgoing president, Raúl Alfonsín, stepped down five months early, amid an economic crisis in which annual inflation rose to almost 5,000%. His successor performed an instantaneous political U-turn similar to those effected by Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela and Alberto Fujimori in Peru at around the same time.
Previously, Menem had defended the role of the state and opposed privatisations or anything that smacked of neoliberalism. But as president he hacked away with such gusto that by the time he left office he had privatised more than 400 state firms. Transport, energy and telecommunications – even social security and pensions – all ended up in private hands. The labour market was deregulated, and the welfare state set up by his hero Perón was in effect dismantled.
The economy minister Domingo Cavallo set about smashing inflation by a policy of pegging the Argentinian currency, the austral, to the US dollar. This was followed by a much more drastic move: the government brought back the Argentinian peso and made it fully convertible with the dollar. By the mid-1990s this had worked so spectacularly that annual price rises had fallen to the lowest level in the world – only 0.1%. But the hidden costs of this policy, especially in the form of increased indebtedness, were so severe that Menem’s successor, Fernando de la Rúa, would be forced from office in 2001 amid the ensuing economic meltdown.
Menem’s first term was also notable for controversial pardons favouring former military junta members, along with the guerrilla leader Mario Firmenich, issued in response to uprisings by rightwing rebels in the armed forces known as the Carapintadas.
The period also saw two major terrorist attacks: the first in 1992 on the Israeli embassy, where 29 died; and the second, which killed 85, at the headquarters of the AMIA, a Jewish organisation. After he left power, Menem would be accused of perverting the course of justice by seeking to divert the investigation away from the alleged perpetrators, Hezbollah and the Iranian government.
The first family, meanwhile, began to treat Argentinians to a long-running political soap opera in which Menem’s wife, Zulema Yoma, and her relatives figured prominently. The plot involved not only a messy and very public separation, but accusations of corruption and money-laundering against relatives of both the president and the first lady.
There was also tragedy. In 1995 the couple’s son, Carlos, known as Junior, was killed in a helicopter crash. Zulema never accepted that this had been an accident, insisting that the aircraft had been brought down by gunfire, but despite the exhumation of the body, the accusation was never proved.
On the international front, Menem was one of the architects of the four-nation Mercosur trading group, comprising Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, founded in 1991. Unlike the Brazilians, with whom he was often at odds, the Argentinian president was keen to move as quickly as possible to its absorption within the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposed by the US president George HW Bush. During Menem’s two terms, Buenos Aires moved steadily closer to Washington, to the extent that he defined the desired relationship as “carnal” and he even proposed the dollarisation of the whole region. He was rewarded, when Bill Clinton became US president, with membership of the elite club of key non-Nato allies. It did no harm that he also normalised relations with Britain, becoming in 1998 the first Argentinian president to visit London since the Falklands war.
Domestically, however, Menem was so widely repudiated by the time he left office that another attempt to win a third term (in 2003, after the country’s financial crisis) ended in humiliation. His massive, and apparently ill-gotten, fortune, a scandal involving contraband Argentinian arms sales to Croatia and Ecuador (for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013), and a widespread belief that he was ultimately responsible for the economic crisis had all contributed to an irreversible decline in his political fortune.
Although he reached the second-round runoff in 2003 against Néstor Kirchner, he pulled out after polls suggested he would be trounced. Bitterly, he sought to undermine Kirchner by suggesting his victory was somehow illegitimate. He became a senator for La Rioja from 2005 until his death.
His second marriage, in 2001, to the former Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco, ended in divorce in 2011. He is survived by their son, Máximo; by a daughter, Zulema, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1991; and by a son, Carlos, from a relationship with Martha Meza.
• Carlos Saúl Menem, lawyer and politician, born 2 July 1930; died 14 February 2021