Argentina's Macho Man


Argentine President's Carlos Menem's yearning for a second term after his current mandate ends in 1995 is at fever pitch now that his Peronist Party has triumphed in congressional elections. There is, however, a problem: constitutional provisions limiting presidents to single six-year terms. To remove this obstacle, Mr. Menem has to cajole the legislature into calling a constitutional convention, and to do that he intends to hold a pressure-building referendum on the nation's single obsessive issue -- the flamboyant president himself.

By almost any measure -- not excluding the beautiful fashion models and red Ferraris he flaunts in a nation that reveres machismo -- Mr. Menem has been a raging success during his four years in power. He took office in 1989, five months ahead of schedule, as the Radical government of Raul Alfonsin collapsed in a mess of hyper-inflation and food store rioting. Since then inflation has been brought down to single digits, economic growth has achieved a 5 percent annual consistency, more than 1 million jobs have been created and foreign investment has poured in -- $9 billion from the U.S. alone in 1992.

To achieve this Argentine version of an economic miracle, Mr. Menem has conjured up something that can best be described as "Peronism without Peronism." In other words, he has junked the statist, big-union, urban-masses populism identified with Juan Domingo Peron and instituted the kind of free-wheeling free-market reforms introduced in neighboring Chile by the "Chicago Boys" (conservative economists from the University of Chicago). Moreover, he has done so in an atmosphere of relative democracy despite lapses into despotism and rampant corruption at high levels.

For the United States, the Menem era has been one of unparalleled good feeling. The president has turned the national psyche in forward-looking directions, discarding historic past grievances with the gringos such as the U.S. tilt toward Britain during the Falkland/Malvinas conflict.

Mr. Alfonsin got rid of the militarists who stumbled into that losing war and began a desperately needed healing process after years of fearsome internal struggle. But until Mr. Menem began the economic turnaround, Argentina was denied the comparative stability it enjoys today.

"Don't stop history," is the president's slogan. And his definition of history is: "Carlos Menem."

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