Argentina: Three years after the crash

Former President Carlos Menem will fly back into Argentine politics this week after a court annulled two arrest warrants on charges of embezzling funds that had led him into exile in Chile for the past year.

Carlos Menem with his Chilean wife Cecilia Bolocco and baby
Carlos Menem with his Chilean wife Cecilia Bolocco and baby

Announcing that he will stand as a candidate in the next presidential elections in 2007, his arrival will come immediately after demonstrations marking the three year anniversary of the country’s worst economic collapse – the worst of any industrial nation in recent history.

Many blame the collapse on the former two-time president who presided over mass privatisations to foreign firms during his tenure from 1989 to 1999.

“There is no doubt that I will run again,” Menem, 74, said. “I have been working hard with delegations coming from Argentina.”


Menem is being investigated over accusations that he hid $600,000 in a Swiss bank account and that he embezzled up to $60 million from the building of two prisons. The investigations are ongoing.

He had been held under house arrest for seven months in 2001 on a separate charge of gun-running but was cleared of illicit association.

His return in time for Christmas, with his ex-Miss Universe wife Cecilia Bolocco, will ignite fresh passions, still raw after the uprising of December 2001, when hundreds of thousands of enraged protesters took to the streets and forced the resignation of a series of presidents in a matter of weeks.

Protest anniversary

This week’s anniversary is keenly felt. More than 30 people died in just 48 hours, shot by police and security guards. Names of the victims’ names are written in painted circles in front of the presidential palace, the Pink House, where they fell.

The Pink House will be the focusof commemorations

The Pink House will be the focus
of commemorations

In the following 18 months, Argentina became a hothouse for new social movements and witnessed weekly demonstrations. People met on street corners, in what became known as assembleas. Today these movements have become diffused.

As the first people gather to mark the anniversary in front of the fenced-off palace, two leading activitsts Carlos and Jesus place their blue and white banner still replete with the original slogan of those times – Que Se Vayan Todos, Out With Them All.

“We were the first assemblea to be set up after the events of the 19 and 20 of December,” says Carlos.

“But now many of them have been co-opted by the political parties. We don’t believe in working with the parties but the movement is a lot weaker now. It’s a big struggle. No one has been arrested for the killings.”


There are, however, some lasting results – there are now 15,000 people working in worker-occupied factories in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires has seen an upswing in the jobs market

Buenos Aires has seen an
upswing in the jobs market

And, albeit in less numbers than before, there is still a vast array of old and new groups marching three years on – workers, left political parties, assembleas and, of course, the Mothers of the Disappeared, still fighting for justice for the 30,000 people vanished by the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

In part it is because Nestor Kirchner’s government has presided over a surprising return of fortunes to the country’s decimated economy.

Banks in the city centre, which remained boarded up and regularly attacked for months after the collapse, bear few scars today.

Tourists, attracted by the weak currency, throng the city centre’s San Telmo district. Shops have announced that sales are up 30% on Christmas 2003 and economists are predicting the worst is over after a recovery which saw the economy reverse a downturn and grow by 8% and 9% in the past two years.

Job market

A strike by 20,000 telecoms workers ended after less than a month last week after Telefonica and Telecom Argentina, after initially offering just 3%, granted a 20% wage increase to take into account the expansion of the country’s economy.

And last week Kirchner announced his government had created 825,000 new jobs this year.

A man is bloodied in a protest in Buenos Aires over the IMF debt

A man is bloodied in a protest in
Buenos Aires over the IMF debt

But the underlying problems remain. Argentina says it will continue to find a way to pay and renegotiate its crippling debt with the International Monetary Fund.

The peso, pegged one-to-one with the dollar for 11 years, is now worth one-to-three. One in seven of the country’s 37 million people is without work, and one in two is living under the poverty line.

The return of the flamboyant Menem brings revulsion on one side and memories of a golden economic era to the other. He narrowly lost the 2003 election and many would welcome his return.

“He was good for education, for communications,” says taxi driver Pablo. “I am happy he is coming back to Argentina.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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