(Photo by DANIEL GARCIA / AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Carlos and Me

Following Carlos Menem’s recent passing, David Smith remembers his relationship with the bold and cunning politician

The first time meeting the man lingers long in the memory bank, being a reminder of youth, and maybe prime time, on both our parts. Early morning at Buenos Aires city airport. Told of our presence, my new friend Carlos sends a message to delay a commercial flight, yes he held up a regular commercial flight, delayed at the flick of his fingers, to his home in the dusty, remote Argentine province of La Rioja. Pity the poor passengers, I think, as he strides across the tarmac to us.

“I’m delighted to meet you, and hear of your interest in a humble man like me,” says Carlos, giving me a lengthy arm-rub, and that look in the eye, the hallmark of the pro politician. I just remember being astonished by the sideburns, so thick, so long, dark black flecked with theatrical white whiskers. Mutton chops if ever I saw. And the beady eye, the eye of a winner I surmised. Or a street animal sniffing opportunity, alongside risk.

And the beady eye, the eye of a winner I surmised. Or a street animal sniffing opportunity, alongside risk

It was late 1988, six years after our two countries had gone to war over those islands at the end of the world. Do we call them the Falklands, or the Malvinas, as he would have them be? Good question to self as we conducted an instant TV interview.

One Carlos Menem was about to win the Presidency of Argentina, seeking to change his country, perennial under-achiever, ever-present on the stage of default and disaster, change it once and for all. “The time has come for us to look ourselves in the mirror, and accept our defectos, change course forever.” The idea of an Argentine leader using that word, defects, and a Peronist to boot, was unthinkable before the suave, theatrical Mr Menem won power in 1989.

Come those years at the top we’d see him drive racing cars, looking like the immortal Argentina ace Fangio, dance tangos with Hillary Clinton, and invite supermodels such as Claudia Schiffer to the Casa Rosada, the pink palace of the President in the heart of Buenos Aires. In time he would marry a former Miss Universe.

Never knowingly undersold, that was Carlos Menem. And the agenda was as bold as some of his photo stunts. Free trade and open markets, selling off state assets to foreign investors, having the country live within its means, dollarizing the economy to curb hyper-inflation. For years the fellow was the darling of Wall Street and the World Bank, driving an economy that grew every cycle by 6-7 per cent. The neo-liberal Washington consensus never had it so good in the global south.

And my friend had a canny understanding of the way the world worked, and how best to use the microphone abroad to advance his attempt at revolution back home.

In those years, I’d receive an annual call from his Chief of staff at the ITN office in Washington, where I was based. Usually, I noticed, it was a Monday. “The President hopes you and your family are doing well,” he said, assuring me I was in the leader’s thoughts, so manipulative and charming in the same moment. “He has a window to see you this Thursday, and he hopes you will consider it worthwhile.”

Almost always, I made the trip, instantly with the blessings of my editors because they had come to know my buddy Carlos made news, the kind of News that had C4News quoted in The Times, and the FT, even the dear Daily Mail. Not least when he ended the state of war between Britain and Argentina. Yes, to our camera.

We’d flown down to Buenos Aires wary, as ever, that Menem would use us only to propagate the idea that he was an agent of change, dragging his country out of the past and into that first-world future of smaller government at home, open doors abroad, and rich pickings for hedge fund managers. Heck, he even promised to talk to “La Thatcher,” as he called the British PM.

That promise, first made to us that morning at Buenos Aires airport, had me thinking en route about how best to play the ballet that was coming now, between foreign correspondent and cunning politician using your camera for his own ends. “I want to see if he can end the state of war between our countries,” I told my producer, an Argentine who had fled her country during military dictatorship for university in Britain, and ended up having her bank accounts frozen by the Thatcher Government as the armada headed south to those islands. “Dream on,” she replied. “There’s no way he will end the war. All of us know the Malvinas are ours!” I chuckled to myself.

My friend had a canny understanding of the way the world worked, and how best to use the microphone abroad to advance his attempt at revolution back home

As ever, the man himself was charm itself, walking briskly into his magnificent private office with another warm arm-rub, asking about me and my family over coffee together, wondering whether I’d had a good journey, and reminding me to call him if there was anything I needed during my stay. A wink told me I might ask for almost any favour from this fellow. He suggested, along the way, we take a look at pictures of him playing soccer with Diego Maradona that week. Ever the showman.

Having explained how he was turning his country around economically, we turned to the elephant in the interview. Those islands. Menem produced the standard text on claiming sovereignty. “Argentina is going to persevere on this as it has since 1833 when the Malvinas were taken from us,” he said, and I stifled a yawn as he added: ”we are going to insist and insist.” Then the door opened as he ventured the thought that ‘this is a subject we can put under the umbrella of talks, as they say.” Keep it simple, I told myself. No room for diplo-speak now, so don’t leave wiggle-room.

“Mr President,” I interjected. Almost never, in my line of work, did you use a title, because it suggested deference. But I wanted to speak to his sense of self-importance, I remembered the no-nonsense majesty of his flight delay that morning at the airport. “Mr President, is the Malvinas, the Falklands war over?” For his benefit, and my audience, both names on air.

Si. It is definitely over. The war is over. No more state of war.”

Make my day, Carlos. Thank you, and good-night. A terrific lead story. Headlines in those newspapers so important to my bosses. More than that, the State Department in Washington, then the White House welcomed the news. And my own government had been given irrefutable cue to talk to the Argentines. Johnny Gaucho meets Iron Lady. Or something like that.

And I, by the way, got a big hug from the Argentine producer. Years later, we married. The last time I saw Carlos, a few years back, he had aged dramatically via years in court for alleged corruption, and abuse of power, but he was still a Senator, albeit diminished by the trials and the failure of his grand project at home as President.

Well, he asked me how Sonia was, how our kids were doing, and of course whether he could do something for me. A politician, a real pro, right to the end. RIP Carlos.

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