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Carlos Menem: Argentina’s former playboy president now a convict

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Former Argentine President Carlos Menem, 82, who enjoyed broad political power for a decade in the 1990s, has now become the first democratically elected former head of state in Argentina to be convicted and sentenced to prison.

A court sentenced Menem, a current senator, to seven years in prison on Thursday after he was convicted last Friday of illegal arms trafficking to Ecuador and Croatia during his term from 1989 to 1999.

Citing health reasons, Menem was not present in court for the sentencing.

Menem left his economic and political mark on Argentina in the ’90s for implementing neoliberal structural reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund, which changed the country’s course from a classic doctrine of peronismo, a reference to the policies of former leader Juan Domingo Perón and his second wife, Eva Perón, the First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

Menem was a charismatic leader who loved to entertain foreign dignitaries. He privatized most public companies, which later were nationalized again by a different peronista government. He pegged the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, a move that imploded the economy in 2001, generating the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

He pardoned many of those responsible for the 1976-1983 dictatorship, as well as members of guerrilla groups.

His Senate term is scheduled to last until 2017, but the court requested that his immunity be revoked in order to serve the prison sentence.

As a senator, Menem has accomplished little, presenting only two bills last year, including one that sought a government subsidy for a local taekwondo school.

Menem was placed under house arrest in 2001, also on charges of arms trafficking, but the Supreme Court – whose members were his political allies – ordered his release weeks later.

The illegal arms sale to Ecuador took place despite Argentina’s role as peace negotiator in a conflict between Ecuador and Peru.

Despite allegations of corruption, Menem won a first round of presidential voting in 2003 with 24 percent of votes against Néstor Kirchner, who received 22 percent. However, Menem ceded the second round to Kirchner, who served as president until 2007.

His immunity from prosecution helped keep at bay dozens of criminal cases filed against him, including allegations that he helped cover up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead.

In the ’90s, at the peak of his political power, Menem spearheaded a new social phenomenon denominated “pizza with champagne,” which blended the ordinary with nouveau riche who rejected austerity measures and embraced an ostentatious lifestyle.

During that era, the presidential residence kept its doors open to the celebrity world, including Brazilian television actress Xuxa, German model Claudia Schiffer, rock legends the Rolling Stones, Mexican singer Luis Miguel and U.S. pop superstars Madonna and Michael Jackson.

But the door was closed on his wife, Zulema Yoma, with whom he split in 1990, later marrying Chile’s former Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco. They had one son.

Menem had two children with Yoma, a daughter named Zulemita and a son who died in a helicopter accident under mysterious circumstances.

Now, long gone are the days when the flashy ex-president appeared aboard a fire-red Ferrari, racing from Buenos Aires to the Atlantic city of Pinamar in less than three hours, a 400-kilometer distance, and a move that violated several traffic laws.

Today bony and silent, the current image of the former president has little in common with his incorrigible and seductive personality of the ’90s, when he was considered a type of modern-day Don Juan, a playboy, mystic and gambler, racecar driver, pilot and an avid player of football, basketball, tennis and golf.

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