Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Scandal-plagued Menem returns to Argentina

`TRIUMPHANT' RETURN Only days after a judge struck down an arrest warrant, the former Argentinian president was welcomed by supporters and swore to run again


Former president Carlos Menem returned from nine months in Chile to a raucous, cheering homecoming, days after a judge struck down an arrest warrant against him.

To frenzied chants of "Viva, Carlos!," the 74-year-old former president was welcomed Wednesday by hundreds of well-wishers on his return to his native northwestern Argentine province of La Rioja.

"Many of you thought I'd never be back!" a triumphant-looking Menem said at a rally in the capital of La Rioja, some 980km northwest of Buenos Aires.

Since leaving office, Menem, who governed South America's second-largest economy for two terms from 1989 to 1999, has been dogged by scandals and investigations. He has lived in Chile for the past nine months, avoiding travel to Argentina or other countries to elude an arrest warrant. Menem was wanted for questioning in a probe involving multimillion-dollar accounts in Switzerland.

But Argentine federal judge Nestor Oyarbide recently struck down the warrant, clearing the way for Menem to return. Menem has said Swiss judge Christine Junod determined after an investigation that no accounts in his name existed while he was president, from 1989 to 1999.

In announcing his return this week from the Chilean capital of Santiago, the former leader said he was headed home to organize another presidential bid.

Menem has vowed to organize a center-right political group to oppose the government of President Nestor Kirchner, his left-of-center rival within the ruling Peronist Party. Kirchner was catapulted into office last year after Menem pulled out of the last presidential race.

His Chilean wife, former Miss Universe Cecilia Bolocco, is expected to join him Dec. 24 with their son Maximo Saul. The family, Menem said, would return to Chile on New Year's Eve.

Menem, who would be 77 by the time of the 2007 election, has said his age would not be a problem.

On Wednesday, supporters burst through airport security controls to greet Menem on his arrival in La Rioja province.

Enthusiastic well-wishers also swarmed a motorcade that took him several kilometers to what he said would be the first in a series of political rallies.

While his return was met with expected elation in his hometown, it remained unclear whether he would be able to overcome negative public opinion in mounting a serious presidential run.

Many Argentines still blame lavish public borrowing and spending through the Menem years for a deep economic crisis that came to a head in December 2001.

"Nowadays, the only place where Menem can win an election is in La Rioja," said Ricardo Rouvier, a political analyst.

After what was one of the worst financial meltdowns on record, the Argentine economy began growing again last year. But authorities have yet to consolidate a sustained recovery, as they struggle to restructure a record US$100 billion public debt default.

In 2001, Menem spent seven months under house arrest in suburban Buenos Aires in connection with a separate federal investigation into alleged arms trafficking during his administration. He was cleared of accusations of "illicit association" in that case.

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