National Geographic : 1994 Dec
"I never believed," a broker said, "that I, or my son, would see the changes being made now." HE PRESIDENT IS 64, just below average height, trim; the great sideburns that reached down to his jawbone when he took office, and were his trademark, have now been discreetly clipped back. But it is the eyes you remember: brown, quick, questing. "My father was a traveling salesman," he said, "and I worked side by side with him, helping him go from door to door. And when he was able to open a small store, he sent me to the stores of competitors to look at the prices. If sugar was priced at 20 cents a pound, for instance, he would sell it for 18." The president smiled at the memory. We talked in the Casa Rosada, the "pink house," the presidential mansion by the Plaza de Mayo, the main square of Buenos Aires. Carlos Saul Menem is an unusual President of Argentina: Not only was his father a ped dler, but both his parents were Syrian immi grants, Muslims, in this traditionally Spanish and Catholic country. And Mr. Menem comes not from this great and sophisticated capital city but from La Rioja, a sere and impover ished province 500 miles to the northwest. He likes to race cars, play soccer, party late; he proclaims himself a fatalist. Yet Mr. Menem, a lawyer and former gov ernor of La Rioja, now nearing the end of his six-year term, has made dramatic changes in Argentina and Buenos Aires. These changes are helping sweep away the errors and trage dies that marked a half century of Argentine life. Those included military coups d'etat, deadly violence, and economic policies that led to corruption, failed public services, and a currency without value. "What I feel I can pride myself on since my election in 1989 is changing the mentality of JOHN J. PUTMAN, formerly a Senior Assistant Edi tor, has written 22 stories for the magazine. STUART FRANKLIN, who lives in Oxford, England, photo graphed Shanghai for the March 1994 issue. Buenos Aires-Making Upfor Lost Time the people, making them understand that the road we had been following was leading us to complete disaster. "Politicians have been discussing economic reform for 40 years," Menem said, "but not one of them had the courage to implement change. I get my strength from my mind. God gave man this fundamental tool. With it you are able to control your body and your spirit and to overcome any hurdle. I never give up. I never lose courage. "My goal is for Argentina to grow constantly to the year 2000, to take again our place among the best ten countries in the world, to regain the time and space that have been lost." It was dark when I left the Casa Rosada; car lights were switching on as I walked up the Plaza de Mayo toward the old cathedral. How much history had transpired here, I thought. The Casa Rosada itself had risen on the ruins of an old Spanish fort. Across the way in the Cabildo, the city council hall in Spanish times, the revolution began in May 1810; the month gave the plaza its name. Here in the 1940s and '50s the "shirtless ones" by the tens of thousands had cheered President Juan Per6n, and here the military in 1955 seized his power and exiled him. And here too in the 1980s the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched, demanding an accounting of their children, kidnapped and murdered by another military regime. I thought too of others I had talked with in this huge and complex city. A union leader jailed six years by the military, recalling the terror of the past: "What happened to us was like a quiet river that overflows one day and surprises even the people who are camping peacefully beside it." "I never believed," a broker said, "that I, or my son, would see the changes being made now. All my life I have seen my country go only down, down, down." Clearly, many hopes are vested in the presi dent from La Rioja.