Carlos Menem on Thursday became the first democratically elected president of Argentina to be slapped with a prison sentence. The former Peronist leader, now 82, was given seven years in prison for his role in smuggling arms to Croatia and Ecuador during his 10-year tenure (1989-1999).
Menem, who is still a senator, was also barred from public office for 16 years, but this decision will be appealed before the Supreme Court.
The former president had already been found guilty by another court in March, but the sentence had not yet been defined. Until now, the only leaders to be sent to jail in Argentina were former military dictators.
Still remembered for his playboy attitude and his Ferrari, Menem was found guilty of signing three secret decrees authorizing the sale of 6,500 tons of war material to Panama and Venezuela between 1991 and 1995, although in reality the weapons ended up in Croatia and Ecuador, both of whom were under United Nations arms embargoes. The European country was fighting for independence from the former Yugoslavia, under Serbian domination. The court, in handing down the sentence, noted that Argentinean soldiers were on the ground at the time, serving as part of a UN peace mission.
In 1995 Ecuador was caught up in a military conflict with Peru over border disputes. Argentina was acting as one of the guarantors of peace between both nations, which had already faced off over similar issues in 1941 and 1981. News of the arms smuggling irritated Peruvian authorities, since Peru had been one of the few Latin American countries to offer Argentina military support during the Falklands War against Britain (1982).
Menem was the president who ended the hyperinflation of 1989/1990 and introduced the monetary system by which one peso equaled one US dollar. This system collapsed just two years after he left office. He was also the country’s leader at a time of economic growth — later termed unsustainable — tinged by rising unemployment. Menem opened up the national economy and undertook privatization drives in procedures that were often suspected of concealing corrupt practices. Several Spanish companies won state contracts during those years.