ROME – When Carlos Saul Menem, who ruled Pope Francis’s native Argentina for a decade in the 1990s, died on Sunday, the country lost its only ex-president ever to be welcomed by the pontiff, who’s been generally wary of receiving Argentine rulers after they’ve left office.
A close friend of Pope Francis’ predecessor as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, Menem also was aligned with the pontiff’s predecessor, St. John Paul II, leading Latin American opposition to abortion in the 1994 United Nations Cairo conference on population control.
Menem, through two of his closest collaborators, also played a key role in the opening of Cuba to the world, long before Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro publicly thanked Pope Francis for his contribution to brokering the 2014 deal.
Menem was elected in 1989 and ruled until 1999. After a Constitutional reform that allowed for his re-election in 1994, he dispatched two collaborators, Alberto Kohan and Ricardo Romano, to Cuba, after first sending them to talk with Italian Archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi, then the papal representative to Argentina.
Calabresi gave them a letter addressed to Fidel Castro, which presented the two Argentines as “bearers of a proposal for a detente with regard to Cuba” and as people “prone to peace negotiations” and of the Holy See’s “absolute confidence.”
This letter, that had the support of then Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, at the time the Vatican’s foreign minister, persuaded Fidel Castro to request an audience with John Paul II to invite him to visit Cuba. The meeting took place in 1996, and, a year, later, the Polish pontiff became the first pope to visit the island nation.
Argentine journalist Claudia Peiro reported on Menem’s initiative in 2015 in Infobae, the most read Spanish-speaking news site in the world.
Menem’s government, she told Crux Sunday, “was one that had a very good relationship with the institutional Church. At the time of his presidency, the central figure locally was that of Quarracino, with whom he had a very close bond. And as I always say, Quarracino was the first elector of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy, because he went looking for him after he was exiled by the Jesuits in Cordoba.”
“Differently from other presidents who enjoyed clashing with the Church or highlighting the mistakes made by the bishops, such as [Raul] Alfonsin and [Nestor] Kirchner, Menem chose to see the Church as an ally,” Peiro, editor of Infobae’s weekend edition, said over the phone.
In 1994, when Menem reformed the constitution, he included the defense of human life from the moment of conception – the central reason why a recent legalization of abortion in Argentina is considered to be unconstitutional – and he did so “in dialogue and in agreement” with Quaraccino, according to the journalist.
In 1998, Menem declared March 25 to be the National Day of the Unborn Child, coinciding with the feast of the Annunciation. This decree came months after Menem’s 1997 visit to St. John Paul II, and reports from the time indicate that the Argentine had promised this initiative was in the works.
Menem came from a Muslim family that emigrated to Argentina from Syria, but he converted to Catholicism in his youth. He didn’t always get along with the bishops he had to work with: when he was governor of the northern province of La Rioja, he publicly clashed with Bishop Enrique Angelelli (today considered blessed, a miracle away from sainthood), over unfulfilled promises from the campaign trail, including an agricultural reform.
Angeleli, an outspoken critic of the last military government that ruled Argentina in the 1970s, was murdered under suspicious circumstances, allegedly for his defense of the poor.
When St. John Paul II died in 2005, then-President Nestor Kirchner was angry at the Church because of a spat with then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (today Pope Francis) who’d been openly critical of corrupt politicians. Menem, who’d met the Polish pope several times, decided to attend the funeral services together with dozens of other world leaders.
Menem visited the Vatican six times during his presidency, the last one being in 1999.
In 2016, he became the first and only former Argentine president to be welcomed by Francis, who famously snubbed former president Cristina Kirchner (today the country’s vice president) during a European tour in 2017.
According to Peiro, Menem had the “right” relationship with the Church.
“Due to the abortion debate, we see in Argentina the demand to divide Church and State, but this is a result of ignorance, because they are separated. But, beyond this division, they are treating the Catholic Church as if it had fallen from the sky and landed in Argentina, completely ignoring that back in the early 1800, when we had our first [independent] Congress, half of the deputies were actually from the clergy.”
“The fact that they represent two different spheres should not mean that they exclude one another,” she said. “In this sense, I think Menem had the normal bond every Argentine president should have with the Church. Whenever its criticized, the local church should go on strike for a day so that we can comprehend the work it does running schools, hospitals, soup kitchens and day centers for drug addicts.”
Not to mention, she said that “committed Catholic priests are the only barrier stopping drug dealers.”
Menem was far from perfect. In fact, he faced many corruption charges, and there is even a city in Argentina that has declared him a persona non grata for his role in blowing up a military factory to conceal the fact that arms had been illegally sold to Ecuador and Croatia in 1995.
Menem led a tabloid-worthy personal life while he pushed Argentina to an economic boom, but his two-term 1989-1999 presidency crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals.
Recognized for his mane of black hair and bushy gray sideburns, at his peak Menem entertained the Rolling Stones and put Argentina on the international stage, but many accuse him of having sold out the country and causing many of the problems that plague it now, including incredibly strong unions that hold any president hostage.
He died after spending almost two months in the hospital for a urinary infection, heart problems and other health issues. His body will lie in state at the capitol building before being buried in an Islamic cemetery in provincial Buenos Aires, next to his son.
Though Menem died a Catholic, his first wife and children are Muslims.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma