BUENOS AIRES, JAN. 25 -- President Carlos Menem has promised to declare publicly his personal wealth, and to order his top aides to do the same, as part of an attempt to defuse corruption charges against his administration -- which had promised a clean break with the practices of the past.
In a televised speech Thursday night, Menem said Argentina is in a state of "moral emergency." In announcing his anti-corruption measures, he called corruption "a cancer" eating away at confidence in his government.
The furor that preceded the announcement included sharp presidential exchanges with the U.S. ambassador, allegations aimed at Menem's brother-in-law, wholesale reshuffling of Menem's cabinet and questions about a shiny new Ferrari that has become one of Menem's perks.
Earlier this month, someone in the government leaked a letter from U.S. Ambassador Terence Todman to Economy Minister Erman Gonzalez complaining of difficulties that U.S. firms had encountered in trying to do business in Argentina.
Among the examples Todman cited was the allegation that "government officials" had demanded "substantial payments" from the SwiftArmour meatpacking firm before it could import machinery for a planned $115 million plant. Thus was born the affair known here, inevitably, as "Swiftgate."
Menem demanded that Todman clarify his remarks, even as press reports were identifying Menem's brother-in-law, presidential adviser Emir Yoma, as the official who allegedly asked for the bribe. Menem said he had instructed Yoma to "initiate judicial action against those responsible for this slander," and brandished a carefully worded letter from Swift saying the firm had in fact received no "government pressure."
Todman stuck by his guns and noted that there was not necessarily a contradiction between what he had said and what Swift had said. Menem maintained that the press had blown the whole thing out of proportion, but top aides began to desert him.
Vice President Eduardo Duhalde said he saw "a clear case of corruption, either by a businessman or a state official," in the Swift affair, and added, "I only stick my neck out for President Menem himself."
Finally Menem ordered a special investigation and asked his cabinet to submit resignations. Most of the officials were retained.
Among those whose resignations were accepted was national health service director Luis Barrionuevo, a union leader who made the front pages several months ago when he said that his personal fortune had come from kickbacks and insider deals rather than from working. "It's very difficult to make money working," Barrionuevo said.
Menem also accepted the resignation of Yoma, who has denied any wrongdoing. He is the brother of Menem's estranged wife, Zulema, who has made the papers herself with repeated demands that Menem call back the two Argentine warships that have joined the allied flotilla in the Persian Gulf. The allied action is "lacking in principles," she said, and Argentina should concern itself more with winning back the Falklands.
Menem, in his anti-corruption package, ordered all executive branch officials to renounce any "privileged" government pensions they might be receiving. Such pensions pay much more than regular retirement benefits.
Menem promised to double the budget of a long-neglected watchdog agency and invite international monitoring of the government's privatization programs.
The president ordered all top officials to submit personal declarations of wealth within 15 days and promised that he would also declare his worth. Menem's has become an issue largely because of a dazzling diamond-and-sapphire ring that he began wearing recently, saying only that it was a gift, and the red Ferrari.
In July, while he was in Italy to kick off the World Cup soccer tournament, Menem admired a sleek new Ferrari Testarossa. In November, Italian industrialists Claudio and Gianfranco Castiglioni sent him one.
A leading talk-show host, Bernardo Neustadt, got wind of the gift and said he heard through the grapevine that Menem planned to donate it to a children's hospital. Neustadt praised Menem's generosity on his morning drive-time radio show. But later in the program he spoke with Menem, who denied that he intended to donate the car to anybody.
Commentators called it improper for Menem to accept such a gift and asked why in any event the import fees of more than $110,000 had not been paid. Three weeks later, Menem signed a decree stating that the car belonged to the nation, but made clear that he intended to look after it while he was president.
Then Menem took the Ferrari for a spin to a beach resort, later telling reporters that the car reached 100 mph "like nothing." Reminded that the speed limit was about 60, he responded that he had not broken any of the "habitual norms" of Argentine driving.