The Post-Peronist


November 13, 1991|By JEANE KIRKPATRICK

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Argentina's President Carlos Menem visits Washington this week feeling good. His party fared well in recent elections, and his personal approval rating has rebounded.

Argentine voters have decided to ignore the charges of scandal that swirled about Mr. Menem's administration and focus instead on the economy. That economy looks stronger than it has in decades.

Inflation, which stood at 190 percent annually when Mr. Menem came to power, was down to just over 1 percent for the month of September. The stock market was soaring and millions of dollars that had fled to Miami to escape hyper-inflation were coming home again. Mr. Menem's party gained four seats, while the principal opposition party lost eight.

Argentines told one another that the president's surprising policies -- privatization, an open economy and an unabashed alliance with the West -- were working.

The surprise was not that the policies were working. Such policies tend to work when seriously tried. The surprise was that the Peronist Party had adopted these policies.

Juan Peron was an authentic Latin caudillo of the mid-20th century variety -- both populist and autocratic in his political style, collectivist and protectionist in his economic policies and, in world affairs, nationalist and neutralist with an anti-Yanqui flavor.

He was enormously popular with Argentina's workers and its provincial middle class. Peron and his wife, Eva, forged a powerful labor base in Argentine politics which survives to this day and guarantees the Peronist Party a strong showing in any honest election.

Since many Argentines have doubted the democratic commitment of the Peronists, their electoral strength seemed to many an obstacle to the country's full democratization. The first achievement of Mr. Menem has been to demonstrate that a Peronist government can respect republican institutions. This presidency marks the full integration of the Peronist movement into a democratic Argentina.

His second achievement has been to demonstrate that the Peronist Party is not necessarily condemned to live off past glories, but can bring today's solutions to today's problems.

A large photograph of Juan Peron hangs on the wall of Mr. Menem's office, but the president's policies have required a drastic modification of much of the Peronist legacy. In place of corporatism, state monopolies and nationalized utilities, Mr. Menem has stressed privatization. He sold the national airline, telephone company, rail lines, some of the television stations, oil fields and highways. He has plans to sell still more.

In place of radical protectionism to guard the Argentine economy against competition and exploitation, President Menem has opened the economy to trade and invited foreign investment. He has approved free-trade policies for the Southern Cone and has expressed great interest in George Bush's ''Initiative for the Americas,'' which aims to achieve free trade throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In place of the neutralism that Peron cultivated during and after World War II, Mr. Menem's Argentina has withdrawn from the non-aligned caucus, condemned Cuban human-rights violations and frankly associated itself with the United States and Western democracies, in the U.N. and elsewhere. Mr. Menem contributed two frigates to allied forces in the Gulf War. He has developed good relations with Israel and only recently concluded a state visit to that country.

He has renounced the perverse pleasures of Third World ideology, with its associated ''progressive'' leftism and anti-Americanism, and has publicly advised his fellow Latin leaders to do likewise.

Mr. Menem approaches Washington with good will and fewer ''complexes'' than Latin leaders typically bring to the White House. He will meet a U.S. president greatly interested in Latin America and enthusiastic about promoting hemispheric ties. It should be a good visit.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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