Menem profits by Pinochet arrest

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN YESTERDAY told Chile that it was "neither proper nor possible" to intervene in legal moves by Spanish judges to extradite the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

Chile has formally asked Britain to release Gen Pinochet, who is under arrest at a private London Clinic. But the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said at a meeting at the Foreign Office yesterday with Mariano Fernandez, Chile's deputy foreign minister, that the proper legal processes must be followed.

The international row over Gen Pinochet has cast this week's official visit to Britain by Argentina's President Carlos Menem in a new light. The Falklands notwithstanding, Mr Menem will be seeking to cement diplomatic and economic ties which have grown increasingly cordial since the beginning of the 1990s, while the man who helped Britain defeat Argentina in 1982 is in British custody.

Argentina is now Britain's second-largest market in South America, and the Argentinian president will be bringing dozens of businessmen with him as well as half his cabinet and the country's four military chiefs of staff. Attempts by Downing Street and the Sun to help Mr Menem defuse the Falklands issue have gone somewhat awry in the row over whether or not his words could be interpreted as saying "sorry" (although the president does not speak English, and his talks here will have to be conducted through an interpreter). But in his subsequent comments, and in a wreath-laying ceremony at St Paul's, to which he will be accompanied by British and Argentinian veterans of the Falklands war, Mr Menem is seeking to distance himself from the military regime in Argentina which matched Gen Pinochet's atrocity for atrocity.

The contrast between the two men, however, is not as great as it might seem. Traditionally the military has had a higher political profile in Argentina than in Chile, which before Gen Pinochet had long been democratic. Argentina admitted large numbers of Nazis after the Second World War and continues to harbour fascists. The Croatian Dinko Sakic was extradited only last summer on charges relating to his command of a 1940s concentration camp known as the "Balkan Auschwitz".

Mr Menem has come under heavy criticism from the opposition at home for heading what they call a democradura (a play on words, roughly translatable as a "democtatorship"). This is because he granted amnesty to the generals who fought the Falklands war and the "dirty war" against internal opposition, but also because he seems determined to cling to power. He obtained a change in the constitution to allow him to return for a second successive term in 1995, and many believe he will try to change it again, so that he can run a third time. His comments on the matter are ambiguous.

The Syrian-descended Mr Menem is often mocked in Argentina for his hairpiece and suspected plastic surgery - after returning from a weekend away with a puffy face, he said he had been stung by a wasp, a comment which has entered the lexicon of political jokes - but his estranged wife Zulema has loudly claimed that he has a more sinister side. Their son, Carlitos (or Carlos Jr), was killed in a private helicopter returning from a motor race, and the former Mrs Menem has long cast doubt on the official report that it was an accident. She and others say there were bullet holes in the helicopter; a man who admitted on a TV talk show that he shot it down later recanted.

Since the marriage rupture, the Menems' daughter, also named Zulema, has acted as his First Lady, and will be accompanying him to Britain.