Guido di Tella

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The Independent Online

Guido José Mario di Tella, politician and diplomat: born Buenos Aires 12 June 1931; Foreign Minister, Argentina 1991-99; married (five children); died Buenos Aires 31 December 2001.

Guido di Tella was one of the longest-serving of Argentina's foreign ministers, holding office for eight years from 1991. He was a suave, cosmopolitan figure who was as nearly at home in the raucous rallies of the Peronists as he was teaching at St Antony's College, Oxford, or attending receptions in the White House. His career nevertheless came to symbolise the rootlessness of that part of Argentine society which was home to carefully Brylcreemed men and glamorous women but was at the same time unsure of its identity and its values.

Di Tella was born in Buenos Aires in 1931, son of Torcuato di Tella, a vigorous Neapolitan businessman and industrialist, who had found it healthier to emigrate to Argentina than to pursue the cause of anti-Fascism in Italy. Torcuato di Tella built up a motor manufacturing business, SIAM di Tella, which produced, inter alia, local versions of Austin and Morris cars and which was a symbol of Argentina's thirst for industrialisation.

Guido studied engineering at the University of Buenos Aires where, like many middle-class students, he joined in the movement against Juan Domingo Perón, who had come to power in 1945, and marched in the Línea Recta ("Straight Line") group. This sought an end to the military leader's demagogic government.

The young graduate went on to the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in the United States, where he won high marks. The political orientation of this rich and intelligent young man was changed, he claimed, by the repression he saw meted out by the naval and military officers who pitched Perón out of power in 1955, and Guido di Tella started frequenting Peronist circles.

Peronism was restored in 1973, first under the ageing Perón himself and on his death under his highly-strung widow Isabelita, and di Tella won the office of deputy minister of economy. When, in 1976, during a blizzard of hyperinflation which reached nearly 60 per cent a month, Peronism was swept away by the armed forces for a second time and di Tella was imprisoned briefly on a passenger vessel, the 33 Orientales. There he had the good fortune to be confined with Carlos Saul Menem.

Menem had forged much closer links than di Tella had with the late Perón and the heterogeneous group around him. Di Tella was quickly freed with the help of the urbane José Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, who served the military as an economic adviser as the torture and atrocities came to a climax during the so-called Dirty War of the late 1970s.

At that time di Tella took up residence in Oxford and a fellowship at St Antony's. When civilian rule was restored in 1983 after the military débâcle of the Falklands War, di Tella won a seat as a federal deputy in the province of Buenos Aires. With the election of his former cellmate Menem in 1989 he was again named deputy economy minister but was swiftly reassigned as envoy to Washington.

It was at this time he began the work of pulling Argentina closer to the US, a task which was to lead him to coin the phrase which made him famous in his own country. Asked whether Argentina had good relations with Washington, he replied that Argentina enjoyed "carnal relations" with the most powerful state in the western hemisphere. (He never made clear which party was supposed to be penetrating the other, or whether he cared.)

In February 1991, Menem appointed di Tella foreign minister, a post he was to keep until December 1999. Prosperous, often dressed in tweeds and with excellent English, di Tella gave an exotic touch to the bizarre group of opportunists, professional fraudsters, tricksters and drug dealers who surrounded Menem.

As foreign minister, di Tella did all he could to better relations between Argentines and Falkland Islanders, without ever abandoning Buenos Aires' claim to the territory. Vainly he had soft toys delivered to every child in the Falkland Islands and every Falkland family received a video which put out di Tella's point of view about the future of the Crown Colony. He visited the islands in 2000.

After Menem left office in 1999, di Tella was one of those who was prosecuted with him for the sale of 6,500 tons of arms to Ecuador and Croatia as a time when there was a UN embargo on such sales. The case against him was halted last year after his lawyer pleaded he was unfit for trial on health grounds.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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