President Menem's visit: Argentines fear their leader's jinx

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The Independent Online
WHEN SHE meets Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem for breakfast at Buckingham Palace tomorrow, the Queen may be somewhat reluctant to shake his hand. In Argentina, Mr Menem is considered to be very much mufa, or extremely bad luck.

After he shook the hand of Argentina's world powerboat racing champion Daniel Scioli in 1989, Mr Scioli's boat crashed and he lost an arm. Mr Scioli has since become an MP for Mr Menem's Peronist party and holds no grudge.

Many Argentinians blame Mr Menem for the slump in form of tennis star Gabriela Sabatini a few years ago after he played a friendly match with her. Michael Schumacher had a shunt in the Argentine Grand Prix after a presidential handshake.

A football fanatic, Mr Menem, 68, is not allowed to attend the matches of his favourite club, River Plate, or even the national side. He accepts his fate because he puts the teams' success first. A bachelor for the past couple of years, he and his friends instead order takeaway pizza,washed down with champagne, and settle in front of the TV at the presidential residence.

Superstitious Argentines, which would be most of them, do not even use his name. They call him "Mendez" instead. Factory workers and farmersadmit they wear red ribbons under their shirts when he visits them, a local tradition for warding off the evil eye.

If she is superstitious, Her Majesty may wish to enlist the help of Prince Philip to counteract the mufa. Tradition here says the most efficient method is to touch the left testicle with the right hand. There is no known antidote for woman.

It takes two to tango but it took more than Tango One, Mr Menem's presidential airliner, to get his 572-strong delegation to London. "The Charlie Show" was how the front page of the Pagina 12 newspaper described it yesterday. Even the President's brother, Senator Eduardo Menem, a member of the official delegation, could not get a seat on Tango One. He joined several hundred others, including officials, businessmen and journalists, on scheduled flights. No such ignominy for Tony Cuozzo, the President's long-time personal barber, who accompanies him everywhere. Mr Menem needs Mr Cuozzo because he has stopped wearing a toupee.

It is thought that Mr Menem left behind another constant travelling companion, a gentleman known only as Tula. Tula is his personal drummer, employed to whip supporters up into a frenzy when Mr Menem tours his own country, but apparently the beat would be inappropriate at Buckingham Palace or Downing Street.

He is unlikely to ask the Queen to take to the floor at Buckingham Palace but do not be surprised if the Argentinian president finds an excuse to dance elsewhere during his visit - "he dances a mean tango," a friend said yesterday.

He may be mufa but he remains a popular figure due to his economic successes. When the Argentine air force recently built a modern airstrip in the village of Anillaco at public expense, big enough to allow Tango One and other large airliners to land, there was some doubt as to whether it was essential in a village of 850 people. But Anillaco is his hometown and the airstrip runs right by his house. So most folks just admired Mr Mendez's nerve.