President Menem's visit: Talks aimed at resolving trade rows

Click to follow
PRESIDENT CARLOS Menem arrived in London last night stressing reconciliation, Argentina's historical and cultural links with Britain, and his confidence that the arms embargo imposed against his countryafter the Falklands conflict would soon be a thing of the past.

Immaculately groomed as always, sporting gold cufflinks encrusted with diamond M's, President Menem seemed relaxed and looking forward to his six-day visit, intended to set the seal on the new, easier relationship between Britain and Argentina.

"Why maintain an embargo against Argentina unless it is a symbol, perhaps, of what happened 16 years ago?" he asked. "I'm confident the authorities of this magnificent country will decide to lift the arms embargo," he said.

As a possible quid pro quo, he hinted that he might veto draft legislation before the parliament in Buenos Aires that gives Argentina a theoretical say in fishing and oil activities around the Falklands, which Britain vehemently opposes. "The possibility of a presidential veto exists," Mr Menem noted.

Tiptoeing through the minefield of the Pinochet affair, President Menem refused to be drawn directly into the issue of whether the former Chilean dictator should be set free. "This is a matter for Chile, Spain and Britain. Argentina is in no way involved," he said. He denied that Chile's President, Eduardo Frei, had asked him to press Tony Blair on the issue.

Obliquely, though, he made clear his view that the arrest had unleashed dangerous forces. "This has been a huge problem for Chile - old wounds were reopened, wounds that were healing only slowly. All those demonstrations, both for and against Pinochet, they are not good for democracy."

The Argentine president again denied that he had apologised for the Falklands conflict, whatever the headline in the Sun newspaper might have suggested. That interpretation was "wrong", he said. "I'm not saying sorry. I just regret the loss of life. I feel pain for the lives lost."

Mr Menem added that he had opposed the war at the time and had spent five years in jail for his opposition stance towards the military junta.

This week will not all be heavy matters of state. At the end of his stay President Menem plans a round of golf at St Andrews, possibly with his old friend and partner on the links, the racing driver Jackie Stewart. He confessed to a "presidential" handicap of 26 - not bad, he implied, for a man in his sixties who had only taken up the game five years before.

An avid football fan, Mr Menem also acknowledged a fondness for Manchester United, largely due to his friendship with Bobby Charlton. "If I can get to see a match this week, I will," he declared.

The emotional high point of the visit will be a wreath-laying ceremony this morning at the South Atlantic memorial in St Paul's Cathedral. After the wreath-laying, attended by the Duke of York and the chiefs of Argentina's armed forces, Mr Menem will have lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Tomorrow he holds two hours of talks with the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street, where economic co-operation will be at the top of the agenda.

Britain is now the third largest foreign investor in Argentina, behind the United States and Spain. Trade between the former enemies has jumped four-fold since 1990, when full diplomatic relations were resumed after the conflict.

Underlining the growing ties, many business leaders, as well as five ministers and 40 journalists, are part of Mr Menem's massive entourage. The President will also hold talks with Eddie George, the Governor of the Bank of England.

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Ken Livingstone, Review, page 4