Latin America File: Menem rues jibe at Brazil

IF THE Argentine President, Carlos Menem, roars with delight over a Brazilian victory in Sunday's World Cup final, or weeps if they lose, the final whistle may have blown on the latest Brazil-Argentina diplomatic war. The conflict flared last week when Mr Menem, upset by a protest over his economic policies, told his countrymen they didn't know how lucky they were. 'How many marches would they have to stage in Brazil, where the minimum wage is half what a pensioner makes here?' he said.

The Brazilian President, Itamar Franco, was not pleased. As animated as anyone had seen him since he was photographed with a knickerless young model, he described Mr Menem's remarks as 'inelegant'. The football-loving Argentine President was probably frustrated that his team had been knocked out of the World Cup, Mr Franco said.

That hit a raw nerve in Argentina. Many Argentines believe their banned star, Diego Maradona, had been picked on by what many consider an International Football Federation (Fifa) mafia, headed by the body's all-powerful president, Joao Havelange, a Brazilian. Sixty per cent of Argentines believe Maradona had only taken pills for a cold. Mr Menem asked Fifa to reduce the ban so that Maradona might play, in the event Argentina reached the final. Few Argentines thought it was a coincidence that their key player's name had come out of a Fifa hat for a random dope test.

Nevertheless, Mr Menem backed off from escalating the tiff. Eager for Mr Franco to attend a meeting in Buenos Aires next month of Mercosur - the regional common market of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - the Argentine leader bent over backwards to apologise and praised Mr Franco's 'courageous' economic policy.

The Argentine Economy Minister, Domingo Cavallo, pledged: 'If Brazil become world champions, we will celebrate just as though Argentina had won.' So it's all ears for Mr Menem on Sunday. If he shouts, 'Come on, you cariocas,' (a colloquialism for Brazilians) it may all go down as just a storm in a World Cup.

FOOTBALL and drugs formed the backdrop to another of the region's major news stories. Three weeks before his inauguration as President of Colombia, Ernesto Samper's image was tainted by media reports that the Cali cartel, the world's biggest exporters of cocaine, had offered million-dollar sums to his election campaign. Ironically, Mr Samper's honour was partly restored by the cartel itself. Colombia's Attorney- General said on Wednesday that the cartel's leaders, the brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, had written saying they offered money not only to Mr Samper but to the two other main candidates. All three refused it, the drug barons insisted.

More than Mr Samper's plight, it was the Rodriguez Orejuela's brothers' reported links with the Colombian football team, including the coach, Francisco Maturana, that were the big talking point in a nation stunned by the murder of defender Andres Escobar in his native Medellin. Escobar had scored an own goal that helped put his side out of the World Cup.

Colombian security sources were quoted as saying they had tapes of conversations, before and after the World Cup, between Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and several players, including Mr Maturana. Many Colombians believe the Medellin cartel killed Escobar because they had gambled huge sums on the team.

The security sources reported a phone call between Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and Mr Maturana last November, in which the latter expressed fears for his life. The druglord, who is believed to own the First Division side, America Cali, promised protection.