Former President Carlos Menem, who aims to return to power, yesterday pledged to start cooperating with two judges who are investigating corruption charges against him.
Menem, who governed from 1989 to 1999, returned to Argentina from Chile on Wednesday to launch his political comeback after the judges withdrew international warrants for his arrest in two separate indictments.
They had issued the warrants after Menem, 74, repeatedly eluded court summons and fled across the Andes to live with his Chilean wife, former beauty queen Cecilia Bolocco, and their toddler son, Máximo Saúl.
The judges continue looking into charges Menem ? or his close relatives and aides ? hid money from tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts and misused public funds during the construction of two prisons.
In 2001, two years and a half after he left office in December 1999, Menem was placed under house arrest for over five months on allegations that he led an arms smuggling ring. Argentina sold five tons of arms to Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995, violating international embargoes. Menem was freed thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.
Yesterday, the veteran Peronist chief sought to soften his antagonism toward the courts, signing an order to show up for questioning and not leave the country without a judge's permission. Otherwise, the court will freeze three million pesos of his assets.
"If he does not comply with the norms established by the court ... (the court) will proceed in the execution of the assets he has provided as bond," said Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide, one of the two investigating judges. Oyarbide is probing the Swiss account affair. Menem also appeared yesterday before Federal Judge Jorge Urso, who is in charge of the jail building scheme investigation. Urso was the judge who put Menem under house arrest as part of the gunrunning scandal.
Menem, who said he posted the three million bond with donations from friends and relatives, says he was an honest leader and is a victim of political persecution.
Judge Oyarbide said on Friday he had been notified by a judge in Switzerland that Menem has no accounts there, but he said the probe continues and includes possible Swiss accounts held by relatives or high-level members of his government.
Court sources said Menem requested both judges for authorization to leave the country before the end of the year. The reports said Urso had already given him a green light to leave Argentina on December 30 and spend most of January abroad. Menem was reportedly still waiting for Oyarbide's decision. Menem was in the courthouse for around 30 minutes.
At his homecoming rally last week, Menem lashed out at President Néstor Kirchner for his leftist ideas and vowed to bring back Argentina's "glory days" of the 1990s. He has said he will run for president in 2007.
A poll published by the daily Página/12 on Sunday, however, shows that almost eight out of every 10 Argentines say they will never vote for Menem again.
Last year, Menem made a failed attempt to win a third term in office. He won the first round in the April 27 presidential election with 25 percent of the votes but walked out of the second round, scheduled for May 18, as polls were showing he would be trounced by Kirchner.
Kirchner and Menem are both members of the ruling Peronist party. But Menem ruled as a conservative, ushering Argentina into neoliberalism during his two consecutive terms in office, while Kirchner has put Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001-2002 down to Menem's policies. Instead, Kirchner is more of a centre-left populist.
The Peronist party, which has dominated local politics since it was founded by Juan Perón in 1945, is currently leaderless. Menem has said he wishes to re-launch his leadership of the party in internal elections, likely to be staged next year. Kirchner, on the contrary, has shown no interest in running the ruling party and seems more interested in building cross-party support for his administration.