- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

BUENOS AIRES — Their marriage had all the makings of a Latin American soap opera.

An ambitious former beauty queen romances a disgraced ex-president twice her age. Her presence rejuvenates the aging politician, who strives to regain power amid unremitting scandals and intrigues. To top it all off, she announces just days before the election that she is pregnant with his heir.

But the protagonists of this melodrama, Chilean diva Cecilia Bolocco and former Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, have won few fans among an electorate tired of crises and corruption, forcing Mr. Menem yesterday to abandon a race for a third term as president.

Mr. Menem, 72, who trailed far behind front runner Nestor Kirchner in a runoff slated for Sunday, conceded defeat in a televised speech from his native western province of La Rioja.

“Now we have to look to the future,” Mr. Menem said as he was jostled by weeping supporters. “We have to start over again.”

Mr. Menem’s departure clears the way for Argentina’s electoral authorities to proclaim Mr. Kirchner, a 53-year-old governor of southern Santa Cruz province, as the country’s next president.

Mr. Menem’s 1989-1999 presidency was tarnished by recurrent corruption scandals, and he is widely blamed for driving Argentina to its current economic crisis, considered the worst in the nation’s history.

Mrs. Bolocco, who gave up a thriving career as one of Chile’s most glamorous television personalities to join Mr. Menem in his unflagging drive to return to power, is held by many Argentines in either indifference or contempt. Repeated attempts to affect the look of beloved former first lady Eva “Evita” Peron have been resounding flops, and Mrs. Bolocco has kept a low profile in recent months.

What once augured a storybook Latin love affair has instead become the object of ridicule.

“It’s seen as just another banality,” said Santiago Lacase, an analyst with Buenos Aires-based polling firm Ipsos-Mora y Araujo. “Bolocco’s presence has had no impact on the electorate, not so much because of who she is, but because the disapproval of Menem is so high.”

A former Miss Universe, Mrs. Bolocco met Mr. Menem in September 1999, when they spent three days side by side for her television program, “La Noche de Cecilia,” dancing tango and dining at the presidential mansion with Mr. Menem’s close friends.

Less than two weeks before their wedding in May 2001, she appeared on the cover of Para Ti, an Argentine magazine, with her hair pinned back in the style of Evita and clad in nothing but a fur stole bearing the sky blue and white of the Argentine flag. Also on the cover were her words: “I wouldn’t be scared to be the first lady.”

Radio talk shows were bombarded with angry callers firing epithets at Mrs. Bolocco. One lawyer sued her for “offense against the flag.”

“If she wants to seduce Argentines, she isn’t going to accomplish it getting naked in a magazine when people are suffering a lack of basic necessities,” Graciela Camano, a Peronist legislator, told reporters.

Mrs. Bolocco quickly apologized and has since abandoned similar attempts to imitate Evita.

Mr. Menem tried to capitalize on his wife’s pregnancy a week before the April 27 first-round presidential election, announcing at his biggest rally that his “baby is going to come with bread beneath his arm, but also the presidential sash.”

But analysts say the former beauty queen has been unable to mend Mr. Menem’s tarnished reputation.

Less than two weeks after his wedding, Mr. Menem was placed under house arrest on suspicion of involvement in illegal arms trafficking to Ecuador and Croatia.

He was released five months later by a decision from the Supreme Court, whose majority he handpicked as president, but not before his public standing had been dealt a severe blow.

While Mr. Menem edged out four competitors in the first-round election, some polls had him losing by 40 percent or more in the run-off balloting.

“What Argentines want right now is a president that governs well,” said reporter Rebeca Peiro.

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