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Break-up of First Family Intrigues Argentines

June 5, 1990

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ The marriage of President Carlos Menem and his wife Zulema had the trappings of a fairy tale.

Children of Syrian immigrants, they met during a visit to the old country, married after a whirlwind courtship and raised a son and daughter while Menem’s political star took him from a jail cell to a governor’s mansion to the presidency.

Now, as they are on the verge of a very public break-up, their actions are the stuff of soap operas.

Mrs. Menem denounces the father of her children as a ″womanizer″ and fires political broadsides at her husband. Menem’s social policies are inhuman, she says, his economic plan doomed and his staff corrupt.

After complaining earlier this year that telephones at the presidential residence were tapped, Mrs. Menem walked out. Last month, Menem did the same and has since slept in government offices and the apartments of friends.

Magazines and newspapers have had a field day covering the story, with juicy facts and rumors splashed on covers and front pages.

Menem is laying legal groundwork to boot Mrs. Menem from the residence if she won’t leave on her own.

The whole affair is ″grotesque,″ says Menem, 59. He usually refuses to comment on developments, but said ″I don’t know whether to get mad or laugh″ when asked about her claim he has been ″kidnapped″ by his aides.

Mrs. Menem, 46, declined through her press secretary to be interviewed on the subject.

Residents of this nominally Roman Catholic nation seem intrigued but hardly scandalized by the marital feud. Menem-watchers say it hasn’t affected his policies, public image or relations with the church.

″Everyone knows their last reconciliation was a political act to help him win the election″ in May 1989, said Nolberto Fernandez, editor of the celebrity magazine ″La Revista.″

″It’s not a political ‘problem’ for him,″ said pollster Manuel Mora y Araujo. ″That’s what she would like it to be, but so far she hasn’t been successful in making it one.″

The Menems have had a stormy relationship for years. Both are ambitious, determined, quick-tongued and hot-tempered.

An avid sportsman who races speedboats and rally cars, Menem has made no secret of his attraction to other women. Mrs. Menem, a striking blonde, has been linked with other men.

By some accounts, their marriage in October 1966 was arranged by their Moslem parents. Menem was reported to have been in love with a young divorcee he continued to see for years after the wedding.

Following the March 1976 coup that toppled President Isabel Peron, Menem, a provincial governor and leading member of the populist Peronist Party, was jailed for three years, then put under house arrest.

The couple did not get together immediately after his release. When they did, they split up again in 1984. A second reconciliation, at the urging of papal nuncio Ubaldo Calabresi, came four years later on the eve of a crucial primary election.

Politics, not love, seems at the heart of their conflict.

″She wants a formal political position and he refuses to give her one,″ said a Peronist official, who commented on condition his name not be disclosed.

During the election campaign, the First Lady-to-be tried to evoke comparisons with Evita, the wife of Juan Peron who helped him win election as president in 1946 and endeared herself to millions of poor Argentines with her charitable works. Menem did not help; the effort flopped.

Mrs. Menem, a Moslem who has hinted her husband’s conversion to Catholicism - the state religion to which all presidents must adhere - was something less than an act of faith, also said during the campaign:

″I support Carlos Menem, but I want people to know I’m not here just as a symbol. I’m going to act. I’m going to do things. I’m going to work.″

During the 11 months of Menem’s presidency, Mrs. Menem has raised funds for schools and hospitals. But while her sister and cousin have been appointed to high posts, she has not.

Asked whether Mrs. Menem’s connections with labor leader Saul Ubaldini, retired army rebel Col. Mohamed Ali Seineldin and other influential critics of her husband eventually might force Menem to see things her way, the Peronist official said:

″Not at all. It’s not just that Menem has stood up to tougher opponents as much as he never ‘gives’ anything to anybody. Sometimes, he seems to. With her, he’s not even pretending.″

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