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King Menem's Farewell

Like ancient monarchs, Latin American caudillos believe they have been granted lifetime powers.

The last days of former president Carlos Menem's political career, furiously fighting his own political extinction, has offered a pathetic example of this tradition. If he couldn't win the May 18 th presidential run-off--and it was clear before the vote that some 70% of voters would reject him in favor of a virtual unknown--he would refuse to play.

So the old tyrant, surrounded by his bodyguards and weeping supporters, announced that he would withdraw from the race. The scene was Argentine magical realism: Menem, the old but tireless caudillo, kissing the hands of his followers as they cheered from this despoiled garden near the Tropic of Capricorn.

The caudillo who oversaw the glory days of the 1990's exited the race to save himself, to avoid a defeat, and to weaken Nestor Kirchner, the man from Patagonia who is now Argentina's 49 th president. Although the public's outrage at his tactics makes a comeback unlikely, Menem still dreams of retreating with his defeated troops and reshaping himself from an alternative power base.