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Argentina has a colourful new libertarian president and the left already detests him: but Argentinians who fled the economic disaster that has overtaken their country are thinking now of return.
Some call Javier Milei “el loco” (the madman) or “the wig”, though his hair is real. He played in a Rolling Stones cover band in his youth and still looks the part, sporting mutton chops and wearing leather jackets and turning up at campaign rallies with a chainsaw, symbolic of his plans to cut spending and taxes and eliminate ten of Argentina’s eighteen ministries.
A lifelong bachelor who is the son of a businessman and homemaker, he’s a tantric sex guru and proponent of group sex, though he’s called sex education in schools a Marxist plot to destroy the family and wants a re-do on Argentina’s 2020 referendum that legalized abortion. He’s a climate change and vaccine sceptic who’s earned praise from Donald Trump, who has said he’ll make Argentina great again, and from Elon Musk. He’s also inspired organized protests from Taylor Swift fans, and has called his countryman, Pope Francis, an “embarrassing communist” and worse. Milei has four 200-pound English Mastiffs he calls his children with four paws, all named after his favorite right-wing economists. They were cloned in the US from Conan, a beloved dog who died in 2017 but he claims continues to advise him through a psychic.
A newcomer to politics who was elected to congress in 2021, Milei memorably described the Argentine government as “a pedophile in a kindergarten, with the children chained up and bathed in Vaseline.” He’s not entirely wrong. The left-wing Peronists have ruled Argentina for 16 of the last 20 years and, even in a hit piece on Milei, the New York Times acknowledged that their leftist policies have “jerked the country from boom to bust.”
Inflation is at 143 per cent, the peso has lost some 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar on the black market, and 40 per cent of the country is below the poverty line. It’s a national disgrace for a proud people. At the end of the 19th Century, Argentina was so prosperous the phrase “rich as an Argentine” was a thing, but now Argentina ranks 126th in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index and 94th on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, behind developing countries like Burkina Faso, Belarus, and Benin.
In April 2020, one US dollar bought 80 pesos on the semi-official, “dolar blue” black market exchange. Argentina imposed two of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world during the Pandemic, and Milei was an outspoken opponent of these measures. The economy tanked and hasn’t recovered. When I visited in August 2022, my tour guide, Celeste, told us we arrived during a “historic time of hyperinflation.” We got 330 pesos to $1 and, for us, Argentina was cheap. But inflation has only gotten worse since then, and one US dollar now buys more than 900 pesos. (Note: The exchange market is closed today, as it is a national holiday, so we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see how the election impacts the market.)
Like many other young Argentines we met, Celeste left the country during the crisis to seek citizenship in Italy. She says the small town of 2,000 people she settled in in southern Italy had more than 200 young Argentines, all their trying to gain EU citizenship based on Italian ancestry. With the economy in shambles, it should come as no surprise that an outsider like Milei could beat Sergio Massa, the economic minister who presided over leftist policies that led to runaway inflation, going away 56 per cent to 44 per cent. One Argentine friend, Patricia, told me in an email that the country needed change. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a crazy option,” she said. “We are tired of inflation, injustice, corruption and welfare.”
Aside from shuttering ministries, including the ministry of women, gender and diversity, Milei has said he’d like to ditch the peso in favor of the US dollar, close the central bank, loosen gun laws, cut spending, lower taxes, slash regulations, introduce a school choice voucher system, and privatize state media, the national oil industry and others. “Today brings an end to this idea that the state is loot to be shared among politicians and their friends,” he said.
Milei has also taken a notably softer line on the Falkland Islands than most Argentine politicians. He takes the position that the islands belong to Argentina but that the islanders – who overwhelmingly want to remain British – must have a say in their future. He praised Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who launched the British operation to retake the Falklands from Argentine invaders in 1982, as one of “the great leaders in the history of humanity” during his campaign. This drew predictable criticism from his opponents and the “war veterans” movement, but failed to lose him the election.
Also predictably, the liberal Western media isn’t having any of his freedom agenda. The BBC rubbished him as a “far right” “radical” akin to Trump and Brazil’s former leader Jair Bolsonaro, even though neither are libertarians. The New York Times also described his win as a victory for the “far right” and slammed him as a conspiracy theorist and Trump wannabe.
Milei shouldn’t be so easily dismissed but he does have his work cut out for him. His Liberty Advances party holds just seven of 72 seats in Argentina’s Senate and 38 of 257 in the house. He’s clearly an eccentric, but he did get more than half the vote in a nation of 46 million people, so it’s deceptive to label Milei as a “far right” extremist when the same news outlets fail to describe anyone at all, even actual communists, as far left.
While the intelligentsia in Europe and North America clucks in disapproval, many Argentines are feeling hopeful. Celeste says that there was jubilation on a Whatsapp group of Argentine exiles in Italy and Spain after Milei’s win. She says many of these young exiles are hoping to return to their beloved country if Milei and his libertarian, free market policies turn the country around.
“If Argentina gets more stable and we gain more dignity, I think many will return because they really didn’t want to leave Argentina in the first place,” she said.