HomeWorld NewsAnalysis | Javier Milei’s perilous quest to ‘make Argentina great again’

Analysis | Javier Milei’s perilous quest to ‘make Argentina great again’

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Not long after Javier Milei emerged as the clear winner of Argentina’s presidential election, praise and celebration rolled in from a conspicuous corner. “I am very proud of you,” former U.S. president Donald Trump posted on his Truth Social platform. “You will turn your Country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!”

Since Milei’s ascent began, parallels to Trump have swirled. A self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” with a sweeping libertarian vision to revive a nation long mired in economic dysfunction, Milei is a brash outsider with no political track record, a curious hairstyle and a celebrity largely built through antics on prime-time television. He has contempt for an entrenched establishment — while Trump wanted to “drain the swamp,” Milei seeks to defenestrate the “caste” of political elites — and vows an all-out political and culture war against enemies to the left.

There’s explicit solidarity, to boot: Milei embraced conspiracy theories about electoral fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and his supporters fly the yellow Gadsden flag popular among the American far right. And as in Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton, Milei’s defeated opponent, sitting Economy Minister Sergio Massa, was seen widely as an uninspiring embodiment of a tired ruling order, an operative whose own opportunism and shifting allegiances within Buenos Aires’s political landscape earned him a derisory nickname: the “pancake,” flip-flopping his way into leadership.

Milei’s insurgent rise from the fringes of the far right relied on the endorsement of the more traditional center-right. But it was powered by profound public discontent with Argentina’s sclerotic status quo, especially from a generation of younger voters who have seen little relief from years of endemic fiscal crisis and debt, and have no more patience for the appeals and soothsaying of the establishment.

“For only the second time in its history, Argentina has seen 10 years without economic growth,” my colleagues wrote. “During that decade, poverty rates shot up from 28 percent to more than 40 percent. Now, for the first time ever, even formal workers in Argentina’s economy are below the poverty line. Inflation is nearing 150 percent. The peso has plummeted, prices change nearly weekly, and Argentines are forced to carry around large wads of cash just to buy groceries.”

Who is Javier Milei, Argentina’s far-right president-elect?

Milei’s proposed solutions are radical. He wants to “dollarize” a basket-case economy that’s home to a thicket of differing exchange rates and widespread black-market usage of the dollar. He also wants to heavily slash public spending, dismantle a host of ministries in government — including the country’s ministry for women, gender and diversity — embark on a spree of privatization of national companies, and abolish Argentina’s central bank.

For some analysts, such “shock therapy” is necessary to rein in a bloated state and chart a new course for a country long in the economic doldrums. To other experts, it’s a recipe for disaster. Milei’s dollarization and austerity proposals, noted a statement signed by more than 100 prominent left-leaning economists, “overlook the complexities of modern economies, ignore lessons from historical crises, and open the door for accentuating already severe inequalities.”

The more immediate reality for Milei, though, will be his narrow ability to actually implement his drastic plans for overhaul. He is set to enter office in December with only a small cohort of direct allies in the legislature, while not a single governor across Argentina’s 23 federal provinces is from his party. In his victory speech, Milei said there would be “no room for gradualism” in his agenda, but he will be dependent on a center-right establishment that may not approve of his chainsaw-wielding approach.

“Milei will take office as the weakest president in Argentina’s history, despite his clear victory in the second round,” political analyst and consultant Sergio Berensztein told the Financial Times. “The first question for governability will be the system of alliances and pacts which Milei will construct.”

Argentina set for sharp right turn as Trump-like radical wins presidency

If Milei’s policies hit roadblocks, critics fear that his politics of anger will keep smoldering. Milei’s rage against “cultural Marxism” is bound to shape his governance, as it did that of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, an ideological kindred spirit and explicit Milei supporter. The president-elect has styled himself as a redeemer of Argentine greatness, summoning the country’s history as one of the world’s richest nations at the turn of the 20th century, and has cast many of the decades since — especially the years dominated by the powerful populist-statist Peronist movement — as an age of deceit and failure.

More concerning, Milei appears to embrace apologia for the country’s most recent military dictatorship, which governed between 1976 and 1983 and was responsible for a hideous Dirty War that saw up to 30,000 people, primarily leftist political opponents, disappeared and killed. He reviles the legacy of the late Raul Alfonsin, Argentina’s first democratically elected leader after that period of dictatorship, whose effigy Milei once said he uses as a punching bag.

Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, is a lawyer who has campaigned on defending the record of the military dictatorship, and who wants to end ongoing prosecution of military personnel involved in the Dirty War and suspend the state pension program that was implemented to support families of its victims. Milei’s victory, in a sense, is an affirmation of this revisionist vision.

“It used to be toxic for politicians in Argentina to deny the dictatorial past,” Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein told me. But the current moment “shows that Argentine political culture regarding dictatorship and the past has degraded significantly,” he added, gesturing to the animus also on show among Trump and Bolsonaro supporters. “This cannot be good for the democratic future.”

Such nostalgia “in both the U.S. and Brazil also led to coups,” he said.

Steven Levitsky, a leading comparative political scientist at Harvard University, said recently, the New Yorker reported, that Argentina’s chief democratic success has been “the forging of a broad societal consensus against military intervention and in defense of human rights. I worry that great achievement is now being threatened.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by some in Buenos Aires. “Democracy has not been the norm in Argentina’s 207-yr history,” tweeted Uki Goñi, a veteran journalist. “The norm has been conflict, economic chaos, caudillos betraying each other. The last 40 years have been an exception based on a fragile consensus on 1976-83 horror. That glue is gone now. Caudillo treachery is back.”

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