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OPINION

The Argentine chameleon: How a far-right eccentric and philosemite became president of Argentina

The election of 53-year-old Javier Milei as Argentina's new president has been a major shock to the western world, which is already in the midst of the New Year holiday season. This man, who describes himself as a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, entered the pages of the world's media with the image of a madman with a chainsaw. The Argentines themselves called him “El Loco” for his aggressive temperament and flamboyant nature. The chainsaw was a symbol of his determination to smash the Kirchnerist political caste that had been in power for 20 years. But in a very short time — from the election on 19 November to the inauguration on 10 December — Javier Milei went from being a subversive to a moderate and pragmatic politician.

Javier Milei won the election with 56% of the vote, a result never before achieved by a presidential candidate in Argentina's history. Millions of voters were not intimidated by his wild appearance, with his dishevelled bushy hair and wide-open mouth spewing profanities. They were not offended that, in a deeply Catholic country, he called Pope Francis, an Argentinian by birth, “a son of a bitch who preaches communism and is the devil's representative on earth.”

They were not embarrassed when the government press wrote about him sleeping with four of his mastiffs, clones of his late favourite dog, and even his own sister. “Stay out of my bed,” Milei replied.

Nor were voters outraged by Milei's derision of ethnic minorities. “What a load of crap,” he shouted at one of his campaign rallies, “all these Huhui Indians, all these Salta [name of a tribe and city in north-western Argentina — The Insider]. They're all worms, scourges, f*cking bums, we should give them all to Bolivia so that there are no more parasitic provinces in Argentina, only highly productive areas.”

Voters were not outraged by Milei's derision of ethnic minorities. “What a load of crap,” he shouted before the election

Argentine citizens, who, as elsewhere in Latin America, include many left-wing supporters, ignored both the accusations that Milei was a “far-right neo-Nazi” and a “disgusting mini-Trump” (according to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro) and the warnings from many media outlets that his election would lead to a “radical right turn in Argentina,” a “terrible new era in its history.” Milei has indeed copied Trump's style in many ways. For example, after losing the first round of the election, he accused the authorities of vote rigging, just like his American idol, who was ousted from the White House in 2020.

Javier Milei has also always admired the Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, a virtual clone of Trump, who, like his North American neighbour, completely failed in the campaign against the coronavirus pandemic.

In short, Argentina's “progressive public” had plenty to worry about. Paradoxically, the overwhelming majority of sane and moderate right-wing Latin American presidents and politicians, active and retired, supported Milei's election. Among them were former Colombian president Ivan Duque, who condemned Russia's war on Ukraine, former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderon and Vicente Fox, and former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera.

Most of the moderate Latin American politicians, active and retired, supported Milei’s election

Unexpectedly, many prominent cultural figures also took Milei's side. Among them is the Among them was the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa has always been a tireless fighter not only against the Latin American left, but also against right-wing authoritarianism, and has spoken out in defence of freedom and democracy in a number of countries. In recent years he has invited well-known Russian oppositionists such as Garry Kasparov to his annual conferences in Madrid, called the “Vargas Llosa Chair.”

And suddenly — a vote in favor of the “Argentine Trump.” The main reason for this is that most Argentines, including the intellectual elite, were fed up with the long years of Kirchnerist rule — these were the followers of the Peronists and their left-wing populism, which led to constant economic instability

In the middle of the last century, President Juan Domingo Perón was a hugely popular figure in Argentina, and his second wife Evita became a national heroine (she was given a second life in the late 1990s and 2000s by Madonna's version of the song “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina”). However, the later Kirchners, Néstor and Cristina, who came to power and both served as president (the latter was a favourite of Vladimir Putin, who played the harmonica for her when he visited Buenos Aires), as well as the last president, Alberto Fernandez, associated with Cristina, could not stop Argentina's economy from plummeting. And they weren't even trying that hard. By the time of the election, inflation in the country had reached 142% and was threatening to go even higher. As the continent's renowned journalist Andrés Oppenheimer wrote, the choice between the two candidates — Javier Milei and Minister of the Economy Sergio Massa — was “a choice between fear and anger.”

Vladimir Putin and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
Vladimir Putin and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Clearly, most voters, especially young ones, were attracted less by Milei’s program than his eccentric personality. But the economic prescriptions that he was offering were also in tune with his image: the total dollarization of the economy as well as the destruction of the country's central bank, which presided over hyperinflation and which Milei promised to burn down. However, both goals were put on hold until the inauguration and formation of the government.

The switch to the U.S. dollar, according to Milei, was necessary as the local peso had become “an ice cube in the Sahara.” But legalizing the dollar will require the approval of the Argentine Congress and perhaps even constitutional changes. And the new president has an extremely weak position in the legislature. His Libertad Avanza party has just seven out of 72 senatorial seats, 38 out of 257 MPs, and no governors or mayors.

Most local economists believe dollarization will only weaken the government's ability to keep monetary policy in check. If this reform is implemented, interest rates will be in the hands of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and the Argentine economy will be even more exposed to external shocks, such sharp rises in oil prices.Moreover, to implement the plan, Milei would need a huge amount of U.S. currency — between $35 billion and $50 billion — which Argentina doesn’t have. The newly elected president himself admits that his shock therapy will take at least two years to complete. “If I had said otherwise, I would have been lying,” he says.

Javier Milei clearly distanced himself from the “dollar lawyers” Emilio Ocampo and Carlos Rodriguez who were behind his campaign statements, prior to the inauguration. To replace them, he appointed Luis Caputo and Demiano Reidel, two Wall Street veterans who held key positions in the government of Mauricio Macri, Argentina's President from 2015 to 2019, to head his economic team.

At the same time, Milei offered his recent election rival, Patricia Bullrich, the post of security minister she held under Macri. These moves were fully expected — it was the support of Bullrich, who came third in the first round, for Milei in the home straight that largely determined the current president's victory.

Milei's foreign policy also underwent a sharp correction. His criticism of the leftist dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua remained unchanged, prompting the ruling duo of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo to recall the Nicaraguan ambassador from Buenos Aires. However, Milei changed his tone on Brazil and China, with whom he had promised to cut diplomatic ties during the election campaign. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was invited to the inauguration, although he eventually decided to skip the event.

Milei has changed his tone on Brazil and China, with whom he promised to cut diplomatic ties during the election campaign

As for relations with China, normalization has been taken up by Milei's adviser Diana Mondino, who is likely to take over as foreign minister. She has just met the Chinese ambassador in Buenos Aires, and both appear to have been very satisfied with the meeting.

Javier Milei and his partner Fatima Florez
Javier Milei and his partner Fatima Florez

Argentine journalist Juan Pablo Cardenal, who has written extensively on relations with China, says it would be suicidal for his country to cut ties with Beijing. The weight of China in trade and economic relations with Argentina is enormous — Beijing buys large quantities of soybeans and meat, as well as strategic lithium, of which Argentina is rich. China also provides Argentina with millions of dollars in loans.

Before his inauguration, Javier Milei made his first foreign visit to the United States. He met with former President Bill Clinton and Joe Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Biden himself would also have apparently received Milei, but at the time he was in Georgia for the funeral of former President Jimmy Carter's wife Rosalynn.

On this trip, however, Milei’s behaviour was unusual. The first place he visited on 27 November was Montefiore Cemetery in New York's Queens borough. There he attended prayers at the resting place of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendl Schneerson, whom he thanked for helping him win the election. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Milei is a Catholic, but his admiration for Judaism and commitment to the Jewish religion run deep. He studied with a rabbi in Buenos Aires, quoted passages from the Torah at rallies and walked to the sound of a shofar on the campaign stage. He has said that he intends to embrace Judaism very soon, although he does not believe that observing the Sabbath is compatible with running the country.

Milei has said that he intends to embrace Judaism very soon, although he does not believe that observing the Sabbath is compatible with running the country

How does all this fit in with Milei’s campaign image as an “extreme right-winger” and even a “neo-Nazi”?

Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier has a novel called El Recurso del Metodo [The Resource of the Method — translator’s note]. The work describes a cruel dictator, but not at all like a typical Latin American caudillo — not a tin-eared general, but an enlightened ruler who is no stranger to patronising the arts, who knows painting, appreciates opera and likes to surround himself with the intellectual elite.

The new Argentine president Javier Milei appears to have his own “resources of method.”

The leader of the Argentine right, he favors Donald Trump. But unlike Trump, and unlike his European ideological allies, he calls Vladimir Putin a dictator. Immediately after his election on November 19, Milei came to a parliamentary session carrying a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag, and a few days later he called Volodymyr Zelensky and offered to host a conference in Argentina dedicated to achieving peace in Ukraine.

Around the world, many are convinced that in March 2024, in Russia, Vladimir Putin will be re-elected for another 12 years, and in the U.S., Donald Trump will return to the White House. But there is no hope of a “change of method” either — both will likely continue on the path they have chosen, and the rigidity of their power will only increase. The Argentines did not want to go round in circles any longer. They took a big risk by electing the eccentric and completely unknown Javier Milei. Their anger overcame their fear, although the success of this election is far from guaranteed.

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