Javier Milei | Argentina’s President of chaos

Far-right libertarian economist Javier Milei wants to reconfigure the government’s role, slash public spending and dollarise the economy, in response to Argentina’s worst economic crisis in a generation

Updated - November 30, 2023 03:36 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2023 05:27 pm IST

Argentine President-elect Javier Milei addresses supporters after winning Argentina’s runoff presidential election, in Buenos Aires on November 19, 2023.

Argentine President-elect Javier Milei addresses supporters after winning Argentina’s runoff presidential election, in Buenos Aires on November 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

To some, he looks like a mix of killer doll Chucky and Boris Johnson, with a touch of Wolverine. Signature black hair that part neatly into side whiskers, bracketing a scowling face and eyes that glower with fury. To others, he speaks like Donald Trump: climate science is a socialist ploy, abortion rights are unnecessary and social justice is an “aberration”. There are notes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro too, with the dogged allegations of possible electoral fraud.

This is Javier Milei — Argentina’s new President. A far-right libertarian, Mr. Milei on November 19 defeated left-wing rival Sergia Massi, in a victory that analysts have described as a “political earthquake” that sent tremors down Argentina’s socialist spine. “Today begins the reconstruction of Argentina. Today begins the end of Argentina’s decline. The model of decadence has come to an end,” Mr. Milei said in his victory speech, to a rallying cry of “¡¡Qué se vayan todos!!” All of them must go. Them, being the ‘thieves’ in the political elite who have overseen the Latin American country’s worst economic crisis in four decades. 

Watch | Why is Argentina’s President-elect known as ‘El Loco’?

Mr. Milei — an economist and TV pundit  — has established a reputation as a disruptor. His signature campaign promise: to ‘blow up’ the central bank, and replace the local peso with the U.S. dollar. Argentina’s economic and social order needs to be ripped apart, even set alight, because, only from ashes can Mr. Milei “truly make Argentina Great Again”. 

A seller arranges newspapers with pictures of Argentine President-elect Javier Milei, a day after Argentina’s runoff presidential elections.

A seller arranges newspapers with pictures of Argentine President-elect Javier Milei, a day after Argentina’s runoff presidential elections. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Origin story

The 53-year-old was born and brought up in Buenos Aires. With his parents — father a bus driver and mother a homemaker — he shares a ‘complicated relationship’, journalist Juan Luis González wrote in an unauthorised biography. The book documented a troubled childhood where Mr. Milei was physically and verbally abused at home, and bullied at school. In school itself Mr. Milei came to be known as ‘El Loco’. The madman.

Mr. Milei played in his school’s football team as a goalkeeper, a position carved for people “who live on the edge”, he said in a 2017 interview with El Cronista. He was a singer of a youth group called Everest that specialised in covers of Rolling Stones (he has seen the band live 14 times). From Elvis Presley, Mr. Milei said he was inspired to write rock and roll songs, albeit with economic themes, thus generating a product that “meets the market’s desires” and “reaffirms the Austrian [school of economics]”. Both music and money, in keeping with his libertarian values, ought to be freed from state political control Today, he describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist” who is “above all for freedom”.

Mr. Milei shares a close relationship with his sister, Karina, whom he calls “the boss”, according to ABC News. He is unmarried, and presently dating actor Fátima Flórez. The other documented public relationship is with his dog, the English Mastiff Conan, who passed away in 2017. Mr. Milei reportedly cloned Conan’s DNA, a procedure which resulted in five puppies, each named after an economist. As per a Forbes report, Mr. Milei believes Conan told him in a telepathic conversation that it is God’s mission for him to become Argentina’s President. Mr. Milei, in an interview with The Economist, has also referred to his dogs as his “strategists” and “political analysts”.

More than his ideas, Mr. González wrote in the biography, “what worries me is [Mr. Milei’s] state of mind and emotional stability.”

A libertarian economist

At 12, Mr. Milei was drawn to Economics, at a time Argentina reeled under the 1989 hyperinflation crisis. Theory suggests that when prices rise, demand should fall, but Mr. Milei saw desperate Argentines “jumping” to buy food at elevated prices. Either “I’m an idiot or the books are wrong,” he recollected in an article. “I stopped playing soccer and dedicated myself to studying. I became fanatic, almost pathologically, with Economics.” In May, he suggested legislating the sale of human organs — a “market mechanism” to solve for the lack of organ donations in the country.

Mr. Milei’s has worked with Argentina’s leading Corporación America business group; taught economic subjects in domestic and international universities; authored more than 50 academic papers; and as of 2018, was among the most interviewed economists on TV, a ranking showed. While the world may see Mr. Milei’s political likeness in Trump and Bolsanaro, the President-elect prefers to go by the titles “Adam Smith’s heir”, “the Mozart of Economics”, “the Keynesian Wrecker”.

During his career as a TV pundit, Mr. Milei built a model of popularity fuelled by profanity and panning. Mr. Milei had diagnosed the centre-left Peronist model and excessive government spending as Argentina’s malady, and prescribed an immediate halt to taxes and subsidies. He generously used expletives and aggressive rhetoric, reserved mostly for rivals and the country’s political elite: to him, the former socialist government is best described as a “paedophile in a kindergarten”. Pope Francis is an “imbecile” and a “representative of malignance on Earth”. A journalist called Mr. Milei’s ideological views totalitarian, to which he responded by calling her a “donkey” (a local court accused of him exerting gender violence and mandated psychological examination). His screeds are not always political or economic — on occasions, he has offered tips on intercourse, and positioned himself as an expert in tantric sex.

In 2021, Mr. Milei led into the Argentine National Congress his party alliance La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances), a group which among its candidates includes neo-Nazis and apologists of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

Mr. Milei shocked political commentators in August this year, emerging victorious as the candidate with the highest vote share in Argentina’s primary elections. “Milei came from nowhere… and his popularity came from the disaster of the bad performance of the economy in the last 12 years,” said economist Andres Borenstein to a media outlet. Almost 40% of Argentines live in poverty. The three-figure inflation rate has unmade and remade records. Year-on-year deficit and fiscal negligence have plunged the country deep into debt. The common man is angry, and no one speaks this language of outrage better than Mr. Milei, analysts have observed. Mr. Milei brandished a chainsaw at a protest, symbolic of his promise of slashing all things decadent and unnecessary; only a ‘shock therapy’ can heal a diseased system that is the “root of all evil”, he has previously said.

Unlayering Mr. Milei’s popularity, Andrés Malamud, a researcher at the University of Lisbon, explained that he appeals to the basic instincts of liberty, life and property. “That’s why Milei loves television sets, where he yells, insults and crushes anyone who criticises him. O”

Conservative political ideas

Media outlets describe Mr. Milei as a “far-right outsider”, a “radical” libertarian. He refuses both labels. “I’m a liberal and libertarian, these positions are things of the left, because for the left, everything that is not on their side is on the right,” he said at a rally.Though he identifies as a libertarian outsider, he “combines that hyper-liberal ideology and freedom with elements of the extreme-right”, said Pablo Touzón, a political scientist.

Mr. Milei believes climate change is a “lie of socialism”; COVID-19 vaccines are a hoax and government spending on scientific research must be curbed. Women’s rights activists say his victory paints a bleak picture ahead -- Mr. Milei has opposed abortion rights, even in rape cases (Argentina in 2020 became the largest Latin American country to legalise abortion), and dismissed sex education as a form of Marxist brainwashing. “There is a hard nucleus of La Libertad Avanza voters who are young men... who are resistant to the advances of women and the LGBT community,” journalist Adriana Carrasco told The Guardian. Mr. Milei acknowledges freedom of choice -- in matters of gun control, sex work, sexual preference and gender identity.

Once elected to power, he promises to nip bureaucracy by reducing the number of ministries from 18 to eight (closing ministries of culture, women, health, environment and education), while also making ‘progressive’ cuts to retirement and pension funds. He has previously expressed a desire to privatise education and health care: “Everything than can be [put] into the hands of the private sector, will be in the hands of the private sector,” he said. Mr. Milei said he is aligned with the United States, Israel, and “the free world”, and pledges to cut ties with “communist” countries like China and Brazil.

Mr. Touzón explained that Mr. Milei sees himself as a “warrior against the State” -- “a war machine against [the political class]...a brick thrown against the window of a jewellery store.”

Argentina’s future

Mr. Milei’s victory charts a sharp new path for Argentina, but this is not necessarily course correction, analysts say. While Mr. Milei may struggle to take control and implement his controversial ideas (his party controls just 38 of 257 seats in Argentina’s lower house), if realised, his policies could bring in “absolute chaos”.

To a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalism, chaos may not seem as daunting. Lilia Lemoine, a professional cosplayer turned congresswoman-elect, termed Mr. Milei as an “anti-hero”. “He looks like Wolverine. He acts like Wolverine... He can get really mad and be aggressive with his enemies – but only when he’s attacked. He will never ever kill someone or attack someone for no reason,” she said in an interview. What counts as reason, for a rabble-rouser committed to extinguishing the embers of socialism? Activists and analysts are sceptical, worrying that Argentina’s social justice landscape, built with care and commitment, will be put into question.

For now, Mr. Milei has declared “there is no way back”. “Argentina is going to reclaim the place in the world that it should never have lost,” he said in his victory speech. As a ‘lion’, he said he wants not ‘to guide lambs’, but to ‘wake up lions’. Only they can reconfigure the government, and set anew Argentina’s policies on economics, human rights, and foreign policy. But before lions are awakened, brickbats hurled and windows cracked open, the economically fragile nation is bound to wonder: What place and freedom do Mr. Milei, and Conan, have in store for Argentina?

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