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ARGENTINA | 22-03-2024 18:29

Javier Milei’s VP vies with his sister for influence in Argentina

Officially, Victoria Villarruel is Javier Milei’s second-in-command. But the president has left little doubt that there is only one adviser who truly has his ear: his younger sister Karina.

Javier Milei is a “poor little ham” sandwiched between two powerful figures seeking to shape the direction of the Argentine leader’s government, Vice-President Victoria Villarruel said in the clearest sign yet of friction within the administration.

Officially, Villarruel is Milei’s second-in-command, an arch-conservative ideologue who offers a contrast to the self-described “anarcho-capitalist.” But Milei has also left little doubt that there is only one adviser who truly has his ear: his younger sister Karina Milei, whom the libertarian leader routinely calls “the real boss.”

The dynamic — and the shroud of mystery that often surrounds Milei — has fanned speculation about the internal workings of the government, especially after the president’s key regulatory decree lost a vote in the Senate that Villarruel oversees last week.

“Karina has a big personality, but so do I, and we both love Javier and we both want the best for Javier,” Villarruel said Thursday night on local channel TN, sitting in the Senate chamber where she presides as leader. She acknowledged that their big personalities lead them to butt heads, and “in the middle is Javier. Poor little ham.”

A spokesman for the President didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Villarruel, a posh and polished lawyer and activist, made a name for herself as the founder of a non-profit organisation that denounced the crimes of leftist guerrilla groups during the right-wing dictatorship that seized power in 1976. She often focuses on more traditional priorities of the Argentine right, championing cases against abortion, LGBTQ education in schools and prison terms she regards as too lax.

Karina Milei, by contrast, avoids the media spotlight, rarely talks to reporters and has no previous political or governing experience — reinforcing her brother’s outsider status. She is widely considered the biggest source of influence on him and holds complete control of the presidential agenda. Before he rose to the Presidency, Milei once referred to himself as “just a messenger” for his sister’s aims.

Tensions between Villarruel, 48, and Milei flared after the Senate voted down Milei’s mega decree. Some Milei allies said in interviews Villarruel hadn’t done enough to resist the opposition’s pressure to hold a vote. The president’s spokesman denied any friction in a press conference, and both posted smiling pictures on social media this week.

“At stake are institutions, this isn’t a kingdom,” she said of her decision, which she said many legislators had urged. “It’s a deliberative power. I can’t do whatever I want with that.” 

Villarruel broadly praised Milei during the interview, and insisted that they get along well. But she hit back at him over the fact that she learned about his Supreme Court nominations through the media, saying she would have preferred he nominate a female candidate. She also argued against Milei’s decision to reverse pay hikes for lawmakers in Congress as part of an austerity push that he wants centred around the political class. 

After Villarruel and lower house leader Martin Menem signed 30 percent pay increases last month, Milei asked them to reverse course. Villarruel said Thursday she opposed the idea of letting salaries get wiped out by 276 percent inflation because it would make lawmakers more susceptible to corruption.

“If they don’t earn well, the only people who will be able to be Congress members or senators are the rich or corrupt,” she said.

After saying throughout the campaign that Villarruel would handle security and defence matters, Milei handed control of both policy areas to his campaign rival-turned-ally Patricia Bullrich and her vice presidential pick, Luis Petri. 

“I didn’t like it,” Villarruel said of Milei’s decision during the interview. “But I respect it.” 

by Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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