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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 09-09-2023 05:40

The wild ride of Javier Milei

After having given the world such “iconic” political novelties as Evita Perón and Che Guevara, Argentina has come up with another: Javier Milei.

After having given the world such “iconic” political novelties as Evita Perón and Che Guevara, Argentina has come up with another: Javier Milei, a wild-eyed fellow who communes with cloned dogs who tell him what to do and doubles as a professor of tantric sex. The way things are going, he could soon be wearing the presidential sash. Since edging out all his rivals in last month’s primaries, more and more people are taking it for granted that he will win the elections scheduled for October by a ridiculously wide margin. They may be mistaken but, as every politician knows, looking like a sure-fire winner can have a snowball effect. This is why many who not that long ago dismissed Milei as a crank who would burn out quickly are flocking to his banner.

The notion that, before the year is out, the wildest man in Argentine politics could be sworn-in as president is every bit as outlandish as once was the thought that Donald Trump could one day become “the leader of the free world.” When the “orange man” rode down that “golden escalator” into the lobby of Trump Tower to tell carefully picked onlookers he was running for president, almost everybody laughed. The very idea was just too grotesque to be taken seriously. But that was then. After four years in the White House and almost three getting pelted with lawsuits, Trump continues to play a star role in the great North American melodrama; according to some, he could well win back the presidency after campaigning while locked up in jail for the many misdemeanours his foes attribute to him. As he is currently facing almost a hundred charges and his fellow countrymen have always been fond of impressively big numbers, he could be sentenced to several thousand years behind bars.

History is full of unlikely characters who, to the surprise of those who knew them before they reached high office, somehow captured the imagination of enough people to become their nation’s leader. Some did well enough, but others only made what was already a terrible situation even worse. In Latin America, Bolivia had Mariano Melgarejo, a murderously promiscuous tyrant, Ecuador was briefly ruled by Abdalá Bucaram, who was kicked out after his compatriots came to the conclusion that he was off his rocker and, quite recently, Peruvians put an inexperienced village schoolmaster, Pedro Castillo in the presidential palace, before deciding it would be best to remove him before he wrecked the country. And, of course, the famously well-educated Germans once let an eccentric Austrian corporal decide their fate and that of much of the rest of the world. 

Many fear that, if left to himself and his canine advisors, Milei, who is accustomed to running a one-man show, could cause a great deal of damage. This is why some think it would be safest to surround him with people who, in exchange for giving him the legislative and financial backing he would need unless he decided to give the constitution the chainsaw treatment he wants to apply to the economy, could prevent him from doing anything really outrageous. This seems to be what Mauricio Macri has in mind. The former president evidently welcomes what he sees as a tidal wave of support for free-market economics and hostility towards the ruinous tax-and-spend populism which, as Milei likes to warn us, threatens to turn all Argentina into a gigantic shantytown in which filthily rich and phenomenally corrupt politicians, along with drug lords, call the shots.

Unfortunately, dismantling the ramshackle order the Peronists, with the help of many others, put together and replacing it with one broadly similar to those that work well enough in the more prosperous parts of the world will not be at all easy. Public spending will have to be slashed not just because “neoliberal” theorists who share the views of economists of the Austrian School think it should be but also because there is hardly any money left. This may be so, but there are millions of families which rely on government cheques in order to feed themselves. To keep starvation at bay, emergency programmes of the kind that are applied in countries struck by overwhelming natural catastrophes will have to be put into effect, but without foreign aid it will be all but impossible to pay for them even though, as luck would have it, Argentina is a major food producer. 

With the Presidency in his sights, Milei is softening his proposals. He now admits that dollarisation will not happen overnight but only after several years have passed. For reasons of his own, he refuses to recognise publically that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is as corrupt as they come and that, while in office, she appropriated far more public money than any other member of the political elite he apparently loathes; at most, he admits that the system she sponsored did encourage corruption. He is also doing his best to get on good terms with the Peronist labour unions; he says they should be responsible for their own internal arrangements, which would be fine if they were private companies and not monopolistic concerns closely linked to the political “caste” which, to the delight of his many followers, he enjoys deriding. 

For a man who could soon find himself ruling the roost, all this makes good sense, but it exposes Milei to the risk of looking like just another common-or-garden politician who makes out he is an outsider but is really just a card-carrying member of the fraternity he enjoys attacking. If enough people come to that conclusion, support for him could seep away as rapidly as it accumulated, which would help Patricia Bullrich who, before he came around, was the presidential aspirant who was thought most likely to shake things up.

It could also benefit Sergio Massa, whose best selling point is his well-earned reputation for shiftiness; he can be relied on to do whatever the circumstances demand of him without letting himself be influenced by the moral principles or ideological preferences his fellow politicians say determine their every move. For him, the reluctance of Cristina, the leaders of the La Cámpora outfit and other Kirchnerites to lift a finger to support his presidential bid could prove to his advantage if, to widespread astonishment, he somehow managed to win in October or November, because it would give him a plausible excuse to treat them as the enemies of whatever it is he has in mind that they most certainly are.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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