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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 01-06-2024 05:03

What if Milei has no clothes on?

Milei’s economic programme does not have the luxury of letting the flame of hope die out.

There is a growing gap between President Javier Milei’s international reputation and home achievements. Almost six months into office, he needs to bridge it quickly.

This week his global aura put him in front of some of the world’s top tech-world figureheads, including the new Silicon Valley golden boy, Sam Altman. Having back-to-back face-to-face talks with the CEOs of Google, Apple, Meta and OpenAI is something unusual, if not unprecedented, for an Argentine leader. The next question is what Milei does with it.

On his not-to-do list? Brag about how important you are. Milei has become a non-stop, self-flattering machine, as if he could not believe his own luck. 

On his to-do-list? Use the momentary interest in the President and Argentina to advance a domestic agenda that could make the entire political and economic process sustainable.

Sometimes it seems President Milei does not understand his own needs. Other times it seems he does, but he cannot control his own conflict-prone instinct.

The appointment of Guillermo Francos as his new Cabinet Chief might be a step in the right direction. It consolidates a division of labour in the administration: Milei oversees the government’s grand, oversized narrative, and the economic programme; Presidential chief-of-staff Karina Milei runs HR and grows the La Libertad Avanza Party for next year’s midterm election test; new Cabinet Chief Francos manages political negotiations with the opposition. The wildcard of the inner circle is Santiago Caputo, the political and communications spin doctor with no formal responsibility other than feeding President Milei’s (and his own) ego.

It is now known for fact that Javier Milei does not follow the daily affairs of his own administration. Only this week, while he was repeating his ultra-liberal economic doctrine at Stanford University, while back home Argentines woke up to the news that the country that’s home to Vaca Muerta was suffering from gas shortages. Milei, the first economist to sit in the presidential chair, is the government’s communicator-in-chief, and his second job is to supervise the economic results of his programme, which is now in the hands of Luis Caputo (for how long?).

Karina Milei, unlike her elder sibling, does not speak in public. And unlike the President, she does follow the government’s daily affairs. Her growing, octopus-like profile is what made the now-expelled Cabinet chief Nicolás Posse redundant in the government’s structure, even if his exit was ultimately motivated by personal rather than organisational chart issues. 

The second-from-top item on Karina’s job description is more strategic. Early this year, she convinced her brother that they did not have to form either a governing or a congressional alliance with Mauricio Macri’s centre-right PRO party, the only natural fit for the President in Argentina’s political system. Instead, the Milei machine is building its own party, something La Libertad Avanza lacked during last year’s presidential campaign. The goal is to multiply their thin ranks in Congress come next year’s midterm elections in October.

Francos’ promotion to Cabinet chief seeks to complete the chart with a dose of wheeler-dealing. Veteran, pragmatic, soft-spoken, seemingly unable to pick up an unnecessary fight, his empowerment is a tacit acknowledgment by the ruling pair that they need to get political results before markets and investors begin to suspect Milei’s aura could be a counterfeit. 

Meanwhile, the economic establishment – both here and abroad – continue to wait and see, though maybe there’s a sense that things are taking too long. Milei’s economic programme does not have the luxury of letting that flame of hope die out. For the record, if Altman asked his own Artificial Intelligence toy, ChatGTP, whether Argentina’s President is the greatest leader in the world, he would get this response: “While Javier Milei has made notable strides in economic reforms, the accompanying rise in poverty and societal tensions highlight the complexities of his leadership.” They are clever, these machines.

The ruling party is struggling to get the government’s legislation through the Senate.  Francos enters the game in his new capacity at a crucial moment. A new rejection of the ‘Ley de Bases’ bill and its accompanying fiscal package would trigger all sorts of doubts about Milei’s ability – and willingness – to govern the country. With almost six months and not a single bill cashed out of Congress, Milei risks having his own ‘Hans Christian Andersen The Emperor New Clothes’ moment: somebody suddenly cries that he “has nothing at all on” and everybody sees it, overnight. Milei would call it a “revelation principle” epiphany, but this time it would be applied to himself.

Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

Political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage political risk consultancy firm.

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