Javier Milei was first introduced to Argentine audiences as a combative television personality, with an unruly hairstyle and a tendency to insult his detractors. So when he entered the Argentine presidential race last year, many considered him a prop.
On Sunday, he was elected Argentina’s next president and is now tasked with guiding one of Latin America’s largest economies out of one of its worst economic crises.
Many Argentines woke up Monday anxious, others hopeful, but almost everyone was uncertain about what awaited them.
Perhaps the only certainty about the country’s political and economic future was that, in three weeks, a far-right political outsider with little governing experience was about to take the reins of a government which he is committed to overthrowing.
In other words, it’s Argentina’s Donald Trump moment.
Mr. Milei, a libertarian economist and new member of Congress, made clear in his victory speech on Sunday that he would move quickly to overhaul the government and the economy. “Argentina’s situation is critical,” he said. “The changes our country needs are drastic. There is no room for progressivism.
Markets cheered his election, with Argentine stocks and bonds rising on U.S. stock exchanges (the Argentine market was closed for a public holiday). Even without clarity on what he can accomplish, markets appear to view him as a better economic bet than his mostly left-leaning predecessors.
Failed economic policies – including excessive spending, protectionist trade measures, choking international debt and the printing of more pesos to pay for it – have sent the nation of 46 million into an economic spiral.
Annual inflation has exceeded 140 percent, the third highest rate in the world, forcing many residents to rush to spend or convert their pesos into US dollars or cryptocurrencies as quickly as they can, while he growing number of poor people in the country are increasingly lining up outside food banks and soup kitchens. .
To remedy this, Mr. Milei proposed transforming the world’s 22nd-largest economy into a laboratory for radical economic ideas that have gone largely untested elsewhere.
Mr. Milei, 53, said he wanted to cut spending and taxes, privatize state enterprises, eliminate 10 of 18 federal ministries, move public schools to a voucher system, base the system public health insurance, close the country’s central administration. bank and replace the Argentine peso with the US dollar.
He identifies as an “anarcho-capitalist”, which he says is a radically liberal strain of libertarianism that believes “society functions much better without a state than with one.”
He is now the head of state.
“This is a completely new scenario that we have never participated in,” said María O’Donnell, an Argentine political journalist and radio host. “Milei has some very outlandish ideas that we have never seen implemented anywhere in the world.”
There has been little consensus among economists on the best path forward for Argentina, but few had suggested Mr Milei’s approach before he arrived on the scene – and few know what to expect now that he’s in charge.
On Monday morning, Mr. Milei was already beginning to hesitate on some of his electoral promises. In a radio interview, he said Argentine law would prevent him from privatizing health care and education. In another, when asked about his intention to use the US dollar, he replied that “the currency we adopt will be the one the Argentines choose.”
What does that mean? “I’m not sure he knows,” said Eduardo Levy Yeyati, an Argentine economist and professor.
Mr. Levy Yeyati interpreted this as a sign that Mr. Milei would first seek to eliminate most restrictions on foreign currency trading, which the Argentine government has restricted as part of its efforts to prop up the value of the peso Argentine. Mr Milei’s other comments on Monday seemed to support this idea.
“Argentina has always been a laboratory of bizarre ideas,” Mr. Levy Yeyati said, but many of them are never implemented due to economic and political realities.
He said he thought the same thing would happen with Mr. Milei, at least initially. “There will be a reality check,” he said. “Most of these proposals will still be discussed, but it will be difficult to implement them in the first year. »
Mr. Milei is expected to have to make political deals to carry out his plans, since his political party, created two years ago, controls only 10 percent of the seats in the Argentine Senate and 15 percent in the lower house of Congress.
He will most likely negotiate many of these deals with Mauricio Macri, the former Argentine president, a conservative who has retained broad control over a major political party. The two men met on Sunday evening.
Fernando Iglesias, a congressman from that conservative bloc, said he and his colleagues were eager to help Mr. Milei repair the nation. “It is true that he has the handicap of inexperience,” he added, “but I hope that he can put together a reasonable leadership team to bring about the changes that the country needs.”
Although many key figures in Mr. Milei’s campaign also lack governance experience, they presented this as an asset, not a liability, and many voters agreed.
One person who will certainly have influence in the new government is Mr. Milei’s sister, Karina Milei, who ran his campaign and whom he has described as his most important adviser.
In a 2021 television interview, he even compared her to Moses, a biblical figure carrying God’s message. “Kari is Moses,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I’m the one spreading the message.”
Ms. Milei is an enigma in Argentina, always present at Mr. Milei’s side but almost never speaking publicly. Not much is known about her past, other than unconfirmed reports in Argentinian media that she studied public relations at university, ran a cupcake business, and co-owned a tire store. Mr. Milei’s campaign said it would help manage the transition.
Mr. Milei announced Monday that his justice minister would be Mariano Cúneo Libarona, a lawyer turned television pundit who made his name defending celebrities, including in a 1996 drug case when he represented the manager of soccer star Diego Maradona.
His new foreign minister, Diana Mondino, an economist, told reporters that one of the government’s main foreign policy goals was to end most regulations on imports and exports. She also said Argentina was unlikely to join the BRICS club of emerging countries, as was announced in August.
“We don’t understand, with the public information available now, what the advantage would be for Argentina,” she told reporters at Mr. Milei’s victory rally on Sunday. “If you all can explain to me what BRICS is, I will take advantage and learn.”
Mr. Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, spent much of her career running an organization that recognizes victims of attacks by left-wing guerrillas, which Argentina’s military used to justify its bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
Ms. Villarruel, from an Argentine military family, has long argued that the dictatorship’s atrocities have been exaggerated, saying 8,500 people have disappeared despite declassified documents showing that even the military admitted, just two years later his reign, that this number was 22,000.
Ms. Villarruel and Mr. Milei were elected together to the lower house of Argentina’s Congress in 2021, the first two seats for their Liberty Advances party.
Since then, Mr. Milei has spent little time in Congress, proposing his first bill just earlier this month, calling on the government to do more to bring home the approximately 25 Argentines held hostage by Hamas.
Across the country, Argentines were reeling Monday over what Mr. Milei could bring, both good and bad.
Micaela Sánchez, 31, an actress and drama teacher, said she and many friends were concerned about Mr. Milei’s promises to overhaul the government, his history of attacks on political opponents and his comments minimizing the atrocities of the dictatorship.
“It is truly a dark and frightening picture for all of us who work in the field of culture, who work with people, for those who educate and for those who work in the health field,” she said. declared. “The only thing I can say is that I am very scared and I am very sad.”
But Yhoel Saldania, 27, a store owner, said keeping Argentina as it is would have been far riskier than betting on Mr. Milei. “Other governments promise and promise, and nothing ever changes,” he said. “We want real change.”