Argentine hard right libertarian presidential candidate Javier Milei, like former President Donald Trump, is a creature created by the media.
Milei has disgraced and lowered political discourse on Argentine television for years as a frequent guest of political talk shows. Initially dismissed as a buffoonish character, he made a name for himself by insulting and screaming during broadcast debates and with idiotic stunts like taking a bat to a piñata representing the Argentine central bank.
Fast forward to today, and Milei is the front-runner in Argentina’s presidential election taking place on October 22. Despite polling indicating the contrary, Milei outperformed expectations in the mostly symbolic primary elections held in August by garnering the majority of the vote-share against economy minister and center-left candidate Sergio Massa and mainstream conservative candidate Patricia Bullrich.
If things don’t change, there’s a real possibility that Milei, referred to as “Argentina’s Trump” or “Argentina’s Jair Bolsonaro,” could be the next president. That would be a disastrous path for the country to take.
Milei promises to roll back hard-won abortion rights instituted in 2020 after an outpouring of popular support. He also claims the climate emergency is a hoax and promises to destroy trade unions in Argentina that have historically secured labor protections in various sectors.
In a revealing exchange in a recent debate, Milei offered a proposal to institute a United States-style voucher system to privatize public education. This provoked a sharp rebuke from other candidates, including conservative candidate Bullrich, who called Milei out for profoundly misunderstanding Argentina’s public school system: Across the rural parts of the country, most small towns and villages have only one school. A voucher system would not only destroy public education; it would simply be unworkable.
Further, Milei preposterously claims that former president Carlos Menem and former economy minister Domingo Cavallo were the best in their respective positions in Argentine history. The shock therapy neoliberal policies of the Menem era, which included widespread privatization and austerity, led to a slow-motion collapse of the Argentinean economy over the course of a decade.
The Damage of Menem and Macri
In 1991, the Menem administration launched the ruinous “Convertibility Plan.” The plan pegged the Argentine peso at a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar, which meant that, theoretically, every peso issued would be backed by $1 in the Argentine central bank. The plan created good times for a few years but ultimately led to a catastrophic economic collapse in 2001, resulting in an exodus of working-class Argentineans, including my family.
The plan’s intent was to stop currency flight by removing incentives for Argentinians to continue swapping their pesos for dollars, but that also meant the country had no flexibility to adapt to external events by outsourcing economic policy to the United States. Argentina was simply left exposed and vulnerable to the fluctuations of foreign markets. For example, the Mexican crisis of 1994, which resulted in a sharp devaluation of the peso against the U.S. dollar and a loss of foreign investor confidence due to the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donald Colosio and an artificially overvalued peso, caused a liquidity crisis that saw interest rates increase sharply. In subsequent years, economic crises in Asia, Russia, and Brazil exacerbated the situation. This in turn increased Argentina’s borrowing costs, completely stalling out the economy and causing massive unemployment.
By 2001, the jig was clearly up. To avoid a bank run, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo announced a policy known as “El Corralito,” which effectively restricted bank deposit withdrawals to a maximum of 1,000 pesos per week. This was so unpopular that there was a spontaneous revolt and then-Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa (Menem was already out of office) had to flee the presidential palace via helicopter.
This was not the only example of severe economic mismanagement under the Menem administration. They enacted disastrous neoliberal economic policies like removing export taxes and enacting protectionist restrictions on foreign investment. They privatized state companies that employed thousands of Argentinians while eliminating trade subsidies. The state-owned airline Aerolíneas Argentinas was privatized and ran into the ground. The short-term economic gains were quickly beset by double-digit unemployment, increased poverty, and increased crime as Argentina became subject to a cruel neoliberalism that left working-class people unable to make ends meet.
Today Argentina is still suffering economic woes, and while there is blame to go around for both left- and right-wing governments of the past, the root causes of the current crisis can be found in the conservative government led by President Mauricio Macri from 2015 to 2019.
Inheriting a troubled but stable economy, with low unemployment and a resurgent middle class, the Macri-led government squandered it all in record time through a big business-friendly government that looked to the Menem era for inspiration. The formula was to cut taxes for corporations while opening the floodgates to unrestricted foreign investment at the expense of Argentine businesses. The result was depressed salaries, a sharp increase in fuel and consumer prices, and upward inflationary pressure.
Things got so bad that Argentina signed the largest rescue package in International Monetary Fund history, totaling a jaw dropping $56.3 billion, making the country one of the most indebted in Latin America. Adding insult to injury, most of that money wasn’t even spent financing economic recovery in Argentina; it was squandered through capital flight by vulture capitalists and investors. These disastrous policies are at the root of the current discontent fueling the rise of hard-line candidate Milei.
Milei Promises Repeat of Menem
Milei’s economic plan proposes not just to double down on the same neoliberal policies that have time and again destroyed the Argentinian standard of living, but to go even further. He promises to dollarize the country and ditch the peso completely, a terrible idea on its own but even more so considering that there are no significant dollar reserves to actually implement it. He calls for renewed privatization of state-run industries that caused massive layoffs and the collapse of companies in the 1990s.
Milei has also vowed to cut off all state-led economic relations with both Brazil, Argentina’s most important economic trading partner, and China, its second, solely because of his claim that he refuses to do “business with communists.” The obvious result of these policies is going to be further economic destabilization and misery for Argentineans.
Milei claims to be an economist, but he has been exposed as a charlatan. His repeated plagiarizing is well documented, whether he’s lifting from op-ed pieces or work by academics. His economic ideas have been described as fraudulent by real economists who describe how he shouts over people while employing technical terms most people don’t know without having a firm grasp of them. He is a follower of the Austrian school of economics, which has links to fringe libertarianism and is widely criticized by most mainstream economists for its aversion to mathematics, statistics and modeling.
Not only would Milei absolutely collapse Argentina’s economy with his already-failed economic proposals, he would endanger democratic institutions in a country that only regained them in 1983 after a vicious military dictatorship was thrown out of power. His vice presidential pick, Victoria Villarruel, is a repugnant revisionist and apologist for that military junta and denies that 30,000 people were disappeared and murdered during that period despite irrefutable documentation of it.
Argentina is better than this. Argentinians should reject Milei in the upcoming election, not just for the sake of the broader country, but for their own families as well.
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