Javier Milei was first introduced to Argentine audiences as a combative television personality with an unruly hairdo and a tendency to insult his critics. So when he entered Argentina’s presidential race last year, he was seen by many as a sideshow.
He was elected Argentina’s next president on Sunday and is now tasked with leading one of Latin America’s largest economies out of one of its worst economic crises.
On Monday, many Argentines woke up worried, 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 would take the reins of a government he had vowed to overthrow.
In other words, it’s Argentina’s Donald Trump moment.
Milei, a libertarian economist and freshman congressman, made clear in his victory speech Sunday that he would move quickly to overhaul government and the economy. “The situation in Argentina is critical,” he said. “The changes our country needs are drastic. There is no room for gradualism.”
Markets welcomed his election, with Argentine stocks and bonds rising on US stock exchanges (the Argentine market was closed for holidays). Even without clarity on what he can achieve, markets appear to consider him a better economic bet than his mostly left-wing predecessors.
Failed economic policies – including excessive spending, protectionist trade measures, stifling international debt and the printing of more pesos to pay it – have sent the nation of 46 million people into a spiral of economic crisis.
Annual inflation has topped 140%, the third-highest rate in the world, leaving many residents scrambling to spend or convert their pesos into U.S. dollars or cryptocurrencies as quickly as possible, while the country’s growing number of poor puts more and more people in line at food banks and soup kitchens. .
To solve the problem, Milei proposed turning the world’s 22nd largest economy into a laboratory for radical economic ideas that have gone largely untested elsewhere.
Milei, 53, said he wants to cut spending and taxes, privatize state-owned companies, eliminate 10 of 18 federal ministries, move public schools to a voucher system, make the public health system insurance-based, close the country’s central bank nation. and replace the Argentine peso with the US dollar.
He identifies himself as an “anarcho-capitalist,” which, He saidit is a strain of radically laissez-faire libertarianism that believes that “society works much better without a state than with a state.”
Now he is the head of state.
“This is a completely new scenario that we have never found ourselves in,” said María O’Donnell, an Argentine political journalist and radio host. “Milei has some really wacky ideas that we’ve 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 Milei’s approach before he arrived on the scene – and few know what to expect now that he is in charge.
By Monday morning, Milei had already begun to waver on some of his campaign promises. In a radio interview, he said Argentine law would prevent him from privatizing health care and education. In another, when asked about his plan to use the US dollar, he responded that “the currency we adopt will be the currency the Argentines choose.”
What does it mean? “I’m not sure he knows,” said Eduardo Levy Yeyati, an Argentine economist and professor.
Levy Yeyati interpreted this as a sign that Milei would first aim to eliminate most restrictions on foreign currency trading, which the Argentine government has limited as part of its effort to support the value of the Argentine peso. Mr. Milei’s other comments on Monday seemed to support that idea.
“Argentina has historically been a laboratory of strange ideas,” Levy Yeyati said, but many have never been implemented due to economic and political realities.
He said he believes the same thing will happen with Mr. Milei, at least at first. “There will be a reality check,” he said. “Most of these proposals will still be talked about, but it will be difficult to implement them in the first year.”
It is expected that Milei will have to make political deals to realize his plans, given that his political party, founded two years ago, controls only 10% of the seats in the Argentine Senate and 15% in the lower house of Congress.
He will most likely broker many of these deals with Mauricio Macri, the former president of Argentina, a conservative who maintained broad control over a major political party. The two met on Sunday evening.
Fernando Iglesias, a congressman from that conservative bloc, said he and his colleagues were eager to help Milei fix the nation. “It’s true that you have the handicap of inexperience,” he added, “but I hope you can put together a reasonable government team to make the changes the country needs.”
Even though many key people in Milei’s campaign don’t have much government experience, they saw this as an advantage, not a disadvantage, and many voters agree.
One person who will almost certainly have influence in the new government is Milei’s sister, Karina Milei, who ran his campaign and who he described as his most important advisor.
In a 2021 TV interview, he even compared her to Moses, the biblical figure who brought God’s message. “Kari is Moses,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I’m the one who spreads the word.”
Ms. Milei has been an enigma in Argentina, always present at her side but almost never speaking in public. Not much is known about her past, beyond unconfirmed Argentine media reports that she studied public relations in college, ran a cupcake business and co-owned a tire shop. Mr. Milei’s campaign said she would help manage the transition.
Milei announced Monday that his justice minister will be Mariano Cúneo Libarona, a lawyer-turned-television pundit who rose to prominence defending celebrities, including in a drugs case in 1996 when he represented the coach of soccer star Diego Maradona.
Its 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. You also said that Argentina probably will not join the BRICS club of emerging countries, as was announced in August.
“We don’t understand, with the public information available now, what the benefit would be for Argentina,” he told reporters at Milei’s victory rally on Sunday. “If you all can explain to me what BRICS is, I will take advantage of it and learn.”
Milei’s vice president, Victoria Villarruel, has spent much of her career leading an organization that recognizes victims of attacks carried out by left-wing guerrillas, which the Argentine army used as justification for its bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
Ms. Villarruel, who comes from an Argentine military family, has long argued that the dictatorship’s atrocities have been overstated, claiming that 8,500 people have disappeared despite declassified documents showing that even the military admitted, just two years into their rule, that the 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.
Milei has spent little time in Congress since then, proposing his first bill just earlier this month calling for the government to do more to bring home the approximately 25 Argentines held hostage by Hamas.
Across the country, Argentines on Monday were reeling from what Mr. Milei could bring, both good and bad.
Micaela Sánchez, 31, an actress and acting teacher, said she and many friends are concerned by Milei’s promises to overhaul the government, his history of attacking political opponents and his comments downplaying the dictatorship’s atrocities.
“It’s really a bleak and scary landscape for all of us who work in culture, who work with people, who educate and who work in healthcare,” he said. “The only thing I can say is that I am very scared and very sad.”
But Yhoel Saldania, 27, a shop owner, said keeping Argentina as it is would have been much riskier than betting on Milei. “Other governments promise and promise, and nothing ever changes,” he said. “We want change that is real.”