From Peronismo to Libertarianism: Javier Milei's Argentine Climate Change, Part 1.
The climate has radically changed in Argentina; the political and economic climate of ideas, that is. Argentina has a new president, who promises to usher in a new era for the country’s beleaguered economy and its political culture. His name is Javier Gerardo Milei, and he was elected on November 19, 2023. He is practically unknown but the legacy press have been busy talking aim at him.
This will be a two-part journey. In Part 1, we'll explore how key European and North American newspapers are portraying Milei. Next, we'll dip our toes into Argentina's primary ideology - peronismo. Milei and his supporters are shaking up this status-quo ideology. In our forthcoming Part 2, we'll delve into the political and economic ideas with which Javier Milei plans to displace peronismo.
I have deliberately chosen to scan two publications to get the flavour of what is being said about Milei in the liberal press. I picked Le Monde in France and the New York Times in the US.
The French Daily Le Monde describes Javier Milei as a controversial figure in Argentine politics. Le Monde refers to Milei as “ultraliberal,” “radical right,” “extreme right,” and part of a right-wing wave across the world. They put him in the same category as Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump. In fact, they made good efforts to write about Trump and Bolsonaro calling Milei to congratulate him on his electoral victory.
Le Monde highlights Milei’s unorthodox style and provocative statements that have garnered attention domestically and internationally. For example, Le Monde mentions Milei's use of colourful language during his campaign speeches, where he often criticizes the traditional left-of-centre political establishment and advocates for “radical” free-market policies. They also note his flamboyant appearance, with his long hair and casual attire, which sets him apart from the typical Argentine politician. Overall, Le Monde portrays Milei as a charismatic and cartoonish figure.
Le Monde also emphasizes Milei's libertarian economic views. They mention his belief in limited government intervention in the economy, advocating for free markets, deregulation, and privatization. Le Monde quotes Milei stating, "We need to reduce the size of the state and let individuals and businesses thrive without excessive government interference." They highlight his opposition to high taxes and excessive government spending, arguing that these policies hinder economic growth and individual freedom. Le Monde presents Milei as a staunch advocate for economic liberalism and a critic of the interventionist peronista (more about peronismo further below) policies that have characterized Argentina's economic history in the last 75 years.
Furthermore, Le Monde discusses Milei's vision for Argentina's future. They mention his goal of reducing corruption and cronyism in the country, which he believes has been perpetuated by the peronista rule. Le Monde quotes Milei saying, "We need to break free from the corrupt political elites and establish a transparent and merit-based system." They highlight his emphasis on meritocracy and the importance of rewarding hard work and innovation. Le Monde portrays Milei as a candidate who promises to bring about a fresh era in Argentine politics, challenging the long-standing dominance of peronismo and advocating for a more liberal and market-oriented approach to governance.
In North America, again from a scan of several reports, The New York Times describes Javier Milei as a controversial economist and political figure. They highlight his unconventional style and his ability to capture the attention of the public with his fiery rhetoric and unapologetic libertarian views. In an article published in September 2021, the NYT referred to Milei as a 'rock star economist' who has gained a significant following among young Argentines disillusioned with traditional politics. The description partly refers to Milei’s background playing a Rolling Stone cover band. As a Canadian, it is interesting to me that the NYT presents Milei’s following among the young as a liability when the same newspaper and others lauded Justin Trudeau for his popularity among the same demographic.
The NYT also mentions Milei's background as an economics professor and his frequent appearances on television and social media platforms, where he passionately advocates for free-market policies and limited government intervention. They note that his charismatic personality and ability to simplify complex economic concepts have contributed to his popularity among his supporters.
The NYT paints him as an Argentine Donald Trump: 'Mr. Milei's appeal lies in his ability to tap into the frustrations of many Argentines who feel let down by the country's traditional political parties and their failure to address long-standing economic issues.' Part of Milei's appeal as a political outsider is that he offers an alternative vision for Argentina's future rarely featured in Argentine politics.
In the same article, The New York Times highlights Milei's confrontational style: 'He has called for a 'war' against the political establishment and has been known to engage in heated debates with opponents, often resorting to colourful language and provocative statements.' The horror!
But it is not only liberals who attack Milei. Iranian-born Sohrab Ahmari, whom I met years ago in Montreal around the time he was converting to Catholicism, goes after Milei in an aimless hit piece published by The New Statesman. Ahmari calls Milei a “weirdo.” He refers to the Argentine politician as a “doctrinaire Hayekian,” a reference to Milei’s fondness for quoting the highly influential Austrian Economist Friedrich Hayek, a giant among 20th-century thinkers, in my view. Hayek is one of the brightest lights of what is known among economists as the “Austrian School.” Ahmari sees Milei as a Frankenstein of the libertarians, “grown in a secret laboratory funded by the Koch brothers.” There is some serious animus there.
Ahmari’s piece does raise some of the difficulties with libertarianism, and ideas Milei’s has raised. But his attack on Milei seems personally motivated as a riposte to Milei’s own attacks on Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine Cardinal who became Pope Francis. Milei has qualified Bergoglio as being “a communist,” a sentiment often echoed among Latin Americans who have closely followed Bergoglio’s politics. Also in defense of Francis, The Catholic News Agency has called Milei a "false messiah." This is not an unimportant debate, but it is secondary, at least to the aims of this piece, and I may come back to it in another piece. Controversy aside, Milei calls into question Bergoglio’s political inclinations, and to my knowledge has not taken aim at the authority of his pontificate.
And what is this Peronista business?
I should say from the start that I am not fond of translating specific foreign words that have peculiar but at times complex meanings. You will see some people translate “Peronista” as Peronist and “Peronismo” as Peronism. I don’t care for anglicising these concepts. I prefer to keep to their native flavour.
Peronismo is a political ideology and movement that originated in Argentina with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón in the mid-20th century. A Peronista is one who adheres to Peronismo as an ideology. Peronismo is characterized by its populist and nationalist principles, which claim to address social and economic inequality. It is often associated with the political party known as the Justicialist Party, founded by Perón. Peronismo emphasizes the role of the state in promoting “social justice” and protecting the rights of workers. It has had a significant influence on Argentine politics and has shaped the country's economic policies and social programs for the past 75 years. It is the ideology that transformed Argentina from one of the most powerful world economies before World War 2 into the basket case that it has become, in spite of the country’s tremendous potential.
Argentina has faced several economic challenges throughout its history, which have contributed to its overall lack of success. One of the main factors is the country's history of political instability. Argentina has experienced frequent changes in government, often accompanied by rampant corruption and mismanagement of resources, all in the name of helping the working middle class. This has created an uncertain business environment and discouraged domestic and foreign investment, hindering economic growth.
Another significant factor is Argentina's high levels of public debt. The country has struggled with chronic fiscal deficits, leading to a reliance on borrowing (read printing currency liberally) to finance government spending. This has resulted in a cycle of debt accumulation and repayment difficulties, which has limited the government's ability to invest in infrastructure, education, and other areas crucial for long-term economic development.
Additionally, Argentina has a long history of protectionist economic policies. The country has implemented trade barriers and import restrictions, aiming to protect domestic industries and supposedly to promote self-sufficiency. While these policies may have provided short-term benefits to some sectors, they have also stifled competition, limited access to foreign markets, and hindered innovation and productivity growth. Jorge Bergoglio endorses a great deal of the Peronista agenda that passes as social justice, climate justice and so forth. This is likely the source of Milei’s animus toward his compatriot.
Inflation has also been a persistent problem in Argentina. The country has experienced high levels of price instability, eroding the purchasing power of its citizens and undermining economic stability. The current inflation rate today hovers around 143 per cent, and at present course, it is expected to reach 200 per cent by the time the year is out. Factors contributing to inflation include excessive money printing, fiscal imbalances, and wage indexation policies that perpetuate price increases. Close to 40 per cent of the 45 million Argentines live now under the poverty line.
Lastly, Argentina has struggled with a lack of long-term planning and policy consistency, despite a rather large public sector bureaucracy. Changes in government often result in dramatic shifts in economic policies, creating uncertainty and discouraging investment. Additionally, populist policies designed to please public sector unions have aimed at short-term gains and have often taken precedence over sustainable economic reforms, further hindering Argentina's economic success.
This is the Argentina and its monumental troubles that Milei is inheriting.
For reference, at the end of World War Two, Argentina’s economy was at the same level of development as Canada’s. Walking through older parts of Buenos Aires one gets an idea of the wealth and economic strength of the country in the first part of the 20th century. To this day, Argentina is a cultural hub in Latin America. It is an industrialized and civilized state, with 99 per cent literacy and significant resources.
And if you wonder how Argentina got where it is now, and you are Canadian, just imagine if Canada were subjected to Justin Trudeau-style policies for 8 decades. Argentina is a cautionary tale for Canadians.
In Part 2, we discuss Milei and his political ideas. How does he plan to fix Argentina?
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