World / April 4, 2024

Javier Milei’s Amputation Regime for Argentina

The country’s new president has imposed a set of brutal austerity measures as part of a so-called “chainsaw plan.” The carnage is already mounting.

Jacob Sugarman
President of Argentina with chainsaw
Javier Milei, Argentina’s new president, lifts a chainsaw during an election rally on September 25, 2023, in Buenos Aires. (Photo by Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)

Buenos Aires—The crowd marches languorously down Diagonal Norte toward Argentina’s presidential palace bearing a series of cardboard characters painted a metallic grey. Together, they spell out the phrase “Son 30,000”—the estimated number of people who were killed or forcibly disappeared during the US-backed dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983.

It’s just after noon on March 24, the country’s Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, and hundreds of thousands have taken to the street to commemorate the victims of the Argentine junta and declare “nunca más” (never again). But this year’s march is uniquely fraught. In November, Argentina elected economist and television personality cum politician Javier Milei—a self-styled anarcho-capitalist who openly denies the junta’s crimes.

Earlier that morning, while demonstrators flooded Plaza de Mayo outside, the Casa Rosada released a nearly 13-minute video on X, formerly Twitter, providing a “complete” accounting of the period, with testimonials accusing left-wing guerilla groups of acts of terror. Six days before, the human rights organization HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio—“Children for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence” ) published a statement announcing that one of its members had been bound and sexually assaulted, and that her assailants had spray-painted the letters “VLLC” on the wall of her home. (Milei’s personal slogan is “Viva La Libertad Carajo,” or “Long Live Freedom Dammit.”)

“He’s an idiot,” said Beatriz Conde, a 73-year-old retiree from nearby Avellaneda. “I should apologize to the idiots, poor things. Milei is worse. He has no heart. He’s garbage.”

Conde noted that she’s been unable to survive on her pension, whose value has plummeted since Milei took office in December. She has also struggled to secure her prescription medication, which is in increasingly short supply.

“I’m here because the country is collapsing, and this guy is going to be the death of its elderly,” she continued.

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Francisco Manterola, a 32-year-old history teacher from Buenos Aires, was similarly concerned that his country was careening toward catastrophe. Manterola, who had dressed his 6-month-old daughter in a white handkerchief like those worn by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, said that he was afraid of losing his job as an archivist at the Ministry of the Interior—one of four he’s currently working to make ends meet.

“We hope it doesn’t happen, but they’re firing people indiscriminately,” he said. “We’re nothing more than numbers on an Excel spreadsheet to this government.”

In late February, Milei appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, to take his victory lap after defeating former economy minister Sergio Massa in Argentina’s runoff presidential election. There, he gave a bear hug to a diffident Donald Trump and delivered a jeremiad against the perils of socialism to a half empty auditorium at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. Prior to that, he made a pilgrimage to Israel to express his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Gaza and detail his own plans to move Argentina’s embassy to West Jerusalem—an announcement he has since walked back.

In Argentina, however, things have grown increasingly dire. A 54 percent devaluation of the peso announced days after Milei entered the Casa Rosada, coupled with a 36.6 percent inflation rate for 2024 through February, has priced essential goods out of the reach of working families while driving thousands more into destitution. A recent report from the Argentine Catholic University’s Social Debt Observatory found that 57 percent of the country is now living below the poverty line—the country’s highest rate since 2004.

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Although that figure cannot be laid at the feet of an administration that has only been in power since December, it’s clear that Milei’s so-called “chainsaw plan” is already creating carnage. In addition to removing subsidies for services like transportation, gas, and electricity, Milei has deregulated broad swaths of the Argentine economy via an 86-page executive order, lifting basic controls on supermarket prices and creating limitations on severance pay and maternity leave as part of a frontal assault on workers’ rights. (Congress subsequently sank a massive “omnibus bill” that would have endowed Milei with sweeping legislative authority.)

Despite the brutality of these measures, however, Milei has often appeared to delight in the outrage he’s engendered if not the harm he has inflicted. Speaking to a group of school children at his alma mater in the middle-class neighborhood of Villa Devoto in February, he joked about the size of a donkey’s genitalia while railing against public education and legalized abortion. Then, at this year’s International Economic Forum of the Americas in Buenos Aires in March, the Murray Rothbard acolyte made a crack about bureaucrats “fisting” the general public during a speech in which he boasted that his government had kicked 200,000 people off their social welfare plans and fired 50,000 state workers, with plans to terminate the contracts of an additional 70,000.

Argentina doesn’t have a president so much as a troll in chief—a pickup-truck decal of the comic-strip kid Calvin peeing made flesh. (Indeed, Milei has threatened to “piss” on provincial governors who refuse to back his reforms.) And whether or not he ultimately succeeds at enacting his legislative agenda, an entire nation remains at his mercy.

“The government believes that it’s doing the dirty work now and that its austerity program will bear fruit later,” said Martin Burgos, an economist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “The question is whether the path that it has chosen is going to produce positive results, and there’s reason for skepticism. Monthly inflation hit 20.6 percent in January, and while it dipped to 13.2 percent in February, these numbers are ultimately unsustainable.”

The Milei administration has been quick to tout its success in achieving Argentina’s first monthly budget surpluses since 2012, but this “victory” has come at a steep human cost. A February report from the Argentine Institute of Fiscal Analysis found that roughly one-third of the country’s $2.7-trillion-peso (approximately $3.1 billion) reduction in public spending came from cuts in the form of government pension payments failing to keep pace with inflation. The reduction itself was the largest in 30 years.

“You have to look at how Argentina got here in the first place,” said Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic Policy Research. “In June 2018, Argentina took out a $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, the IMF’s largest loan ever. In accordance with the agreement, the Mauricio Macri administration cut spending and raised interest rates in order to restore market confidence. Instead, these policies pushed the country into a recession and the borrowed money fled the country. The government then doubled down with more fiscal and monetary tightening and sank the economy even further, triggering an inflation-depreciation spiral.”

“Milei has so far made it worse,” Weisbrot continued. “Annual inflation has been more than 700 percent during his first three months, and the peso has fallen by more than half.”

Although the official value of the peso has dropped precipitously, the dollar has remained comparatively weak in the country’s black market, at least in part because so many Argentines have been converting their savings to pay for these exorbitant new costs. Burgos warns that if inflation continues apace, and Argentina grows more expensive in dollars as well, it could see a decrease in exports, which would further deplete reserves.

“A new devaluation would, in turn, generate more inflation, and the problems that we’ve been having would only be amplified, because the speed of these inflation increases will accelerate,” he added.

For the Argentine middle class, the crisis has already arrived. Cecilia Fanti, who opened a 65-square foot bookstore in 2017 and now runs two successful outlets in Buenos Aires, is fearful about the future of her business if the recession drags on for more than a year. Sales at Céspedes Libros were down 32 percent in February amid rampant inflation and increased production costs.

“Books are expensive,” Fanti told The Nation. “This is true all over the world, but an average book now costs 20,000 pesos (around $22), which is approximately 10 percent of a minimum monthly salary in Argentina. Who can afford that?”

Exacerbating matters, the Milei administration has already attempted to repeal a law protecting independent bookstores from supermarkets and other large retailers by ensuring their books must be sold at the same price. The demise of the “omnibus bill” has provided these shops with a reprieve of sorts, but there’s no guarantee Milei won’t strike the law down via executive order.

“This is a government of brutes,” said Fanti. “They don’t understand culture because they have no interest in culture. To them, it’s the stuff of communists and leftists. They want to deregulate books like they would any other product, for purely dogmatic reasons. But beyond questions of ideology, these people can’t comprehend that film and publishing are functioning industries that generate jobs and money.”

Last month, the Milei administration suspended operational funding for the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, citing its commitment to a “zero-deficit budget.” The reasoning behind the decision, which is expected to scuttle both domestic film productions and international film festivals, drew criticism from no less than France’s prestigious film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Milei has similarly pledged to shut down the national wire service Télam—a move that would limit the public’s access to news around the country and put upwards of 700 journalists out of work.

One such journalist is Silvina Molina, the 56-year-old editor of the news agency’s Society section and its former Gender editor. Like the rest of her colleagues, she learned of Milei’s plans when he announced them during an address to Congress on March 1—mere hours after the government’s director of public media oversight, Diego Chaher, had assured staff that the agency’s finances were in order. That Monday, Molina was locked out of her office with a police unit guarding the entrance. Now, after 13 years at Télam, she is uncertain not only about her own future but how she’ll be able to care for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In March, Molina learned that the monthly cost of her mother’s care would be increasing 150,000 pesos—or 43 percent.

“If you talk to my colleagues, you’ll hear plenty of stories like this,” she told The Nation. “The uncertainty is really difficult. Not knowing whether you have a job or whether you’ll be able to find work. It’s very distressing.”

Uncertainty and distress are perhaps the only constants for the residents of Villa 31, one of Buenos Aires’s most notorious slums. On the Saturday before Argentina’s national day of remembrance, Viviana Rodriguez’s soup kitchen is teeming with children between the ages of 5 and 10, with a few adults lingering outside the entrance. A cauldron of chicken and potato stew is bubbling on a gas stove in a narrow kitchen, and the sound of cumbia emanates softly from the space’s big-screen television. The kids occupy themselves with felt-tip markers and few bowls of cheese puffs while a rooster crows outside on a street named for the former first lady and populist icon Eva Perón.

Rodriguez, 53, has lived in Villa 31 for 35 years and operated the soup kitchen since 2018, offering a range of services from rudimentary healthcare to support for the victims of gender-based violence. But since Milei assumed office, she has been forced to cut the kitchen’s days of operation from three to one. As she tells it, there’s simply not enough food to go around.

“We’re not getting the goods we need,” she said. “We used to get assistance from the federal government. Now there’s nothing at all.”

Rodriguez, who is part of the social organization Movimiento Libres del Sur (Freemen of the South Movement), observed that while there were other soup kitchens in the area open during the week, each was completely overrun. Meanwhile, her calls to government officials had gone unanswered.

“What are we going to do?” she asked, surveying the intimate scene in front of her. “To tell you the truth, we’re in a real bad way.”

Just over 100 days into his first term, the pain from Milei’s brand of governance is only beginning.

Correction: A former version of this article stated that the Senate killed the “omnibus bill,” not Congress.

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Jacob Sugarman

Jacob Sugarman is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires.

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