World / October 20, 2023

Argentina’s Son-of-Sam Presidential Election

The front-runner in Sunday’s election wants to create a free-market dystopia where even human organs are for sale. Oh—and he believes he can communicate with his dead dog.

Jacob Sugarman
Lawmaker and presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza party, Javier Milei, speaks during a press conference in Buenos Aires on October 11, 2023, ahead of Argentina's presidential elections.
Lawmaker and presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei speaks during a press conference in Buenos Aires on October 11, 2023, ahead of Argentina’s presidential elections. (Juan Mabromata / AFP via Getty Images)

Buenos Aires—Javier Milei was on his best behavior. Speaking before the Council of the Americas at the opulent Alvear Palace Hotel in August, the far-right congressman and sudden favorite in the Argentine presidential election scheduled for October 22 laid out his vision for a society rooted in private property, the invisible hand of the market, and an amorphous notion of libertad (freedom), the latter of which he used almost interchangeably with the former.

By his accounting, the government (or “ungovernment,” as he called it) had robbed the people of $25 billion, while saddling future generations of Argentines with taxes in the form of debt. Attendees at the conference, whose sponsors included such multinationals as Amazon Web Services, Bayer, and Chevron, sat obediently as he argued that social justice was simply a form of “robbing from one person to give to another.”

The libertarian candidate for the coalition La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances, LLA) invoked the neoclassical economist Milton Friedman, arguing that it was the moral responsibility of business owners to earn as much as they could. He also said that his country would become a world power in the next 35 to 50 years by embracing the principles of “freedom”—a statement he would reiterate weeks later when he told The Economist that it was his aim to make Argentina “great again.”

Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a rally in La Plata, Argentina on September 12.
Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a rally in La Plata, Argentina, on September 12. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP Photo)

Nine days after the conference, a clip of Milei from a 2018 interview recirculated on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Gone was the impish smile that he flashed at the business elite in the Alvear; here, he wore his trademark scowl and sounded agitated. “Our true enemy is the state,” he told the Argentine journalist Luis Novaresio. “The state is like a pedophile in a kindergarten with its children chained and covered in Vaseline.” In the weeks since, he has appeared on the campaign trail wielding a chainsaw, a symbol of his pledge to demolish whole departments of the Argentine government.

Milei has campaigned on privatizing the country’s public education system and many of its state-owned companies. He has vowed to “dynamite” the Argentine Central Bank and dollarize the nation’s economy, over the protestations of economists and former government ministers. He has sworn to roll back abortion rights and sex education, despite identifying as a former “tantric sex instructor.” He has advocated loosening gun regulations and, at different junctures, indicated that it should be legal to sell your organs or your children on the open market. He claims to have cloned his deceased dog and is reported to have communicated with him through a medium. And, as of this writing, he is the odds-on favorite to become the country’s next president, even as his own supporters disapprove of many of his positions.

The election of Javier Milei would mark the end stage of a political and economic crisis five years in the making. His candidacy is likewise the product of a decades-long parasitic relationship with an international lender that has left Argentina uniquely vulnerable to economic shocks.

In 2018, the putatively center-right government of Mauricio Macri took out a $57 billion loan from the US-backed International Monetary Fund, the largest in the institution’s history and its 21st arrangement with the Argentine government. In theory, the loan was supposed to help Argentina pay off billions in external debt and attract foreign investment; in practice, it underwrote massive capital flight as corporations and wealthy Argentines were able to purchase dollars without restrictions and hide them overseas.

Macri’s successor, Alberto Fernández, canceled the final tranche of the loan, but has faced an almost biblical series of plagues in the years since: the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain interruptions stemming from the war in Ukraine, and a historic drought that has decimated Argentina’s output of soy and wheat, along with its foreign currency reserves. But the governing center-left coalition of Union por la Patria (Union for the Homeland, UxP), previously Frente de Todos (Everyone’s Front), has also been rife with infighting and often looked cowed by the crises at hand—so much so that neither President Fernández nor Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are standing for reelection. (Fernández de Kirchner, no relation, is herself a former president who succeeded her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.)

Inflation stood at 138.3 percent through the end of September, while the monthly figure was 12.7 percent, a 32-year high. According to the country’s National Institute for Statistics and Censuses (INDEC, by its Spanish acronym), 40.1 percent of the population was living below the poverty line through the first half of 2023. The Torcuato Di Tella University puts that figure at 43 percent.

“The electorate is fed up,” Paola Zuban, a pollster and the director of Zuban Córdoba & Associates, told The Nation. “We’re at a hinge point in Argentine society, and there’s a desire to break everything and start over. Practically every province in the country feels this way, with the possible exception of Buenos Aires. There’s a lot of anger with the traditional political class.”

On August 13, Milei, a former economist, earned the most votes in Argentina’s primary elections, with just under 30 percent. Candidates for the conservative Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change, JxC) followed with 28 percent of the vote, while two from the ruling UxP earned 27.3 percent.

Although far from guaranteed, his path to the Casa Rosada (Pink House) is relatively straightforward: Milei can clinch it in the first round of the election if he’s the leader with 45 percent of the vote or if he earns 40 percent of the vote and defeats the second-place candidate by 10 percent. If a winner isn’t decided on October 22, then there will be a runoff on November 19, in which Milei, should he qualify, would simply need to earn more votes than his opponent—either former defense minister Patricia Bullrich (JxC) or, if recent polling is any indication, the current economy minister, Sergio Massa (UxP). Neither managed more than 22 percent in the primary vote.

“What’s interesting to me is that there was a whole buffet of opposition candidates, and the voters chose Milei,” said Maria Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist and a professor at the National University of Río Negro in Argentina. “There’s a recent pattern in Latin America of failed, technocratic center-left or center-right governments that are followed by equally failed opposition governments, and then a right-wing populist. You can see this in Dilma Rousseff to Michel Temer to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Sebastián Piñera to Gabriel Boric to Antonio Kast at the rate things are going in Chile. Colombia appears to be headed in that direction too, so Milei is riding an anti-incumbent wave of sorts.”

The demographics of Milei’s base tell the story of his primary win. Nearly 62 percent of his voters were men, while those aged 16 to 30 accounted for just over 55 percent of his total vote share, according to a June survey conducted by Zuban’s group. By contrast, voters 60 and older represented just under 4 percent. Ignacio Labaqui, a professor of Latin American politics and theory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, likens the self-styled anarcho-capitalist’s appeal to that of a punk rocker—at least in the eyes of many Argentine youths.

“If one looks at the aesthetics of Milei’s campaign for Congress in 2021, with the black leather jacket, it’s a little like Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd’s The Wall,” Labaqui said. (Milei actually sang in a rock band himself.) “Many Trump voters are people who lost something, right? An American dream that ended with the subprime mortgage crisis. They’re nostalgic for a golden age, real or imagined, and they blame globalism for taking it away from them. In Argentina, there’s not so much a longing for the past as there is a question of, ‘What kind of future do I have?’”

Casullo echoed the sentiment and offered a warning about Milei’s possible victory this fall.

“If you were born in 2000, then you’ve grown up with 10 years of economic stagnation,” she said. “That’s almost half your life. If you drive an Uber or transport packages for the [delivery service] Pedidos Ya, you’re not going to be interested in somebody telling you about the need to preserve Argentina’s institutions and its public-sector labor laws, because they’ve never done anything for you.”

“The thing about populists,” she continued, “is that they’re extremely hard to dislodge from power once they’re elected.”

On August 10, a few days before the primary elections, memorial stones dedicated to the victims of Argentina’s last dictatorship were found defaced outside of three schools: Carlos Pellegrini Business High School, María Claudia Falcone Middle School, and the Manuel Belgrano School in Buenos Aires. Scrawled across one was the message, “It wasn’t 30,000. Milei 2023, long live freedom dammit.”

Between 1976 and 1983, the military regime known as the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganization Process) killed and disappeared an estimated 30,000 people, the vast majority in clandestine detention centers, as part of a campaign of state-sponsored terror. A previously fringe segment of Argentine society insists that these figures are fraudulent or inflated. Its ranks include Javier Milei and his prospective vice president, Congresswoman Victoria Villarruel.

Less than a month after their electoral triumph, Villarruel held a ceremony at the Buenos Aires City legislature to honor the “victims” of left-wing guerrilla groups prior to and during the junta. “After 40 years of an amputated vision of human rights and demonization, we’re not afraid anymore,” she told a sympathetic crowd. Villarruel, whose father’s and great uncle’s roles in the military during the dictatorship have come to light, closed the ceremony with a rendition of the Argentinian national anthem.

Villarruel’s discourse, along with Milei’s candidacy, have reified a denialist narrative known as the “Two-Demons Theory,” which holds that the crimes of the dictatorship and the militants who fought it were analogous, and that they were simply two sides in a “dirty war.” But Milei wasn’t always an outspoken apologist for the junta. In fact, it was a bull mastiff named Conan who may have inadvertently led him to this polemical position—and to a career in public office.

“The relationship between Milei’s politics and his lived experience is total,” explained Juan Luis González, a journalist and the author of the unauthorized Milei biography, El Loco (The Crazy One).

In his telling (and Milei’s own), the presidential hopeful suffered greatly as a child. His father, a bus driver who eventually worked as a businessman in the transportation sector, abused him physically and emotionally, and his mother was complicit in that abuse. Milei’s classmates gave him the nickname “El Loco” due to his fits of rage. Although he flirted with a career in professional soccer and briefly played in a Rolling Stones cover band called Everest, Milei was a loner for much of his life. Or at least he had been until he met Conan, a pet that he allegedly fed gourmet dog food by starving himself during leaner times.

“Milei has never recovered from the death of his dog,” said González. “He denies that he’s dead and speaks of him in the present tense. Conan’s death had such an impact on him that he sought out a medium, who convinced him that she could communicate with the dog in the afterlife. Now, Milei believes that he can speak with both God and the dead, all of whom have told him that it is his destiny to become the president of Argentina.”

Today, Milei has five dogs that he claims are Conan’s clones after paying $50,000 to the bioengineering company PerPETuate, which bills itself as the “World’s First Pet Genetic Preservation Company Since 1998.” He refers to the animals as his “grandchildren” and his “cabinet.”

Almost as incendiary as the Milei campaign’s apologism for the dictatorship are its plans to liquidate the Argentine Central Bank and abandon the peso for the US dollar. Milei, who has cited the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises as some of his biggest influences, aims to construct a Monetary Stabilization Fund that would be able to issue short-term securities on the international market.

In this scheme, banks would operate as glorified safe deposit boxes and would be unable to lend their depositors’ money. He also says he will create a fiscal surplus by privatizing public services like health and education, along with state-owned companies. Until recently, that included Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, which has developed the ARVAC CG vaccine for Covid-19 as well as a treatment for melanoma, to say nothing of its extensive social scientific research. But Milei now claims he wants to reimagine the institution as a national science bureau to be led by one Daniel Salamone, a veterinarian who has investigated the cloning of cows, horses, and sheep.

The problem with these proposals, beyond their near-religious faith in the private sector, is that they’re all but guaranteed to exacerbate Argentina’s economic ills. As a group of 170 leading Argentine economists and academics recently wrote in an open letter, dollarization amounts to a form of “monetary alchemy.”

“In effect, the scheme is based on the fantasy that with the possibility of monetary financing eliminated, the government will be obligated to immediately balance its budget, something that is belied by both our own past experience and, for instance, the case of Ecuador, which has already had a couple of episodes of default since it adopted the dollar as its currency,” they said.

The authors went on to say that because Argentina lacks the reserves necessary to back existing bank deposits and cover its monetary base, the government would need to dollarize at an extremely punishing rate, which would in turn set off an inflationary spiral. Coupled with the recurrent recessions and high unemployment it would trigger, the letter warned, such an economic policy is a “mirage that must be avoided.”

For his part, Horacio Rosatti, the chief justice of the Argentine Supreme Court, maintains that abandoning the peso for the US dollar would be unconstitutional. Even The Economist, which infamously lent its support to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, has decried Milei’s proposals as “poorly thought through.” Still, dollarization remains one of the libertarian’s most popular campaign planks.

“When we ask voters about the privatization of public companies, the open carrying of guns, and the free sale of organs, the majority are against them,” noted pollster Paola Zuban. “The only one of Milei’s proposals that has a broad base of support is dollarization, particularly among the more vulnerable social classes. They believe that earning in dollars will improve their economic situation.”

Precisely how much damage can Javier Milei cause? It depends on whom you ask.

Although he acknowledges that the country’s institutions are relatively fragile, political scientist Ignacio Labaqui stresses that the Argentine Constitution could prevent him from enacting much of his agenda. For this reason, he recommends treating the perils of a possible Milei administration with “pinzas” (tweezers).

“I can’t say that Milei is a threat to democracy today,” said Labaqui. “But if he ends up governing, it’s clear that the state will be much less involved in the economy. And in moral terms, it will be the most conservative government in the past 30 years.”

In 2020, Argentina codified abortion rights in a landmark vote, becoming the largest Latin American country to do so. Milei has promised to hold a popular referendum on the health service’s legality if elected president. But as with so many of his proposals, he’d likely need congressional support to overturn the legislation, and that seems like a dubious proposition considering the number of contested seats this October.

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Senate terms in Argentina last six years, and a third of its members are elected each cycle. Meanwhile, deputies in the lower chamber serve four years, with half of its members up for reelection every two. LLA, which burst onto the political scene in 2021, currently holds just two seats in the Chamber of Deputies, one by Milei himself. (A separate libertarian coalition, Avanza Libertad [Liberty Advances], holds two more.) The coalition has no representation in the Senate, nor does it hold any provincial governorships.

Should current voting patterns hold and Milei prevail, he’d likely enter the Casa Rosada with approximately 40 deputies and eight senators—well short of the majorities required to pass legislation. In this scenario, he’d have to compromise with JxC and conservative members of the Peronist coalition, UxP, which is to say, the political casta (caste) he claims to abhor.

Milei could resort to executive orders known as Decrees of Necessity and Urgency but not on matters related to tax and criminal law, and Congress would be able to overturn them with a simple majority. This means he’d be unable to legalize the sale of firearms and remove all export duties, among other policy proposals that he has floated. Even if he attempted to govern via plebiscite, he’d still need congressional approval for it to become binding.

Despite these potential challenges to his ability to govern, others are convinced that Milei poses a clear and present danger to Argentine democracy.

“Even if we discount his policies, Milei’s election would provoke a change in Argentine society like we’ve seen in the United States,” said Vicky Murillo, director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University. “There are a lot of people who would not normally say what they think or act in ways that are hurtful. But his election would authorize hate speech and hateful actions. We’ve seen bullying against LGBTQ and other groups happening already, and I think there’s going to be more of that.”

Ferni de Gyldenfelt is terrified. A nonbinary trans folk singer who successfully challenged the gender categories of the prestigious Cosquín Festival in Córdoba in 2021, they are quick to point out that their victory was only possible in a democratic setting, in which the state recognizes different identities.

“Just the thought of Victoria Villarruel governing the country,” they said, trailing off. “This is somebody who speaks of sex in biological terms, who met with [former Argentine military dictator Jorge] Videla, who promotes the authority of the armed forces. It’s panic-inducing.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has speculated that a Milei presidency could “set Latin America back 40 years.” Pablo Semán, a sociologist and professor at the National University of San Martin in Buenos Aires, compared him to another authoritarian from the region.

“Given his radicalism and the support he’s likely to have with different police forces,” he said, “it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine his presidency as a form of right-wing Chavismo without a formal army.”

On September 28, the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) feminist movement led a march down historic Avenida de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires to defend legal, safe, and free abortion, as well as the public’s access to comprehensive sex education. Together, they raised their green handkerchiefs to declare their opposition to Javier Milei. But can they keep him out of office?

Shortly after his primary victory, Milei sat down with former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson in Buenos Aires. For the congressman, it was his first major interview with US media on the campaign trail and his formal introduction to the American right. For Carlson, it was the Tucker on X segment that happened to follow his conversation with Larry Sinclair, a convicted felon who alleges that he smoked crack with and performed oral sex on Barack Obama.

Tucker Carlson interviews Javier Milei in Buenos Aires in September.
Tucker Carlson interviews Javier Milei in Buenos Aires in September. (Tucker on X)

Milei looked haggard. The bags beneath his piercing blue eyes were heavy from his time on the campaign trail, and his skin appeared sallow beneath his swirl of brown hair. Despite this, he seemed to revel in the attention that Carlson afforded him, periodically breaking into a cracked grin when the pundit teed him up with statements like “I wonder if you believe that socialism, leftism, produces ugliness.”

The two covered a range of topics, including climate change, which Milei contends is a hoax; Argentina’s Ministry of Women, Genders, and Diversity, which he says is definitionally sexist and harmful to its own cause; and Pope Francis, whom he accuses of defending murderous dictators in Cuba and Venezuela. Glaringly absent was any discussion of the IMF or the deleterious effects of its loans. Neither did Carlson ask Milei how his proposals might impact the working classes the former purports to care about.

Instead, the Argentine congressman advised Americans to resist the “siren song of social justice” while urging Donald Trump to “continue in his fight against socialism” as one of the few who “truly understood that our battle is against the statists.” He also suggested that, if elected president, Argentina will no longer do business with the “communist” governments of China, Russia, and Brazil.

Milei has subsequently proved to be a shock to the Argentine economy in his own right. On October 9 and 10, the unofficial dollar exchange rate soared a total of 17 percent after the presidential front-runner urged Argentines to avoid saving in pesos, saying that they are “worth less than excrement” and “not even good as manure.” Government officials, meanwhile, have accused him of instigating a currency run ahead of the elections.

Karl Marx, a bugbear for Milei and Carlson alike, famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Argentina has already experienced both. All that remains now is the vote.

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Milei’s position on the free sale of children. While he has not endorsed its legalization, he has suggested it should be considered.

Jacob Sugarman

Jacob Sugarman is the former managing editor of Truthdig. His writing has appeared in Salon, AlterNet, and Tablet, among other publications.

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