Burning the central bank “will end inflation”; the sale of bodily organs would be just “another market”; politicians “must be removed by kicking their asses.” Shouting such proposals aloud on stage, ultra-libertarian economist Javier Milei, 52, has taken over the Argentine public agenda. Histrionic, disheveled, but at the same time very image conscious, the far-right candidate has imposed his anti-establishment fury on the country’s political debate since 2016, when he first appeared on television. His anger has appealed to the frustration of a society jaded by politics: going from talk show host to presidential candidate, Milei finished first in this Sunday’s first-round election. In fact, he won almost 32% of the vote, far more than both the ruling Peronists and the right wing, which has begun to take its cues from him. But Milei did not want to establish an alliance. His battle cry goes against them all: “The caste is frightened.”
The son of a bus driver, who became a transportation entrepreneur, and a housewife, Javier Milei grew up in a violent home. “They are dead to me,” he used to say repeatedly about his parents in 2018, at the height of his career as a TV talk show host. At the time, Milei had gone a decade without speaking to Norberto and Alicia, who beat and verbally abused him as a child. Inhibited at home and supported only by his maternal grandmother and Karina, his younger sister, he became well-known at school for his anger. According to his unauthorized biographer, journalist Juan Luis González, he was called El Loco [The Madman] at his Catholic high school because of outbursts like the ones that later made him TV’s favorite economist and a national congressman. Milei studied at the Cardenal Copello School in Villa Devoto, an upper-middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires, where he played soccer as a goalkeeper in the lower divisions of the Chacarita Juniors team and sang in a band that covered the Rolling Stones, but no one remembers him having any girlfriends or friends.
Milei may yet fail in his quest to win the presidency on October 22, but he has avenged the loneliness of his youth with popular support. Some 10,000 people applauded him on Monday, August 7, at the close of his campaign. The candidate, who made his political career by threatening to “kick politicians out on their asses” and ranting against “the caste,” summarized the road he has traveled since November 2021, when he led the ultra-right’s arrival in the Argentine Congress. In the year and a half that he has been in Congress, he has not promoted any projects and has raffled his salary off to his followers. His supporters applaud both gestures: Milei doesn’t participate in Congress, he reveals its inefficiency; he is not a populist who distributes a slice of the pie, he exposes politicians and their increasingly high salaries each month. As the half-full stadium chanted his slogan, “Que se vayan todos” [Get rid of them all], Milei mentioned six names in expressing his gratitude: El Jefe [The Boss], as he calls his sister Karina, his emotional rock and campaign manager; and Conan, Murray, Milton, Robert and Lucas, the five English mastiffs he refers to as his “little four-legged children.”
An economist with degrees from private universities in Buenos Aires, Milei has forced the debate over dollarization amid skyrocketing inflation; cutbacks in public spending — which maintains a strong Argentine State that politicians dare not touch; and tough-on-crime measures. But nothing has caught on as much as his private life.
That’s partially his own doing. Milei usually prefers engaging in long-winded explanations instead of extricating himself from difficult spots with a simple yes or no. For example, biographer González claims that Milei studies telepathy and has a medium to communicate with the eldest of his mastiffs, who died in 2017, and that the politician asks the deceased dog for advice. “What I do in my house is my business,” he answered when asked about it in an interview with this newspaper. “And if, as they say, he is my political advisor, the truth is that he wiped the floor with them.”
That is his classic response. In June of last year, he referred to the sale of organs as “just another market” during a radio debate. “Who are you to determine what [a person] does with his life?” Milei questioned. Things then spiraled out of control. Days later, a journalist asked him if he subscribed to another theory that suggested “the sale of children.” Milei replied, “It depends,” and further got himself tangled up. “Shouldn’t the answer be no?” the journalist pressed. “If I had a child, I would not sell it,” Milei said. “The answer depends on the terms in which you are thinking; maybe 200 years from now it could be debated.”
At the end of May, his response to a taunt bordered on nonsense. “Javier Milei is a disheveled panelist who screams on a stage and sleeps with eight dogs and his sister,” said Victoria Donda, a former left-wing congresswoman and director of the National Institute against Discrimination under the current Peronist government. “I don’t have eight dogs; I have five,” he replied on the set of a friendly television program that asked him for a response.
These are unusual responses for someone who should be used to appearing on television. He started working in the medium on July 26, 2016, on one of the midnight television talk shows. “He could be Minister of Culture, but he’s going to be Minister of the Economy,” said the host of Animales Sueltos [Animals on the Loose], Alejandro Fantino as he introduced Milei to the country. “Give me the central bank,” Milei responded sarcastically; he then proceeded to monopolize the entire hour. It was the inaugural moment of the rest of his life.
Milei has worked hard for years. He was an advisor to General Antonio Bussi, a military officer who was governor of the province of Tucumán during Argentina’s military dictatorship and later served as a national deputy; acted as chief economist at Fundación Acordar, former Peronist governor of Buenos Aires Daniel Scioli’s think tank; and worked at the company that manages most of Argentina’s airports. His boss at the time, Eduardo Eurnekian, one of the country’s richest men, also owns the television station where Milei rose to fame.
Milei’s contradictions do not seem to bother the third of the country that celebrated his victory on Sunday. He rants against the “caste,” but he has been acquainted with it for a long time; as a libertarian, he opposes abortion and sex education in schools; he has won the affection of much of the migrant community, but he threatens to treat them differently by banning the entry of foreigners with criminal records and deporting those who commit crimes in the country. “Very powerful things have happened to me that defy any scientific explanation,” says Milei, who grew up Catholic and knows the Bible well. Today, one of his closest advisors is a rabbi, and he says that he is “studying” to convert to Judaism.
A year ago, many thought that his campaign would not make it this far. On June 10, 2022, in the freezing cold of the winter in Buenos Aires, Javier Milei held his first major rally in the suburbs of the Argentine capital. Six months had gone by since he arrived in Congress, his popularity was booming, and he was already hinting that he wanted to become president. But the event was a failure. Only about 1,000 people attended, and it made a mockery of the libertarian economist who was threatening to lead a national revolution against the “political caste” from an empty stadium in the middle of nowhere. But the event also marked the beginning of his political battle: accompanied only by his sister and a former press advisor to the country’s 1990s neoliberal government, some of his base began to complain that the party that they had built from the ground up, La Libertad Avanza [Freedom Moves Forward], had been co-opted in favor of propping up washed-up lifetime politicians.
The Argentine justice system is now investigating whether Milei’s entourage asked for thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for positions on the ballot in the October general elections, but his party is stronger than ever. He is also back on speaking terms with his parents. He will turn 53 on October 22, the same day as the presidential election. He could end up getting the gift of a lifetime.
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