Javier Milei, the president of a thousand faces

The far-right Argentine leader begins his presidency on Sunday with a speech that he will deliver outside Congress, instead of to lawmakers

Javier Milei, the president-elect of Argentina.
Javier Milei, the president-elect of Argentina.

Javier Gerardo Milei will assume the presidency of Argentina on Sunday. The 53-year-old liberal libertarian economist — first known as a right-wing provocateur who shouted and insulted others on television — changed as the election campaign progressed into a professor-like politician, who took back much of what he had said before. After winning the presidential elections, Milei’s transformation continued. He emerged as a more pragmatic leader than he first appeared, one willing to forge alliances with everyone, as seen by his Frankenstein cabinet, which is made up of ministers with no experience in public management, supporters of former president Mauricio Macri and even members of the left-wing Peronist political movement.

Under all those layers, the core of Milei remains the same, as does the goal objective for which he entered politics: to dismantle the battered Argentine welfare state to give absolute primacy to the market. What has changed are the methods, deadlines and main actors to achieve this radical transformation of Argentina. Milei wants it to happen as quickly as possible, but given the parliamentary weakness of his party, La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances), he will have to negotiate every step he takes.

Milei is beginning his mandate after winning 14 million votes — 55.6% of the vote — at the runoff against the Peronist Sergio Massa. “The presidency is the most important game in Argentina, especially at the beginning,” says sociologist Pablo Semán. In his opinion, Milei will also have a window of opportunity until the opposition reorganizes. His alliance with the hard wing of the Juntos por Cambio (Together for Change) coalition divided the group founded by Macri in 2015, and Peronism, which lost the election, is disconcerted. “The ruling party, which is now the opposition, is not only electorally defeated, but is surprised by the defeat, it’s demoralized and has lost the floor,” he adds.

“Milei is a person who has shown a political skill that no one is willing to recognize and I believe that he combines a certain degree of inflexibility in his strategic objectives, which is the largest possible market, with tactics that seek to build up forces to achieve those objectives. He creates alliances that seem contradictory, but that do not surprise me because they are typical of any political leader who is seeking to build up forces,” says Semán. Political scientist Valeria Brusco agrees: “I thought that [Milei] was not going to win because it seemed that he did not have the necessary social and emotional skills, so I was surprised by his political ability.”

Many of Milei’s voters were enthusiastic about his populist promises: to eliminate the privileges of the “political caste,” fire inefficient state workers, get rid of inflation, take a tough stance against criminals and the corrupt and to reactivate the economy with fewer taxes and greater work flexibility. Other Argentines, who may have had their doubts about Milei, voted for him in protest of the Kirchnerism political movement, which has governed the country for 16 of the last 20 years.

Mieli has begun to qualify his promises before taking office. He will reduce inflation, he says, but it will take at least two years to get it under control. He will lower taxes, but first he wants to stabilize the failing economy. Great upheaval is on the horizon: Argentina needs tax reform and the large announced cuts in public spending will contract economic activity and increase unemployment. Meanwhile, lifting restrictions on buying foreign currency and cutting subsidies for public transportation and gas, light and electricity rates will push inflation above the current 142%. His voters seem willing to make the sacrifices, what is not known is for how long.

“I think of a cancer patient as an analogy,” says political scientist Celia Kleiman. “If a patient is told that they can be cured through surgery, they agree to it even if it is bloody and requires a tough postoperative period. For many, making sacrifice is nothing new, because they have been making sacrifices for a decade. They think that this is different now and that later, with their salary, they will be able to buy steak, which is difficult for many today, or to think about buying a car or an apartment,” he adds.

Symbolic gesture

Milei will be sworn in before the Legislative Assembly on Sunday and will then break tradition: instead of speaking before the lawmakers, he will give a speech on the esplanade in front of Congress square. It is a populist gesture with great symbolic weight: he will be addressing the people and not the “political caste.” But while he rejects the caste in speeches, it is an intrinsic part of his government.

His Minister of Economy, Luis Caputo, and Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, also formed part of the Cabinet of the conservative Macri administration. The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Martín Menem, has been in politics since the 1990s, when his uncle, Carlos Menem, launched a privatization plan that Milei now wants to push even further. If Milei keeps his word, public works — on which nearly 400,000 workers depend — will be paralyzed and offered to the private sector. The plan is for the oil company YPF to once again pass into private hands, as well as Aerolíneas Argentinas and the state media.

“More radical than Trump”

“In Argentina, we go overboard with changes,” says political scientist Sergio Morresi. “In the 1990s we were neoliberal, like other countries in the region, but here we privatized things that others did not, like the YPF oil company. In Mexico, they did not privatize [oil company] Pemex.”

Semán agrees on the depth of the changes in Argentina and points out differences between Milei and other far-right leaders, such as Donald Trump in the United States and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. “Milei’s rise is more sudden than Bolsonaro’s and his program more radical than Trump’s. This is happening amid a situation of social, economic and political decomposition that is much greater than in the United States and Brazil and with more labile institutional limits,” he says.

The decline of Argentina after successive political failures was key to Milei’s victory. The message in support of the welfare state increasingly clashed with the daily reality, in which families had to deal with public schools with no classes, public transportation with long delays and service cancellations, frequent street closures and long waiting times to see a doctor. “Many people from the middle class and below distanced themselves from the state,” says Morresi, who first glimpsed that society was shifting to the right years ago. This trend, led by young men, has now been reflected in the polls.

Morresi believes that Milei’s voters aren’t completely on board with his agenda, but says they agree in part with him or at least with their own interpretation of his proposals. For example, the political scientist explains that while many voters did not understand Milei’s calls for eased gun regulations, they supported stronger police presence and the dollarization of the economy. Milei’s attacks on the elites were also well received in remote areas of Argentina, where there is strong sentiment against the centralism of Buenos Aires.

Inauguration to be far-right summit

On his X account, Milei is described only as an economist. On Instagram, where he has more than 4.5 million followers, the first thing on his account is advertising for courses to become a stock operator, with a post reading: “Do you want to learn how to invest like a true professional? Get trained with @nwprofessionaltraders.”

Milei no longer gives fiery speeches on television while shouting at a cutout of the central bank. He’s stopped talking about selling children and organs, and he no longer insult politicians by calling them thieves and parasites. He apologized to Pope Francis, whom he accused of being the representative of evil on Earth, and he extended an invitation to the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to attend his inauguration. Milei has no qualms about changing his mind and his team acts the same. This past Friday, it announced that cardiologist Mario Russo would be Secretary of Health and less than an hour later he was promoted to minister.

But rebuilding bridges is more difficult than blowing them up. Bullrich withdrew the lawsuit she had filed against Milei after he accused her of being a “bomb-thrower,” but Lula declined to accept the invitation to attend the inauguration: it arrived after Milei had invited Bolsonaro, who will be present at the ceremony. The inauguration will be a summit of the global far-right, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Spanish far-right leader Santiago Abascal also attending.

Milei’s stance on foreign policy is aligned with the United States and Israel, and it remains to be seen what Argentina’s position will be in a Mercosur, which both Uruguay and Paraguay want to make more flexible. Although Argentina maintains its trade relations with its main partners, Brazil and China, all signs indicate that the private sector will now play a leading role. There is no shortage of resources: Argentina is among the countries with the largest reserves of lithium and unconventional gas in the world, in addition to being a powerful food producer.

The true face of President Milei will begin to be seen on Sunday. He is preparing a large package of measures and warned that he will call extraordinary sessions in Congress. Milei knows that his honeymoon period will be short and that he has to act before the opposition regroups. Brusco believes that Milei will take advantage of the fact that it is summer in Argentina, when there is less attention on political issues. According to the expert, this period is “often used to pass complicated legislation.” She believes that the short-term economic situation will worsen, and that there will be protests, but says Milei has enough popular support to prevent the situation from leading to broader unrest.

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