Javier Milei: Argentines wait for ‘crazy’ president’s shock therapy to work

Presidential candidate Javier Milei lifts a chainsaw during a rally on 25 September 2023 in San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Image caption,Javier Milei wielded a chainsaw at one of his campaign rallies to symbolise his plans to slash public spending

There is one thing that unites those who love and loathe Argentina’s new president – they both describe him as “crazy”.

“Most people call him that. I think it’s good,” says 21-year-old Axel Uhrig of Javier Milei, who won the presidential election with 56% of the vote in November.

Axel is part of Pibes Libertarios (libertarian lads) – a self-described “militant” group whose battleground is social media.

They stick posters around Buenos Aires at night with QR codes linking to videos in support of President Milei’s policies.

The new president is trying to get a package of reforms approved to shrink the state, but is struggling to get it through Congress, where he does not have a majority.

Mr Milei may have won the election, but the Pibes Libertarios still feel they are fighting a battle for his sweeping reforms to privatise companies and cut regulations to be made into law.

Members of the Pibes Libertarios group hold a Gadsden flag, a libertarian symbol that shows a snake and reads "Don't tread on me"
Image caption,The Pibes Libertarios support the president’s radical reforms and libertarian ideology

After a series of Argentine governments introduced widespread nationalisation, welfare benefits, subsidised prices, and powerful labour laws and unions, Axel feels Mr Milei gave those on the right an “identity” – a libertarian identity.

He is keen to stress this is different from “liberals” in the West who are “progressive” and instead captures those who support “freedom from the state”.

Axel is glad that the president was “crazy enough” to defy the status quo with a different approach to the economy.

He adds he “saw no future in this place” before Mr Milei was elected and says his two best friends left Argentina seeking a better life in the US and Spain – a trend that is widely commented on here.

Shock measures

Mr Milei’s radically different approach to the economy is why a lot of people voted for him in a country where for many steep inflation feels like the norm.

President Milei blames the country’s skyrocketing inflation on years of high government spending, high debt, and money-printing to service it.

He argues “shock” measures are needed to tackle it.

A saleswoman gives change to a customer at a greengrocer's shop in Buenos Aires
Image caption,The government argues inflation will get worse before it gets better

He has already slashed the value of the currency, public spending and subsidies for transport, fuel and energy.

These measures have in turn driven up prices.

New figures published this week showed annual inflation in Argentina had hit more than 250%, making it the highest rate in the world.

The monthly figure jumped to 25.5% in December after he came to power, though has since fallen to 20.6%.

Mr Milei told the television station La Nación + the figure was “horrifying” but “you have to look at where we were.”

Short-term pain, long-term gain?

Many Argentines relish what they perceive as his honesty, saying they are willing to put up with more pain if it improves the economy in the long term.

Adriana Ignaszewski, 33, runs a discount grocery store in the poorer suburb of El Jagüel.

She says in the past “no-one gave us an answer” to inflation, but “today we have someone who tells it how it is.”

Adriana Ignaszewski at her grocery store
Image caption,Adriana Ignaszewski is updating prices in her grocery store every day

Argentines will wait as long as they need to, she adds.

“If it is the last thing we have to go through, let’s go through it.”

Adriana likes the president’s focus on getting inflation down to help with the cost of living, instead of support from the government, because price rises affect her business and customers every day.

But down the road her sister Silvia, 40, has relied on state support and fears she cannot afford to wait.

She lives with their mother and three of her five children in a house comprised of a few small rooms where “the refrigerator is literally empty”.

Silvia sews crates of hair accessories to sell at a market and says her sales have dropped by more than 50%.

“People can’t buy food, fewer will be able to buy a hair accessory,” she says.

Silvia shows some of the hair products she sews
Image caption,Silvia says sales of the hair accessories she sews have dropped because of rising prices

She stresses that fruit and meat are luxuries and says she cannot even afford to buy basic items like milk, rice or bread. She believes the current price spikes Mr Milei’s plans have caused will lead to people going without anything.

“The policies they are carrying out will kill the people, the workers,” she says.

“He’s crazy.”

Even some of those struggling, though, agree with Mr Milei’s recent argument to the World Economic Forum in Davos that “the state is not the solution, the state is the problem itself.”

They don’t want support from the government, they think it is the cause of people’s woes.

Cristina, a pensioner who sells old clothes for extra money at the barter market with Silvia, says she cannot afford her rent and living costs on her pension and blames former governments for making people accustomed to receive state support.

“They got used to the benefits. Many prefer to steal or be at home and collect benefits without working. The government cannot be there for everything.”

Lorena Giorgio, chief economist at the economic analysis centre, Equilibria, says Mr Milei has done good work in explaining to people why changes are needed.

Lorena Giorgio
Image caption,Economist Lorena Giorgio thinks many Argentines are waiting to see if things improve

But, Ms Giorgio adds, “The problem is that Milei told them that the political sector and the richest were the ones who were going to pay.

“This is not happening.”

She predicts people may be willing to wait while things get tougher for six or seven months.

But she argues that if inflation remains high, and salaries and pensions do not keep up, there could be “social problems” by Christmas.

In the past, economic crises here have led to riots, protests and even the toppling of presidents.

Riot police guard the Argentine congress during protests in Buenos Aires
Image caption,Riot police guard the Argentine Congress during protests in Buenos Aires in January

With people like Silvia, the woman selling hair accessories, wondering how long they can wait, I asked Mr Milei’s spokesman, Manuel Adorni, when people would be able to judge whether the president’s measures were working.

He would not commit to a timeframe but said that in a “short period” the government would begin to “show results in this fight against inflation”.

Argentina for many years “swept the garbage under the carpet,” he added, “and we have decided to remove the garbage and always tell the truth.”

President Milei’s popularity in part stems from the intense anger, especially from the young, about the country’s economic crisis, and what they perceive as his honesty about that.

He has hinged his reputation on curing that by cutting the state, though he is already blaming opposition politicians – whom he calls la casta, the caste – for not letting him cut as much as he wants to.

A man checks prices at a supermarket in Buenos Aires
Image caption,Prices in Argentina rose by more than 200% last year

His public support is likely to be defined by how quickly he can show results, when state support is being reduced and some already feel at their limit.

At a supermarket where the price of meat has gone up 30% in two months, a woman, Anabela Acuña, break down in tears when asked how life is for her right now.

“It’s very, very difficult. I have three jobs and I can’t make ends meet,” she says.

“Many people are on the street. That breaks my heart.

“All very crazy, very crazy.” https://beritaberitaterbaru.com/

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