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Crazy or pragmatic? Milei’s sudden transformation leaves Argentinians perplexed

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Lilia Lemoine, a former computer scientist and cosplay enthusiast, remembers making models of the Argentine central bank for Javier Milei to destroy during a theater performance.

“I used to joke that we were doing voodoo magic on the central bank to shut it down,” Lemoine said in an interview about their collaboration five years ago. “That’s why we made it as realistic as possible.”

Today, the days when central banks broke models are over. Lemoine sits in Argentina’s congress as a newly elected deputy for Milei’s party, and Milei himself became president a week ago, at a time of deep economic crisis.

The 53-year-old political novice – whose previous appearances included tantric sex guru, mystic, dog fanatic, ultra-libertarian, maverick intellectual and football player – has undergone a radical image change since campaigning, dressing soberly and speaking in serious, statesmanlike terms.

After its unlikely electoral victory against Argentina’s long-ruling Peronist movement, Milei’s government on Tuesday unveiled a broad economic plan that included spending cuts and tax increases to balance the budget.

Lilia Lemoine, 43, originally from Buenos Aires, is now an elected deputy from Javier Milei’s party © Cris Sille/Ulan/Pool / Latin Ame/Reuters

The previous pledge to adopt the US dollar as the national currency has been shelved, and there is no mention of the more radical ideas Milei supported during the campaign, such as legalizing the sale of human organs or the severing of ties with Brazil and China, Argentina’s largest trading partner. the partners.

“It’s as if he had suddenly abandoned his suit,” noted a senior diplomat, welcoming the president’s new pragmatism after describing it during the campaign as a leap into the unknown.

Milei’s economy minister, former Wall Street trader Luis Caputo, announced this week that he was devaluing the peso by 54 percent rather than dumping it. Instead of burning down the central bank, Caputo appointed a former investment banking colleague

The Biden administration, which was concerned about the previous Peronist government’s proximity to the Chinese, expressed its willingness to work with Milei. Officials chose to ignore his admiration for former President Donald Trump and offered help in trying to secure new financial support from the International Monetary Fund.

Argentina already owes $43 billion to the IMF and the new government inherited empty coffers, inflation topping 150 percent a year and a looming recession.

    Javier Milei addresses the crowd from the balcony of the Casa Rosada government palace during his inauguration
Javier Milei addresses the crowd from the balcony of the Casa Rosada government palace during his inauguration © Emiliano Lasalvia/AFP/Getty Images

During Milei’s recent visit to the United States, Democrats even arranged a meeting with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who listened to the Argentine’s plans and came away impressed, said a person with knowledge of the encounter.

Milei hasn’t completely shed his unconventionality, however. At his inauguration, the eclectic list of guests of honor included King Felipe VI of Spain, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro.

His sister Karina, Milei’s closest adviser, was by his side as they were driven to the presidential palace in an open car after his inauguration. In one of his first executive decisions, he overturned an executive order prohibiting nepotistic appointments and installed her as his chief of staff.

Along the way, the two men stopped their procession to greet a golden retriever. Milei’s love of dogs is one of many interests he has taken to the extreme: he had his own presidential staff made for the inauguration, featuring the heads of his five beloved English Mastiffs – his original pet Conan, plus four dogs cloned from him and named after libertarian economists – engraved on it.

Before taking office, Milei, who was raised Catholic, traveled to New York to pray at the grave of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a renowned Orthodox rabbi hailed by some followers as the Messiah. “He had said a prayer there before the election and after his victory he felt he had to return as president-elect to give thanks to God,” said a person familiar with the trip.

Javier Milei wields a chainsaw during the election campaign.  Since his victory, he has adopted a more sober personality
Javier Milei wields a chainsaw during the election campaign. Since his victory, he has adopted a more sober personality © Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images
Javier Milei welcomes Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, one of the guests of honor at his inauguration
Javier Milei welcomes Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, one of the guests of honor at his inauguration © Ukrainian Presidency via ABACA/Reuters

Milei studies Torah and has expressed interest in converting to Judaism, an unusual move toward a religion that does not seek converts and is a small minority in Argentina.

Milei looked to biblical stories for inspiration for his insurgent political movement. In his inaugural address, he cited the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the Greeks in the second century BC as an example of the triumph of the few over the many, with the help of the forces of heaven. He compared his sister Karina to Moses and the Messiah.

Despite this week’s apparent shift toward an orthodox economy, the first days of the new government have had a taste of improvisation.

Key positions were left vacant due to rumors that many senior people considered the Milei project too risky to touch. The announcements were delayed, then postponed.

“Milei didn’t expect to win and he didn’t have a team ready to govern,” said a politician familiar with the situation. “They can have one inexperienced person who turns out to be a genius, but not an entire government.”

Accustomed to constant crises, Argentines are now wondering whether Milei’s new sober personality is here to stay and what’s next: the profound economic change many voted for, or further disaster.

Alfredo Serrano, director of the left-wing think tank Celag, said Argentina could become a much more unequal society under Milei, similar to Peru or Colombia, with millions of people living in a context of deteriorating levels of life, or that the Argentines might simply lose patience with their original new leader.

“In this case, Milei has a big problem,” he said. “His support is very ephemeral and very volatile. Voters bet on him, but that bet has an expiration date.

In a country with over-the-top leaders, many of whom have lent their names to political movements – Peronismo, Menemismo, Kirchnerism will the new president generate Mileismo?

“For many of us, the best possible thing happened,” said a senior bank executive in Buenos Aires. “He left behind him the madman of the countryside, but he retained liberal ideas.

“But for it to work, it has to show results – an improvement in the economy – within six months. If he doesn’t, there will be chaos. »

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