Argentina's new President, Javier Milei / © AFP
RTL Today’s Tom Tutton explains why far-right libertarian Javier Milei’s stunning victory in Argentina’s presidential election was no surprise.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Europeans have been dealing with rising rates of inflation, which hit double figures in some countries for the first time in decades.
This has led to a cost-of-living crisis across the continent, widespread discontent, and a resurgence of far-right populism.
It’s hard to imagine what would happen if the rate of inflation skyrocketed to 140%.
But that’s exactly what has happened in Argentina, where political outsider Javier Milei on Sunday resoundingly defeated Sergio Massa, the incumbent minister for the economy, with 56% of the vote.
Milei’s victory, however shocking, should come as no surprise.
I was in Argentina exactly one year ago, in the midst of national euphoria over the national side’s run to the FIFA World Cup final.
While Messi-mania was clearly a unifying factor for Argentines, it was not hard to detect ordinary people’s fury at the country’s economic situation.
Indeed, the consequences of monetary collapse were clear to see.
Queues of tourists formed outside Western Union branches in the main cities, where they could withdraw pesos at the so-called blue dollar rate – almost double the official exchange rate offered by the banks.
This meant that paying in cash was effectively half the price of using a credit card.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s national mint had still not caught up with the exponential rise in inflation, so the highest Argentine bill was only worth around 3 dollars at the time - and that note was usually unavailable.
I’ll never forget seeing foreigners nervously shuffling out of Western Unions with the equivalent of 300 one-dollar bills stuffed inside their bags.
Yet while this was a minor inconvenience for tourists, it paled in insignificance compared with the struggles facing the Argentine population.
As a visitor, I witnessed first-hand how prices rose by the week as the peso crumbled. (On one occasion, I hired a bike on consecutive days, and had to pay 10% more on the second day.)
An estimated four in ten Argentines are now in poverty, as successive governments of the Peronist left and neoliberal right completely failed to control inflation.
Inequality has soared, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the bustling streets of Buenos Aires, where the bars were packed and grand operas and tango shows attracted big-spending elites, while workers I spoke to travelled for hours on public transport to scrape a living serving them.
Two weeks later, crossing the border to Paraguay near Encarnación, I saw six-hour queues forming in the other direction. It turns out that Paraguayans were profiting from the weakness of the peso to bulk-buy essential goods in Argentina, in an almost unimaginable reversal of economic fortunes.
Everywhere I went, it was clear that Argentines’ confidence in their politicians had utterly broken down.
One young man I spoke to in Mendoza even assured me that the assassination attempt on Vice President (and former President) Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in September 2022 was actually a hoax.
The ground was clearly fertile for a populist to exploit.
But in Javier Milei – a self-styled anarcho-capitalist set on destroying the country’s political and economic systems, who reportedly relies on his cloned dog Conan for strategic advice – Argentina has taken another wrong turn, with potentially disastrous implications for its future.
Tom Tutton is an editor for RTL Today with a keen interest in Latin American history and politics.