Where Did Argentina’s Firebrand New President Get His Political Ideas?

Javier Milei Has Changed the Meaning of Libertad From Collective Struggle to Libertarianism—With Help from the U.S. Right

Where Did Argentina’s Firebrand New President Get His Political Ideas? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Last month, Argentina swore in its new president, Javier Milei, who ran on a divisive campaign platform. Writer Federico Perelmuter explains how Milei imported a right-wing American worldview to reignite Argentina’s conservatism. Javier Milei speaking at his inauguration in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Last month, Argentina swore in as president yet another right-wing populist with mutton chops and bad hair who built a political career out of screaming at people on television with threatening chutzpah.

Javier Milei’s signature campaign proposal was dollarizing Argentina’s economy, which both the Financial Times and the Economist criticized as a death blow to the country’s economic sovereignty. He has backed away from that proposal since being elected but has kept others, such as shutting down all public infrastructure work unless privately funded and slashing regulations and subsidies on everything from utilities to fuel, while at the time of writing both a massive legislative package and an executive order (called a “decree of necessity and urgency” in Argentina) await congressional approval. Milei defeated Sergio Massa, the centrist successor to a two-decades-old center-left populist coalition, in a runoff.

Because Milei sold himself as an anti-establishment candidate, against corruption and the established political class, his popularity has largely been read as a rejection of an exhausted political arrangement. He bears close resemblance to the Trumpists that have emerged around the world—Johnson, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Le Pen—and pays frequent tribute to the power and moral rectitude of Trump and the United States. He has cooled relations with China, Argentina’s second-largest trading partner, to prove his allegiance to the White House (and Wall Street). This influence is part of why Milei cuts such a strange figure: He has imported paleolibertarian ideas of “freedom” into a country where libertad always meant something different and fused local and foreign right-wing political traditions to bend ideas of collective emancipation toward conservative American individualism.

Since the 1940s, a movement called Peronism, with a strong focus on trade unionism and working-class demands, along with an explicit distaste for U.S. imperialism (and, in its early days, some sympathy for Mussolini), has defined Argentina’s political landscape. Peronists have often emphasized “economic independence,” favoring protectionist policies over free trade and pursuing escape from U.S. dependency in defense of “national sovereignty.”

Peronism’s most recent iteration arose from the ashes of a cataclysmic economic collapse in 2001 caused by the application, starting in the 1970s and intensifying in the 1990s, of neoliberal austerity measures like intense privatizations and a fixed exchange rate. Led first by Néstor Kirchner, and continued by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Kirchnerist rule was part of the so-called “pink tide” of left-leaning governments throughout Latin America that focused on national and regional economic sovereignty with a reverence for human rights. In 2005, Néstor Kirchner made a now-iconic payment to the IMF that resolved the majority of the country’s debt.

Counterbalancing these mainstream left-leaning nationalist politics, parts of Argentina’s right wing have long looked north to the U.S. for inspiration. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the country’s president from 1868 to 1874 and its most influential intellectual, also served as ambassador to the U.S. and wrote admiringly about the country, which he saw as the epitome of modernity. An explicitly U.S.-backed candidate opposed Juan Perón’s first presidential run in 1946, while the 1976-1983 military dictatorship executed the U.S. Department of Defense’s anticommunist counterinsurgency programs with unforgivable violence. Most recently, the center-right government of Mauricio Macri, who ruled Argentina from 2015 to 2019, followed U.S. austerity doctrine and took out a record amount of loans from the IMF—undoing Kirchner’s remarkable achievement.

Milei and his party, La Libertad Avanza or “Freedom Advances,” forged a novel synthesis of the two main traditions of the Argentine right. His vice president, military scion Victoria Villarruel—intimately connected to the perpetrators of atrocities during Argentina’s last dictatorship—epitomizes the nationalist, authoritarian faction; Macri, Milei’s key external ally, represents the pro-free trade neoliberal right. But this history can’t explain why Milei describes himself as a “paleolibertarian” and “anarcho-capitalist.” Those identities are distinctly American, his own import into Argentina.

The most obvious expression of Milei’s libertarianism is his use of the word “libertad,” the Spanish equivalent of “freedom” or “liberty.”

Both terms are associated with Milei’s confessed idol, the indefatigable ur-right-wingpopulist of the late 20th century, Murray Rothbard. A student of the Austrian school of economics, Rothbard surfed changing ideological waves while developing what he called “the ideas of freedom,” summed up in his non-aggression principle: “[N]o man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.” In a 1992 essay, “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement,” Rothbard envisioned a path to political triumph for “paleolibertarianism,” an ideology that sociologist Melinda Cooper described as allying “paleoconservative”—anti-New Deal and anti-internationalist—thought with libertarian, laissez-faire individualism.

When Rothbard wrote his essay, as John Ganz has shown, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Louisiana representative (and one-time Grand Wizard of the KKK) David Duke best embodied the paleolibertarian vision. Then, Trump and his minions brought the nearly forgotten Rothbard’s ideas into the conservative mainstream.

Now, Milei has taken up the mantle. After discovering Rothbard’s writing in 2014, he became a devotee almost overnight, devouring his books with abandon. He delved into the uber-American ideology of libertarianism, which had effectively no tradition of note in Argentina, and drew inspiration from the likes of Rudy Giuliani, economists Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, and (of course) Ronald Reagan, with whom Milei has claimed an identification.

The most obvious expression of Milei’s libertarianism is his use of the word “libertad,” the Spanish equivalent of “freedom” or “liberty.” It not only appears in the name of his upstart political party, but in every speech and in his unorthodox slogan: “Viva la libertad, carajo” (“Long live freedom, dammit”).

Freedom and liberty were foundational concepts in Argentina just as they were in the U.S. But their resonances were distinct. In the U.S., “freedom” and “liberty” evoke the Mayflower, the Boston Tea Party, and the rugged individualism of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” The concepts have been fundamental to preserving an individualist vision that is opposed to any form of collectivism, real or imagined.

In Argentina, “libertad” carried a progressive, emancipatory resonance. Since democracy returned in 1983, it functioned as the antonym of right-wing dictatorship, a call against repression, censorship, and state terror. Partially, the distinct resonance comes from Argentina’s independence movement, not born as a proto-libertarian protest against taxation but in the fire of resistance against two early 19th-century British invasions. But it’s also because economic independence—meaning independence from the U.S. and its institutions, including the IMF—is one of the Peronist doctrine’s three “central pillars.” All the Latin American political projects of the 20th century framed “libertad” in this way: freedom from empire and from dependency on the North; freedom to be Latin American without outside intervention.

A distinctly collective notion of economic freedom brought Kirchner to power after 2001: the promise to liberate Argentina from the foreign debt that caused the country’s downfall in the first place and a commitment to restore its once-expansive industrial base through protectionist, anti-free trade policies. But it’s also that sense of the common good—or of its betrayal—that gave rise to Milei. During the early Kirchnerist period, income from sales of nationally-produced commodities funded vast social programs whose beneficiaries Milei called—borrowing Rothbard’s term—“bloodsuckers.” (He has since softened his position, and now considers them “victims of an impoverishing system” of corruption.)

Milei vanquished the public’s faith in Kirchnerist Peronism—no small feat, considering Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won in the 2011 general elections with an unprecedented 38% margin—by inverting its emancipatory, collective language. He used an American worldview to reignite Argentina’s conservatism, arguing that the ultimate freedom was not shared, but individual; that in 35 years, Argentines would live like Americans.

His voters remain hopeful as his proposed measures await deliberation by lawmakers.  Today, meanwhile, the opposition is executing a general strike against Milei, which will draw massive crowds to every square and public space in the country. After a lifetime of economic uncertainty, Argentina’s fight for “libertad” rages on.


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