Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, has vowed to lead his country out of decades of “decadence and decline” but said its punishing economic crisis would intensify over the coming months, as a “who’s who” of the global far right assembled in Buenos Aires to celebrate the radical libertarian’s inauguration.
Addressing tens of thousands of supporters outside Argentina’s turquoise-domed neoclassical congress, Milei – a mercurial former TV celebrity known as El Loco or the Madman – compared his shock election with the start of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
“Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of a tragic era for the world, these elections represent a tipping point in our history,” he declared, promising to “fight tooth and nail” to drag his country into “a new era of peace and prosperity”.
He warned, however, that Argentina – where annual inflation is expected to hit 200% this year and 40% of citizens live in poverty – faced an “emergency” situation. “The challenge before us is titanic … I’d rather tell you an uncomfortable truth than a comfortable lie,” he said.
Milei’s speech had strong echoes of Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech in which the American tycoon vowed to end an age of “American carnage”, crime and poverty and return power to “the people”. “Argentina has become a bloodbath,” Milei said, vowing to fight the drug traffickers who had “hijacked” the streets of its biggest cities.
He had been formally sworn in as Argentina’s next leader moments before in the presence of far-right associates including Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro; Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the leader of Chile’s Republican party, José Antonio Kast, and the leader of Spain’s Vox party, Santiago Abascal. “The right is rising not only in Europe but all around the world!” Orbán tweeted as he arrived in Argentina’s capital.
The inauguration guest list also included Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, Spain’s King Felipe VI, and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Milei has called Putin a dangerous leader and appears to be positioning Argentina as Ukraine’s biggest Latin American ally. Writing on X, Zelenskiy said: “This is a new beginning for Argentina and I wish President Milei and the entire Argentinian people to surprise the world with their successes.”
Prominent leftwing leaders, including the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and his Colombian counterpart, Gustavo Petro, stayed away. The authoritarian presidents of Venezuela and Nicaragua, Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega, were not invited.
Milei supporters flocked to Buenos Aires from across Argentina to witness what they hoped would prove a historic turning point.
“We need absolute, total change,” said Carmen Quiñez, a 50-year-old grandmother who had driven 12 hours from the northern province of Salta to see her new president.
Francisco Labriola, a 35-year-old criminal lawyer from the town of Benito Juárez, said: “This is a day of freedom. We are celebrating our freedom.”
Labriola, who attend the festivities wearing a red Make America Great Again cap, compared Milei to a trio of regional rightwing populists: Trump, Bolsonaro and El Salvador’s hardline president, Nayib Bukele, who has jailed tens of thousands of people as part of a crackdown on gangs. “This is for all America, not just the United States,” Labriola said, pointing to his Maga hat.
Brazilian conservatives – some wearing pro-gun or Bolsonaro T-shirts – had also flown in to witness what they called a major triumph for Latin America’s new right. “This is a gun-shot to the left,” said Vinicius Rothsahl, a Bolsonarista from the city of Florianópolis, unfurling a red and blue banner that read: “Trump 2024: Save America Again.”
As Milei set off towards the presidential palace in a convertible Mercedes, doubts continued to swirl about what kind of government the notoriously erratic economist might lead and what measures he would announce in the coming days.
Milei, whose first taste of politics was becoming a congressman in 2021, won power promising radical change to voters weary of the economic mismanagement and corruption that has wrecked Argentina’s economy. During the campaign he vowed to obliterate the corrupt political “caste” and “exterminate the cancer of inflation” by shutting down ministries and implementing a harsh austerity program.
The magazine Noticias announced Milei’s inauguration with the front page headline: “A new country begins: For better or for worse nothing will be the same.” On Saturday night, Milei supporters held a symbolic wake outside the central bank, which their leader has vowed to close.
“We are writing a new page in the history of Argentina,” said Carlos D’Alessandro, a newly elected congressman from Milei’s party Libertad Avanza, or Freedom Advances. “What we intend to do is eliminate corruption, eliminate inflation and lay the foundations of a healthy economy.”
There have been some hints since Milei’s November election that he may be ditching some of his most extreme proposals, despite his embrace of rightwing radicals such as Bolsonaro and Orbán.
Argentina’s new leader has sought to repair ties with Brazil, China and the Vatican after hitting out against them during the campaign. Some of his most hardline allies, including his vice-presidential running mate, Victoria Villarruel, appear to have been partially sidelined.
The chainsaw he brandished on the campaign trail to symbolise his desire for cuts has disappeared, and plans to replace the peso with the dollar appear to have been put on ice. D’Alessandro said Milei still planned to dollarise but “much further down the line”.
D’Alessandro voiced confidence that Milei had a bold plan to help Argentina fulfil its economic potential. “Milei is an economic specialist … [he] knows what he needs to do and how to do it.” But he admitted Argentina faced a period of turbulence as Milei introduced “shock measures” designed to fix an economy in a “calamitous state”.
The first anti-government protests are already being planned.
Juan Cruz Díaz, the managing director of the Buenos Aires-based consulting company Cefeidas Group, said the jury was out about the direction Milei would lead his country in over the next four years. “We are entering unknown territory … We know him as a disruptive candidate and a disruptive TV economist … We don’t know Javier Milei as president,” he said.
Emiliano Garrido, a 44-year-old Milei supporter, admitted he did not know how much prices might rise or the peso’s value might fall in the coming days as his president’s dramatic measures came into effect. But he insisted there had been no alternative. “We either turn around completely or we are going to sink like the Titanic,” he said. “We will have to sacrifice ourselves … if we are to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
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