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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Argentina’s new far-right president promises shock to the system

President of Argentina Javier Milei arrives for an interreligious service at the Metropolitan Cathedral after the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony on Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  (Marcos Brindicci)
By David Feliba and Samantha Schmidt Washington Post

BUENOS AIRES – Javier Milei, the libertarian economist embraced by far-right leaders around the world, was sworn in Sunday as president of Argentina, an office he won on promises to slash government spending and dramatically transform a country facing its worst economic crisis in two decades.

Milei immediately broke from tradition and delivered his first remarks as president outside the National Congress where the ceremony was held, symbolically turning his back on the political elite as he spoke directly to supporters.

Seated beside him were world leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and allies such as Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro.

In a professorial speech peppered with bleak statistics, Milei blamed the outgoing leftist government for the country’s soaring inflation and poverty rates, for “ruining” the lives of Argentine citizens and for leaving the nation on the brink of the “deepest crisis in our history.”

“We do not seek or desire the difficult decisions that will have to be made in the coming weeks. But unfortunately, they have left us with no choice,” Milei said. “We are going to take all the necessary decisions to fix the problem left by 100 years of waste by the political class, even if it is hard in the beginning. We know that in the short term, the situation will worsen, but then we will see the fruits of our efforts.”

Milei, a political outsider who rose to prominence here as a television pundit, takes office exactly 40 years after Argentina’s return to democracy following the fall of its brutal military dictatorship. A libertarian, Milei clinched a stunning victory last month over the outgoing economy minister on a pledge to rip up the entire system. During the campaign, Milei vowed to dollarize the economy, cut the number of government ministries by more than half and shutter the central bank. But in the weeks since, the wild-haired radical has pedaled backward. Dollarizing and closing the central bank no longer appear to be on his immediate agenda; since the election, he has focused instead on what he describes as the most urgent issue: cutting the fiscal deficit.

“I need to say it to you again. There’s no money,” Milei said in his speech Sunday, a mantra he has repeated in each of his interviews since his election triumph. “There’s no alternative to adjustments and to shock.”

Argentina, which has struggled for decades with inflation and debt, has found itself excluded from international borrowing and has failed to meet the terms of a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The third-largest economy in Latin America has a plummeting peso, a poverty rate of 40% and a central bank with virtually no reserves.

Milei’s office has said closing the central bank remains a “nonnegotiable,” but his recent moves suggest the move will at least be postponed. His appointment of Luis Caputo to head the Economy Ministry – the pragmatic former center-right finance minister and central bank chief has been dubbed the “Messi of finance” – has been received as an unexpectedly orthodox and market-friendly choice.

Some of Milei’s recent decisions, political analyst Juan Germano said, indicate “he’s trying to create something different from what was expected.”

Milei has also stepped back from some of his more aggressive foreign policy positions as he tries to mend relationships with leaders and countries with which he’ll now have to deal. During the campaign, he called China an “assassin” state, Pope Francis a “representative of the evil left” and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a “communist.”

Since winning the election, he has hailed Francis as the “most important Argentine in history,” invited Lula to his inauguration (the Brazilian has declined), and thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his congratulations and offered wishes for the well-being of the Chinese people.

Prominent world leaders, including the king of Spain, attended Sunday’s ceremony. Among them were several figures from the global far-right, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the leader of Spain’s Vox party, Santiago Abascal.

Former president Donald Trump told advisers he would like to attend the inauguration, but logistical hurdles prevented the visit, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private deliberations.

“The support from the right and from Trump and Bolsonaro gives a certain legitimacy to his figure, and to his political project,” Argentine political analyst Ana Iparraguirre said. Those alliances help give credibility to a president whom Iparraguirre describes as more of an outsider than even Trump or Bolsonaro, having never had Trump’s experience in corporate America nor Bolsonaro’s in Brazil’s military establishment.

As Milei kicks off his presidency, political analyst Andrés Malamud said, he faces a daunting challenge: how to find the political and social support needed to implement reforms “that the majority believe are necessary but no one wants to pay for.” With control of fewer than 15% of the seats in Argentina’s lower house and fewer than 10% in the upper chamber, Milei will have to build alliances in Congress if he wants to pass his agenda.

That agenda will face an immediate test on Monday, when Milei is expected to unveil a comprehensive bill to overhaul the Argentine system with significant state deregulation, labor revisions, tax simplification and the elimination of primary elections. It could also involve the privatization of deficit-running state-owned enterprises.

The economy is expected to worsen before it gets better. Prices have been rising since Milei’s win. Economists expect a 20% increase in December alone, and increases to continue through the first months of a Milei government as the current government’s artificial price caps are lifted.

But none of this seemed to faze Milei’s supporters. As he spoke, a crowd of thousands gathered under the bright sun. They shouted “Chainsaw! Chainsaw!” – a reference to the power tool Milei often brought to campaign appearances, vowing to slash government funding.

Young men and families filled the square outside with Argentine flags, Lionel Messi jerseys and badges featuring a lion, a symbol embraced by Milei’s supporters.

After his speech, the new president and his sister rode in a convertible to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

“He told it like it is, instead of telling lies,” said one supporter, 18-year-old Enzo Bucci, an economics student and delivery worker who had considered leaving the country because of a lack of opportunities.

“I don’t think we have ever seen a plan like this in the country, one that will break with the economic model we’ve always had,” he said. “I think it can work.”

Milei’s first speech as president, Malamud said, “sought to prepare the people for the adjustment” to limit potential protests. He avoided mentioning specific policies or concrete plans.

Soon, Argentina will learn whether Milei has a plan of stabilization underway, Malamud said, “or if he will only offer pain.”

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Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia.