Argentina elected Javier Milei as its new president in a run-off election Nov. 19, 2023, after an inconclusive outcome in October. He is a newcomer to U.S. audiences, and news stories have tended to focus on his cloned dogs and not as much on the ramifications of the election. So, the Reves Center for International Studies at William & Mary recently asked Chancellor Professor of Hispanic Studies Silvia Tandeciarz for her initial thoughts on the new leader and what he might mean to Argentina.

Silvia Tandeciarz
Silvia Tandeciarz

Silvia R. Tandeciarz holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Stanford University and a doctorate in literature from Duke University. In addition to her professorship, she serves as vice dean for social sciences and interdisciplinary studies at William & Mary, where she has worked since 1999.

A translator, poet and scholar in the field of Latin American cultural studies, her research focuses on the role memory plays in advancing democracy and human rights in post-conflict settings. She has published widely on contemporary visual, spatial and performative cultural initiatives in Argentina that serve to process and transmit traumatic memories of the last dictatorship.

Q: Did Milei’s election surprise you? Why or why not?

A: It surprised me. But the situation in Argentina is so fraught, the divisions so deep and the economic situation so very dire, it’s the perfect ecosystem for such an outsider to come into power with promises to drain the swamp. From everything I’ve read, it seems there was a lot of support especially from younger generations dreaming of a better life, home ownership, secure employment and better opportunities — this, more than the far-right rhetoric seems to have been the overwhelmingly unifying factor.

Q: Many who voted for him seem to have been motivated less by admiration for him in particular than for a need for someone to make massive economic and political change and the belief that he’s the one who can do it. Is that an accurate assessment?

A: It’s hard to speak to motivations, but it’s clear the vast majority of Argentines are desperate for change. Massa, the other front runner, represented the establishment: more of the same given his role in the current government as Minister of the Economy.  Aggravating this, like so many other current and past political figures, he (Massa) is viewed by many as a crook and an opportunist who has enriched himself at the expense of the people he swore to protect.

Q: Argentina is facing nearly 150% inflation, a $44 billion debt program with the International Monetary Fund and widespread poverty. Do you attribute this situation to one party or is the problem deeper and more systemic than one political party?

A: It’s complicated, and I’m not an economist. I don’t, however, attribute it to one party. Powerful lobbies in Argentina, problems with corruption and global factors (trade blocks, foreign policy) are all in the mix.

Q: Does this remind you or a previous period in Argentine history, or does this feel like something uniquely new that’s happening?

A: It’s unique to this moment. It feels like an inflection point and at the same time repeats past scripts. The “shock doctrine” approach was implemented by the military dictatorship, which ended with a broken economy; the neoliberal approach was tried again under Menem’s presidency (a Peronist), and again ended in catastrophe.

Milei’s ideas follow the Menem script in a more extreme way, including now proposals like the abolition of the Central Bank and dollarization. Regarding human rights and Milei’s position vis-à-vis the last military dictatorship, again there are echoes of Menem, but pushed to an extreme: Both advocate a politics of forgetting and support amnesties to perpetrators. Milei’s platform is closer to denial/erasure, questioning the total number of disappeared and resurrecting the “dirty war” theory pushed by the military to justify the repression. Both pursue hard line security policies that criminalize the poorest and most vulnerable sectors. In his promises to shrink government and “drain the swamp,” Milei plans to close government offices created to defend the rights of the most vulnerable.   

Q: Milei is from Buenos Aires, but that’s not where his support is strongest. He doesn’t have a broad constituency as such, and yet he captured the majority across the country. He is also anti-abortion and wants looser gun laws. Why do you think that is?

A: It’s crazy to me that a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist libertarian would find it consistent to curtail women’s rights. But so much of this isn’t rational. It begins to make sense when you look at the urban/rural divide and where most of those who voted for him live.

Just like in the U.S. we have a red/blue divide, in Argentina the vast majority of Milei’s supporters are outside the largest urban centers (generally the equivalent of red states here). Milei lost in Buenos Aires and won in rural regions. Seems pretty much consistent with what we’ve generally found in the U.S., too: red states, where gun ownership for a number of reasons is high, tend also to be the most anti-abortion. It’s a traditional, conservative position. Milei played to that.

Q: Are you hopeful that meaningful improvements for the people can come about given the charged atmosphere and desperation among the voters and the lack of a clear political majority in Congress?

A: I’m always hopeful. Time will tell. Argentines are resilient, and Congress will rein him in, where possible. It’s clear that change is necessary if we are to come out of this boom-bust cycle that has characterized Argentina’s last 100 years. So it’s possible that the chainsaw (to follow Milei’s metaphor) will, in fact, prune some of the rotten bits and encourage new growth. My concern is that the most vulnerable will be made more so in the process; and at worst, that the hard-line policies we’ve seen coupled with every free-market economic government will bring about the end of democracy in Argentina. 

Q: What do you wish Americans understood about Argentina, its history and people?

A: If this election proves anything it’s how very alike we are. Both are nations of immigrants, rich in natural resources and culture, stunning geographical beauty and diversity, with troubled colonial and post-colonial histories (and neo-colonial in Argentina’s case), high levels of literacy and talent and incredible potential. When my grandparents migrated to Argentina from Europe in the early 20th century, they were pursuing the American dream, something associated then with two destinations in the Americas: the U.S. and Argentina. That said, there are cultural differences, of course, reflected in the much higher levels of political engagement among all Argentine demographics, really strong and extended family ties, and an attention to human rights born from shared collective trauma.

Q: Argentina has worked hard to recover from the legacy of the last military dictatorship, and you and the students you take to Argentina study the continuing effects and attempts at keeping the memory alive. Do you see Milei as irrelevant to that work or does his election seem to put it at risk?

A: Milei certainly puts the work of human rights organizations like the CPM, with whom we partner, at risk. We are already seeing acts of vandalism at sites of memory across the nation. Because he is an apologist for the dictatorship, he emboldens hardliners, perpetrators and other dictatorship deniers. He also emboldens a lot of hate speech as well as misogynist and xenophobic behaviors. His plans to privatize as much as possible (and) put in danger public education programs. The closest parallel I can find is Trump’s claim following Charlottesville that there were good people on both sides.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add? Maybe an aspect I haven’t addressed?

A: Hang on. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.