Javier Milei, who modelled presidential campaign on Trump and Bolsonaro, looks set to win first-round vote on Sunday
Arriving at Jorge Newbery International Airport, the closest airport to Buenos Aires, in March, it soon becomes clear anything and everything is justified in the hunt for the dollar.
One taxi driver tries to charge the 'official exchange rate', which he puts at 200 pesos; another, making me get into his car, tells me that the black exchange rate - known as the blue dollar - is 300 pesos (the real rate was 400 at the time). At the taxi counter inside the airport, one man says nobody in the city will accept notes of less than $100 dollars. The last driver speaks of a formidable sum of 700 pesos to the dollar but says he has no change. In the end, realising that I am not easy prey, a man who appears to be the boss orders one of his subordinates to take me to my hotel for 20 dollars.
This open war for the dollar is being reproduced across Argentina and has become one of the central battles of the presidential elections. It appears likely to deliver Javier Milei, a far-right eccentric anarcho-capitalist, to power - possibly even in the first-round run-off on Sunday. His election would break the political chessboard, with unforeseeable consequences.
Milei, who defines himself as a libertarian economist, has made the dollarisation of the Argentine economy one of the workhorses of his disruptive electoral campaign. He burst into an Argentinean political arena dominated by the legacies of decades of Peronism and characterised by a statist and inefficient government, an oversized public sector, a subsidised civil society and highly mobilised and powerful trade unions that control important productive sectors.
Argentina has had macroeconomic problems for decades, sometimes alleviated by a rise in the prices of the commodities it exports to half the world, such as corn, soya, oil and wheat, but always on the verge of bankruptcy. Repeated sovereign debt crises and the impossibility of meeting payments on IMF loans led it to declare traumatic defaults in 2001, 2014 and 2020, forcing debt restructurings and renegotiations with the IMF for the repayment of billion-dollar loans, which it is now also unable to meet.
With deep structural problems and skyrocketing inflation, which remained below 100 points last year but has since jumped to 138% (JP Morgan predicts it will reach 210% by the end of the year), the current ruling class has long since demonstrated its utter inability to govern the economy effectively.
Against this backdrop, the emergence of Milei, an ex-footballer, ex-hard rock singer and TV talk show host, who gives supposedly didactic speeches that include some technicalities to emphasise his specialist profile, has landed like a missile on the waterline of the Argentine political class.
With a narrative inspired by that of other populist leaders of the far right such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and recently José Antonio Katz in Chile, Milei claims that the problem is 'the caste' that has run (and ruined) the country for decades, which only an outsider can dislodge.
Milei presents simple and straightforward solutions that are understandable to the electorate. He says he will oust the establishment and put reasonable people who know how to do business into office, who will save this rich country from wreckage and communism.
The formula of ultra-radical change and a new charismatic leader who says he is honest and has nothing to lose is attracting more and more support and enthusiasm. The suggestion is that however uncertain and risky his coming to power without the backing of any of the traditional larger parties may be, it is better than the continuation of the current calamity.
Frontrunner Milei faces the ruling Peronist candidate Sergio Massa, a neat and well-articulated lawyer who was made minister of economy by the current president Alberto Fernández to bring order to the country's difficult economic situation. He has so far been unable to present any change in trend other than the acceleration of accumulated inflation and an increase in the poverty rate, which reached 40.1% in the first half of this year.
Polling in third place is Patricia Bullrich, an MP from the conservative establishment who promises an iron fist and not very credible emergency solutions, and who sometimes finds it difficult to articulate comprehensible proposals. Against the odds, Bullrich won the internal primaries against a much stronger and more credible candidate: Rodríguez Larreta, the current head of government of the city of Buenos Aires. She has now called upon Larreta to be his chief of staff if he wins, in a move that seems too little too late.
The three candidates were virtually tied at 30% in August's PASO, the primary elections held to choose presidential candidates. But this apparent three-way tie was a mirage - Milei won in most provinces and has a clearly upward trajectory in the polls.
Milei's extremism is putting the establishment on guard and the markets are nervous about his unfeasible proposals to dollarise the country overnight (there simply aren't the foreign reserves for such an operation), liquidate the central bank, abolish most ministries, semi-privatise education and healthcare, or do away with CONICET, a social science institution with more than 35,000 civil servants, among other foolish ideas.
But his campaign has been designed for maximum effectiveness on social media, following a strategy well advised by specialists who worked in Steve Banon's orbit for the Trump, Bolsonaro and Katz campaigns. In brief campaign appearances in a van, perfectly choreographed for social media, Milei displayed a chainsaw as an emblem of the devastating policy he will implement, used foul language, shouted, embraced Zionism, confessed that he is one step away from converting to Judaism, disqualified Pope Francis as a dangerous communist, insulted Brazilian president Lula da Silva, said he wants nothing to do with China, that the Argentine peso "is shit", and that he only trusts his sister and his dog.
Such eccentricities would disqualify him in any rational scenario, but Argentina has become a surreal place where many seem willing to bet on Milei's madness.
Of course, there is a possibility that the alarm and fear he generates among all those who see their status quo seriously threatened could slow his meteoric rise and mobilise a vote of fear against Milei. This would add to the large vote that remains loyal to Peronism, be it right-wing or left-wing Peronism, despite the fact that Peronism is to blame for all the ills afflicting the nation.
But the fact that Milei's agenda is completely implausible, that he has little political experience and lacks a robust team around him does not prevent a significant part of the electorate from being willing to take an all-or-nothing gamble.
In the age of social networks, alternative truths have as much credibility as rational truths, and emotionality is what counts. Milei knows this well and understands that he can likely win by shouting profanities and putting his face on a 100-dollar note with the slogan 'In Milei we trust'. The failure of his anarcho-capitalist revolution is assured but the goal of taking power, even as soon as this Sunday, is within his grasp.
When I order a taxi back to the airport at the end of my visit to Buenos Aires, the hotel receptionist tells me that if I pay by credit card, the government will not apply the official exchange rate but the blue dollar one. How can a country work this way, I ask the taxi driver. It doesn't work, he tells me, Milei will win. Now, with the blue dollar already trading at 980 pesos, this is more than likely.
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