100 Days of Javier Milei

Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, has been in office for just over 100 days. Since his inauguration on Dec. 10, Mr. Milei, a far-right libertarian, has been on a mission to end what he has described as “an orgy of public spending” by previous administrations that left him with “the worst inheritance” of any government in Argentina’s history.

The extreme libertarian program that Mr. Milei says will make Argentina great again — along with his unruly hair and tongue — has attracted countless comparisons to Donald Trump and won him high praise from Mr. Trump and other powerful admirers. Elon Musk indicated that Mr. Milei’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year was “so hot” that it distracted from the act of sex.

But this political outsider is having a harder time convincing his fellow Argentines of his vision. A self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist,” Mr. Milei won the presidential race in November on promises to end Argentina’s sky-high inflation through a free-market transformation of the state. So far, he’s failed to deliver: Inflation doubled during his first month in office, though it has slowed down recently. Poverty rates have shot up; retail sales have plummeted. Mr. Milei has both faced widespread protests on the streets and hit a wall in Congress, which has twice so far rejected the plans he says will transform Argentina into “a world power once again.”

All of these headwinds have left a troubling question hanging over his new administration: Who is the real Javier Milei? Is he the economic visionary who won over voters and prompted Mr. Musk to predict that “prosperity is ahead for Argentina”? Or is he the power-hungry villain that tens of thousands of Argentines now march against on the streets, chanting “The country is not for sale!”

This much is certain: Mr. Milei is no Donald Trump. While his anti-establishment persona and inflammatory rhetoric invite easy comparisons to the former president, Mr. Milei is a product of a long South American history in which authoritarianism has been the norm and democracy the exception. Although he embraces some elements of the Trump populism flowing from North to South America — including the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags he likes to pose with — Mr. Milei is more archetypal South American caudillo, or strongman, than Trump aspirer.

Mr. Milei, like the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, his ideological opposite, is seeking extraordinary powers in the name of saving his country. For decades, Argentina has been held up by free-market economists as one of the world’s pre-eminent examples of how progressive economic policies can lead to disaster. The argument goes that while Argentina was ruled by conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the country was among the world’s top economies, before left-leaning governments came to power and bloated spending with unaffordable social welfare programs, generating Argentina’s chronic inflation problem. In his Dec. 10 inaugural speech, Mr. Milei waxed nostalgic for this long-ago time, boasting with undisguised exaggeration that Argentina was “the richest country in the world ” and “a beacon of light of the West.”

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