Argentina’s newly elected president, Javier Milei, won a resounding victory on Sunday on promises to save the country’s crumbling economy. But Jewish issues, too, are close to his heart.
“I am thinking about converting to Judaism and I aspire to become the first Jewish president in Argentine history,” Milei has said, according to Argentina’s Radio Perfil.
(Giving him pause is that Sabbath observance would interfere with his presidential duties).
He promises to move the Argentinian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to make the Jewish state his first international stop as president.
Milei, an iconoclastic outsider who entered politics in 2020 vowing to “blow up” the system, won by 56% to 44% against his rival, Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa.
Milei makes no secret of his philo-semitism, which appears to have made little difference with the Argentinian electorate, despite its being 92% Catholic. (Jews make up less than 1% of the population, though at 200,000 it is the largest Jewish population in Latin America.)
He told La Nacion, “I don’t go to church. I go to synagogue. I don’t follow a priest. I follow my rabbi. I learn Torah. I’m known internationally as a friend of Israel. And as someone who learns Torah, I’m almost Jewish. I’m just missing the ‘blood covenant.'”
He took the stage at his rock concert-like election rallies—as a teenager, Milei was the vocalist for a Rolling Stones cover band—to the sound of a shofar. At one rally in August, an image of a Jew dressed in a tallit, or prayer shawl, was projected onto a giant screen as the shofar sounded.
When asked by La Nacion about a recent trip he took to the United States, noting the rumor going around that he traveled to see a psychiatrist about his Asperger’s, Milei said that he had gone to see Jewish friends in Miami for the Sabbath. After that, he flew to New York to make a pilgrimage to “the rebbe’s house,” meaning Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch in Queens, where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, are buried.
Milei studies Jewish issues with Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish, whom he describes as his “spiritual mentor.” Wahnish leads ACILBA, an Argentine-Moroccan Jewish community based in Buenos Aires.
Milei rode in on a wave of public anger over the government’s disastrous economic mismanagement. He has railed against the Central Bank of Argentina (a 2018 clip emerging during the race showed Milei smashing a piñata representing the Central Bank, which he did with gusto).
The heart of Milei’s economic plan is to fully dollarize the economy, that is, to replace the peso with the U.S. dollar, as has been done in Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador.
Dollarization has been most successful in Panama where it is coupled with pro-growth policies. In Ecuador and El Salvador, the results have been less dramatic, but supporters of dollarization say it has nonetheless been a positive by preventing left-wing governments from reinstituting their own currencies, which they can control and devalue.
This is at least partly behind Milei’s hope for dollarization. “Strictly speaking, it’s to get rid of the Central Bank,” Milei told Bloomberg of his dollarization plan. To El Pais, he said dollarization takes away “the bill-printing machine from politicians… that’s what’s going to put an end to inflation.”
He told El Pais, “Argentina became the richest country in the world when it didn’t have a Central Bank. From 1880 to 1935, average inflation was 0.9% per year. In 1935, the Central Bank was created as a way to swindle people and benefit those close to power: inflation then jumped to 6% per year on average. Later, in 1946, Argentina nationalized [the Central Bank]… until the year 1991, the average inflation was 250% per year.”
In 1991, after economic mismanagement and episodes of hyper-inflation, Argentina pegged the peso to the dollar (a move less than full dollarization). In 2002, it unpegged the dollar, triggering inflation.
In February, Argentina’s inflation rate hit triple digits for the first time since 1991. It currently hovers just over 140%, leaving four-in-10 people in poverty. J.P. Morgan predicts it could hit 210% by the end of year.
Argentina also suffers from spectacular external debt. To avoid defaulting, the country received $44 billion last year from the International Monetary Fund, the largest loan in the IMF’s history. The IMF is currently Argentina’s biggest creditor. (The country has received more than 20 financial-aid programs from the IMF since the 1950s.)
Grocery stores lack basic items, factories can’t import supplies because of dollar shortages, and drivers wait in lines outside gas stations where they only buy a few dollars’ worth of fuel at a time, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Argentina is the only large Latin American country that has failed to bring its inflation under control, according to the Journal.
“In four years, this government nearly turned us into Venezuela, which is a very bad example,” Eric Gandini, a 31-year-old social-media manager and Milei supporter told the paper.
Milei has attacked the establishment in colorful style. He sports an unkempt mop of hair, which he stopped cutting when he was 13, (“From that moment on, the invisible hand combs my hair,” he says, referring to a term of economist Adam Smith). He has dressed in a superhero outfit as alter-ego General Ancap, who sings about Argentina’s economic woes, and wielded a chainsaw to illustrate how he’d cut government down to size.
His popular refrain, chanted by his supporters, is “out with all of them.”
Milei aligns himself squarely with “our most natural allies” the United States and Israel, and wants “nothing to do with the communists of Cuba, China, North Korea,” he told Tablet Magazine. His love for laissez-faire economics extends to his four English mastiffs, all cloned, named after economists Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas (the last two are named Robert and Lucas.)
Milei champions other politically conservative positions. He says “all the policies that blame humans for climate change are false,” calls abortion “murder,” advocates the right of citizens to carry firearms and promises to privatize the health system.
Milei has the youth behind him, with his rocker background and stint as a reserve goalie for Chacarita Juniors, a second-division professional soccer club, helping to win over the Argentinian male vote.
“Perhaps not everything Milei says I agree with or can identify with but he is our future,” 20-year-old student Irene Sosa told Reuters as she celebrated his victory. “Milei represents a future for young people like me. Massa was everything that is wrong with our country.”
But Milei will have an uphill battle enacting his policies. For one thing, his political coalition, La Libertad Avanza (“Liberty Advances”), has no regional governors or mayors, leaving him weaker in the provinces, where he will likely face opposition to his policies.
He also will face pushback from labor unions and left-wing political forces in Congress where Peronists make up the largest minority bloc. Milei only has seven out of 72 seats in the Senate and 38 out of 257 in the lower Chamber of Deputies.
Observers say he will have to moderate his proposals as he relies on more centrist and conservative factions for support. However, immediately following his election he has shown no sign of watering down his plans.
“We have monumental problems ahead: inflation, lack of work, and poverty,” he said in his victory speech. “The situation is critical and there is no place for tepid half-measures.”