The extreme right of Latin America

Image: Hernán Nikolajezyk


Milei, in style, is a superlative imitation of Trump and Bolsonaro; in content, it is the bearer of an overwhelming liberalism. In the end, it is proof that liberalism has become the extreme right in LA

Anarcho-capitalist, he says. Javier Milei is the surprising – and distant – winner of the Argentine primary elections and could become its next president. In style, he is a superlative imitation of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, who he says he admires: exhibitionist, histrionic, he claims to have salvific powers (wasn't Jair Bolsonaro acclaimed as “Messiah”?), he had a career on television, and that is the way to success in these times.

In content, he is a bearer of devastating liberalism, announcing that he will do away with the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Development, close the Central Bank, abolish the national currency and adopt the dollar and promote the free sale of weapons. What I ask is how did liberalism become the extreme right in Latin America?

The Chicago Boys

A first answer lies in recent history. Latin America was one of the regions with the greatest involvement of North American institutions in the neoliberal formation of elites, it was part of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, Chile had no more than 120 economists; In two decades, the University of Chicago created the backbone of a new economic policy. Arnold Harberger, the academic who led this process of transforming education and staff selection in Chile and Latin America, boasted of having trained 300 leaders, including 70 ministers and 15 central bank presidents. “The good economy arrives in Latin America” is the modest title of one of his publications.

Remarkable success: he formed Sergio Castro, the Minister of Economy (1974-76) and then of Finance (1977-82) of the Pinochet dictatorship; at the Ministry of Planning was another of his students, and they weren't the only ones. The result is known: public companies were sold (except the mines, offered to generals) and Social Security was privatized (it went bankrupt a few years later and had to be nationalized).

They were enthusiastically supported in this by the gurus of European and North American liberalism. Friedrich Hayek visited Pinochet's Chile twice and praised the dictatorship, and Milton Friedman, a few months away from receiving the Nobel Prize, was there to pamper the dictator. They were received in celebration by his disciples who were in government. Arnold Hagerberg, on the ground, assured that there was no reason to worry about human rights, given that the US embassy, ​​which had helped prepare the military coup, had told him that there were “zero disappearances”. Liberalism against freedoms was good business.

In Argentina, the Chicago program had more difficulties. But the dictatorship also needed the same recipe: Martínez de Hoz, the neoliberal minister of the Military Junta (1976-81), followed a strict monetarist policy and froze salaries, winning the support of the IMF. A liberal Peronist government, that of Carlos Menem, gave new impetus to this program: it sought the president of the Central Bank from the dictatorship, Domingos Cavallo, and gave him first the Ministry of Foreigners and then the Ministry of Economy.

Domingos Cavallo dollarized the country, which Javier Milei now promises, ruining salaries and pensions, he handed over the national oil company to Repsol, Aerolineas Argentinas to Iberia and the telephone company to France Telecom and Spanish Telefónica. In Chile as in Argentina, the advance of liberalism destroyed economies and enriched intermediaries, ministers and investors.

The market in its splendor

Javier Milei, who has a short political career and an insignificant party, depends exclusively on his loudness to take advantage of the voids created by the social crisis and the decline of traditional parties. And here is a second response to this extreme right-wing of Latin American neoliberalism: it grows into social tragedy.

All the ingredients are in place: former president Mauricio Macri (2015-19) negotiated a loan of 44 billion dollars with the IMF with drastic conditions, and the effect is 100% inflation, plus a 22% devaluation in last week, interest rates at 118% and wages disappearing. The Peronist government that followed did not want to reverse this chaos and popular discontent exploded.

That's where Javier Milei appears. He rides resentment with simple sentences: “I consider the State as an enemy; taxes are a mark of slavery. Liberalism was created to free people from the oppression of monarchs; in this case, from the State.” It promises, therefore, the dismantling of the State and freeing the market. It admits the sale of human organs (the body is property), has already suggested the sale of children (the parents are their owners), and advances simpler measures, such as the total liberalization of dismissals.

Liberal but not so much: he defends the ban on abortion, which was recently legalized in the country, he is a climate denialist, “global warming is another of the lies of socialism”, and he hates Pope Francis, a “Jesuit who promotes communism”, the mix that has already been discovered in other new liberal and authoritarian politicians.

Whoever reads these lines will not find the themes strange. In the extravagance market, in Portugal, the extreme right already proposed in 2019 the end of public Education and Health services, and the national representative of Chega defended the liberalization of child labor and the buying and selling of votes. Perhaps Argentina will remember again that anything is possible in the darkness of social despair.

*Francisco Louçã he is an economist, he was the coordinator of the Left Bloc in Portugal (2005-2012). Author, among other books, of The Midas Curse: The Culture of Late Capitalism (Lark).

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