What is happening in Argentina?

By Marcelo Di Stefano

Libertarian ideology

Argentine President Javier Milei calls himself a proponent of "libertarian" ideology, building his narrative around this euphemistic term. Being libertarian is now presented as a label linked to positive connotations, such as cherished freedom. Yet Milei unscrupulously dissects the political meaning of the concept of liberty, relentlessly tearing apart the classical ideology of the original liberalism forged in the French Revolution, which fused with equal force and depth the associative concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Milei disparages equality and stands as a frontal opponent of fraternity in its modern conception, which translates into solidarity. His view of freedom is associated solely with the market economy, promoting an individualistic freedom that dispenses with state intervention to guarantee it for all. For this reason, he is often identified as a representative of "anarcho-capitalism".

This peculiar ideology links Milei to figures such as Trump and Bolsonaro, who share his climate change denialism and scepticism towards the inequality generated by patriarchy. In turn, Milei declares himself an admirer of Carlos Menem and a critic of Raúl Alfonsín. His position is revealed as contrary to the concept of social justice and the redistribution of wealth.

Milei shows a clear authoritarianism by distrusting both parliament and political parties, as well as questioning the division of powers. His aversion to trade unions is palpable, and he bases this on a clear reason: they represent interests opposed to those he defends, which explains his deep hatred of them.

The elections and their results

Milei emerged victorious in the Argentine elections, but, as the Italians say, "ma non troppo", it is not true that he won a landslide victory. In the first round, he won barely 30% of the vote, securing second place. It was only in the run-off, with only two candidates in the race, that the outcome was revealed. Milei faced Alberto Fernández's economy minister, Sergio Massa, who carried the heavy burden of a century's worth of inflation on his shoulders, and it was there that the media outsider managed to climb to 56% of the vote and take the victory.

A rare, atypical Argentine election, and split from the gubernatorial elections. Milei won the presidency, but does not govern any of Argentina's 24 provinces, nor any major city. Elected in the first round, Mileism's parliamentary blocs in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are in the minority, but very much in the minority, with less than 20% of the legislators. But of course Milei is not alone, because he has the support of Mauricio Macri, who from the moment he was denied his candidacy for president, took it upon himself to boycott the possibilities of the space he was part of, and clings to the tactic once attributed to Troskism of "the worse the better" in his thirst for revenge against Kirchnerism, radicalism, a sector of PRO, and all people of good will who do not consider him a national hero.

A separate issue is to analyse why the Argentine people opted for an unexpected turn by voting for Milei and, in particular, to probe the reasons behind the massive support he gained among young men of modest means. It is also intriguing to understand why the middle classes preferred his election in the run-off. While there are multiple and diverse explanations, we will not delve into that analysis in this note. The entire traditional political class has failed to manage Argentina's economic problems, at least in the last 40 years, with the consequent proliferation of poverty and inequality.

The measures adopted by Milei

Upon taking office, Milei sought to consolidate a swift empowerment by issuing a Decree of Necessity and Urgency (DNU), an exceptional tool that confers special powers on the president to make specific and limited legislative decisions. In this way, he proceeded to modify more than 300 regulations, which were repealed or modified in whole or in part. This massive change covers key areas such as health, rents, tourism, the airline industry, medicine production, domestic trade, the media, and regional economies, and even contemplates the possibility of privatising football clubs.

Importantly, the DNU prominently includes a special chapter that directly impacts on workers and their trade union organisations, reflecting Milei's marked aversion to trade unions. Let's see:

The regulation initialled by Milei, among various provisions, abolishes sanctions on employers for non-compliance; introduces regressive changes in the legislation on telework; unreasonably extends the terms of the trial period; alters the Employment Contract Regime by eliminating any presumption in favour of the worker; authorises the use and abuse of more flexible hiring mechanisms; favours outsourcing; facilitates the negotiation of extremely flexible working hours; reduces compensation for dismissal and allows its payment in instalments.

With regard to collective rights, the ultra-activity of agreements is questioned, affecting the contribution clauses and contributions to trade union organisations, with a negative impact on their economy. Protests are criminalised and the free holding of assemblies and congresses is hindered. The constitutional right to strike is regulated and numerous restrictions on strikes in essential and transcendental services are introduced, affecting most activities, especially in the public sector.

In addition, the DNU also takes steps to the detriment of the trade union Social Works, structures managed by the trade unions that offer a comprehensive health service to workers and their families at a very low relative cost, with excellent benefits compared to international standards. Several provisions make these services more expensive and make it possible for the private health sector to attract workers with higher incomes, thus undermining a financing logic based on solidarity.

Rapid changes

On 10 December 2023, Milei assumes the presidency and just ten days later, on 20 December, he signs the DNU, which quickly comes into force on 29 December. Society as a whole and, most notably, the trade union movement reacted immediately. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) called in its legal advisors and filed a legal action in the labour courts requesting the unconstitutionality of the DNU. The same measure was adopted by the CTA Autónoma and the CTA de los Trabajadores. Bar associations, academics and various socio-labour sectors expressed their unanimous rejection.

This presentation was not merely formal; a mobilisation was decreed for 27 December, which, in defiance of the government's media intimidation, was attended by more than 100,000 workers. On 3 January 2024, the National Chamber of Appeals ruled in favour of the CGT's request. Although the government appealed to the Supreme Court of Justice, which will rule in February, so far the labour clauses of the DNU are not in force.

However, the government has intensified its position. To the magnitude of the mega DNU, it added a superlative bill sent to Congress on 27 December 2024. In a span of only three weeks, between DNU 70/23 and the proposed comprehensive law, the executive branch presented 1649 articles that completely transform the dynamics of social and political life, the criteria for protection and the state structure.

With the "Ley de Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Libertad de los Argentinos", Milei asks Congress to declare an emergency in economic, fiscal, security and other areas. This bill includes electoral reforms that harm minorities and gender parity, judicialise protests, address security and defence issues, and contain controversial aspects such as money laundering, tax moratoriums, fiscal changes, public concessions through PPPs, suspension of the retirement formula and privatisation of public companies.

At the same time, Milei is massively dismissing public service workers, reforming the state structure by downgrading the ministerial rank of education and labour, eliminating, among many other bodies, the ministry for women and the agencies for protection against discrimination, pushing for the closure of the public media and the privatisation of state enterprises.

Milei in Davos

On 17 January Milei appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. With his characteristic arrogance and extravagance, he expressed his extreme right-wing thoughts, full of anachronisms, warning about the danger that, according to him, the West is facing, criticising "collectivist policies and socialism". During his speech, he fervently defended capitalism as the only solution to eradicate global poverty and questioned social justice, arguing that it is violent and unjust. He expressed his firm opposition to socialism, calling it an impoverishing phenomenon and a failure in several countries. He also addressed social conflicts, criticised the "radical" feminist agenda and questioned the defence of the environment.

Towards the 24 January strike and mobilisation

The trade union confederations, led by the General Confederation of Labour, have announced a National Strike with mobilisation scheduled for 24 January. They have publicly expressed their intention to gather more than a million workers in front of the National Congress. At the same time, the government is putting pressure on the parliament to vote, immediately and without debate or modification, on the comprehensive law before the trade union demonstration.

In the first two months of his mandate, Milei is facing the challenge of the first general strike and the declaration of unconstitutionality of his DNU. In addition, he faces uncertainty over the parliamentary approval of his programme, leading him to accuse MPs of incapacity, laziness and of being "coimeros", a term that in Argentina suggests receiving money in exchange for favours.

The economy is heading straight for a collision. Inflation in December reached 25 per cent, while public fares, transport, fuel and food are rising at an alarming rate. In addition, high-tension social conflicts are looming in March.

In the midst of total uncertainty, the trade union movement emerges as one of the few social protagonists that has outlined a clear strategy of opposition and resistance. The results of the mobilisation of 24 January will be fundamental in establishing its position in the power struggle.