Victory of Javier Milei reveals the failure of Argentina’s popular forces

How could a candidate with such an overtly anti-worker programme be elected by workers in dire economic straits?

Proletarian writers

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Peronist party had good intentions it could not fulfil, as a result of which the electorate has chosen hell.

Proletarian writers

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Read this article in French here.

In the recent election in Argentina (19 November 2023), Javier Milei, a fascist in politics and ultraliberal in economics became president of the country. Milei, who was the candidate of the far-right ‘Libertad Avanza’ coalition, won the presidential run-off by a convincing margin, scoring 56 percent as opposed to the 44 percent of votes cast for Sergio Massa, candidate for the ruling party’s ‘Unión por la Patria’ coalition.

Around the world, many will wonder how it is possible that a candidate who campaigned on a promise of eliminating workers’ rights under the slogan “Where there is a need there is no right”, and who pledged besides to introduce tuition fees for the University of Buenos Aires, to privatise health services and pension contributions, to reduce benefits and state pension funds, to privatise state-owned companies, to dollarise the economy, and to break relations with Brazil and China, could possibly have topped the ballot in 21 out of Argentina’s 24 electoral districts.

They will wonder how it is possible that a candidate who has pledged to authorise the buying and selling of human organs, to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years, to deregulate the firearms market, to repeal the laws permitting same-sex marriage and abortion, to criminalise social protest and to use the country’s armed forces for internal security activities, to release from prison those who committed crimes during the period of military dictatorship (1976-83), to increase the military budget from 0.6 percent to 2 percent while reducing the education and health budgets, and to align the country with the policies of the United States and Israel while rejecting Argentina’s entry into the Brics, could have won the election by more than 3m votes.

The answer to these questions is not simple. Many factors have contributed to this apparent collective suicide.

Factors leading to Milei’s election

Firstly, Argentina is going through an unprecedented economic crisis, with an annual inflation of 120 percent and a descent into abject poverty that now affects 19 million people (more than 40 percent of the population). Unemployment stands officially at 13 percent for young people between the ages of 14 and 29, and has been accompanied by a significant deterioration in salaries.

Moreover, there are currently six different exchange rates for the dollar, which many Argentineans buy to try to avoid the rapid depreciation of their wages. At present, the difference between the official and the black market exchange rates is as much as 170 percent.

Secondly, the government of Aníbal Fernández, in which defeated presidential candidate Sergio Massa has served as minister of the economy since 2022, has been ineffective, totally failing to improve the lives of the people.

From its first days in office in 2019, the Fernández government bowed to the austerity demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), failing to question the disappearance of $57bn that the government of Mauricio Macri (president from 2015-19) had negotiated just months before the end of his term.

Moreover, Fernández’s government left in place the corrupt supreme court that Mauricio Macri had imposed, accepted the persecution and political banning of Cristina de Kirchner, their most popular leader, accepted the liquidation of the country’s main agricultural export company for the benefit of foreign corporations, and caved in to all the demands of the multination corporations and their local partners in the landowning oligarchy.

The list of capitulations to monopolist and comprador demands in the last four years has been endless, and although the Fernández government had some initial success in finding ways to benefit the poorest in some areas of the economy, the ultimate result of all these concessions to the monopolists was that salaries fell overall and big capital gained at the expense of the workers to the tune of $48bn during the fiscal year 2021/22.

Thirdly, Sergio Milei, a candidate without any real political experience and without a political party, managed to present himself, thanks to the efforts of the corporate media (he was interviewed more than 200 times in the last year), as an apparently ‘anti-system’ candidate who would destroy “the caste” of career politicians.

Yet Milei actually won the election by associating himself with the political force that best represents the ‘caste’ he supposedly opposes – the ‘Juntos por el Cambio’ coalition of former president Mauricio Macri.

Class-collaborationist essence of Peronism

Ultimately, the reasons for the rise of Milei must be sought in the ideological limitations and deterioration of the Peronist movement, which from its inception has tried to find a path to improving the social conditions of Argentines through reconciling the interests of the workers with those of capitalists.

This ideological limitation has consistently prevented the Argentinean workers from pinpointing their true enemies and fighting resolutely against them.

In their quest for social harmony, a variety of leaders have emerged. Some, like the movement’s founder Juan Domingo Perón (president from 1946-55), made contributions to the development of Argentina’s national industry and implemented social policies that benefited workers. Others, like Carlos Menem (president from 1989-99), applied ultraliberal policies, privatised state-owned companies and dismantled worker’s protection legislation.

It was from the Peronist movement that progressive presidents such as Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) and Cristina Kirchner (2008-15) emerged, both of whom tried to redistribute income in favour of the workers, paying off the country’s IMF debts and renationalising companies that had been privatised by Menem.

Under the Kirchners, military officers involved in crimes against humanity during the junta period were jailed, an independent foreign policy was developed, and policies that improved the country’s economy and the lives of the people were implemented.

However, lacking a clear class basis, these policies failed to reduce the power of multinational corporations in Argentina. The local oligarchs represented by the Rural Society remained untouched, as did the monopoly control of the media and the influence of US imperialism via its embassy.

The latter was able to continue to meddle in the country’s affairs, ultimately facilitating the installation of Mauricio Macri’s government in 2015, which reversed all the social advances that had been achieved during 12 years of Kirchnerist governments in just 60 days.

As a bourgeois political movement, Peronism never wanted to bring people to the streets to defend their rights. It is not that the Peronists were not able to organise huge popular demonstrations, but these rallies were always empty of political content, the message to workers simply being: trust the government to take care of your problems; there are no enemies to fight.

Moreover, Peronism has contributed to the consolidation of a trade union bureaucracy whose activities have nothing to do with the interests of the workers. Leaders of the central General Confederation of Labour (CGT) are popularly known as ‘the fat ones’, not merely in reference to their excess weight but because of their reputation for operating like the gangsters in a Hollywood movie.

In short, while Peronism has at times played a constructive role in the life of the popular masses, it has long since lost its mystique and is certainly incapable of being a truly transformative force. Its leaders have become accustomed to doing politics in the time-honoured bourgeois way – making arrangements between ‘bosses’ and leaders behind closed doors without any reference to or mobilisation of the people.

Militant workers’ movement needed

Those millions who gave their support to and put their hopes in Cristina Kirchner are going to have to organise themselves to fight if they wish to defend and extend their rights. They are going to have to become the protagonists of their own story, removing their trust from corrupt politicians and union bureaucrats and placing it instead in their own strength.

They are going to have to return long forgotten words to their vocabulary – words like ‘monopoly corporations’, ‘imperialism’ and ‘landowning oligarchy’ that define their class enemies – and to articulate a real alternative that must be anti-imperialist, Latin-Americanist
and socialist.

And they are going to have to create a new leadership, cast in the best traditions of Argentine workers’ historic struggles: in the tradition of the students and workers of the ‘Cordobazo’ uprising who fought against the military government; in the tradition of the struggling mothers who occupied the Plaza de Mayo in the darkest days of the military dictatorship; and in the tradition of the popular demonstrators who took to the streets to hold those responsible for the 2001 economic crisis accountable.

The path ahead will not be easy, but as the founding message of the militant CGT de los Argentinos workers’ union stated in 1968: “Nothing will stop us, neither prison nor death. Because you cannot imprison and kill all the people, and because the vast majority of Argentineans, without electoral pacts, without collaborationist adventures or coup plotters, know that only the people will save the people.”