After a campaign visit through the narrow streets of Buenos Aires’s Villa 31 slum back in 2021, Javier Milei told journalists: “There is much more liberalism in the air here than certain parts of society imagine. What has led to the annihilation of poverty in the world was liberalism.”
For this self-described anarcho-capitalist candidate for the Argentinian presidency, “liberalism” means something rather specific: cutting the state to the bare minimum, to create free markets. His theories are heavily inspired by Murray Rothbard, an economist who described markets as the best possible human institution. States’ economic interventionism is said to turn them into “criminal organizations.”
When he visited the slum district two years ago, Milei was a mere media phenomenon, running for Congress. Yet today, he is now one of Argentina’s front-running presidential candidates, widely expected to make the second-round ballot. In Buenos Aires’s slums, known as villas, he was the most voted candidate in August’s national primaries, defeating the Peronist and right-wing candidates. Milei gathered more than 30 percent support there — almost twice as much as in the rest of the city.
Indeed, Milei’s ultraliberal and anti-elite message has thrived in recent years in Argentina’s oldest villa. His cut-through owes to residents’ everyday financial struggles, Peronism’s lack of understanding of informal workers’ issues, and the growing activism of Milei’s supporters in the neighborhood. Their answer to Argentina’s economic woes: dollarizing the economy, cutting public spending by 14 percent, and abolishing the central bank.
“A Highly Sought-After Market Location”
Describing Villa 31 as a bustling location would be an understatement. The seventy hectares of eclectic constructions and painted walls are surrounded by the wealthy Parisian-like buildings of Recoleta, railways, an impressive highway, and the many roads leading to Buenos Aires’s international bus station. “It is a highly sought-after market location” explains Tomás Capalbo, a sociologist and member of the Movement of Excluded Workers.
The villa’s first residents settled here in 1932 to be near the city’s logistics hub. It allowed them to be close to the port, where an immigrant workforce was increasingly employed as part of the country’s growing import-substitution industrialization model.
After the anti-Peronist coup of 1955, the villas became a moral stain on Argentina — and the authoritarian government planned to eradicate them. Faced with this threat, residents of the neighborhoods started to organize, protest, and fight for housing policies.
“The residents not only survived the period of 1955 but also resisted [Argentina’s] worst dictatorship that began in 1976 and was characterized by the persecution, disappearance, and torture of many neighborhood leaders who had historically fought for housing policies,” explains Capalbo.
With democratic governments since the 1980s, the plans for the neighborhood shifted from eradication to urbanization, but its population grew in the context of the implementation of neoliberal policies. According to the last census, over forty thousand people today live in the neighborhood.
A Libertarian Slum
But for all the poverty that marks this slum area, it is not simply a reservoir of votes for welfarism. “The ‘31’ is the bastion of liberalism within the city of Buenos Aires,” claims Héctor Espinoza, a thirty-two-year-old and self-proclaimed “liberal” and “ultracapitalist.”
Espinoza has lived in the villa for over a decade. He grew up in the Jujuy province near the border with Bolivia, selling all types of food in the street with his single mother. When he moved to the villa and started studying economics at the prestigious public university of Buenos Aires, something felt wrong. His views were not aligned with the education he was provided with.
He met Milei when both men attended a talk on why inflation is a “crime.” “I heard shouting and it was Javier Milei and I went to talk to him — I said, ‘If low-income people and working-class people would listen to you, I’m telling you, they would all support you,’” says Espinoza.
With this ultraliberal agenda in mind, Epinoza started spreading what he’d learned from listening to these newly discovered economists. In 2021, he opened Liberty 31, a bar in the villa that was soon used as a venue for “nice liberal meet-ups,” he said.
According to him, the villa is a perfect example of free market and state-free intervention. “If someone wants to sell food, they go and sell and nobody says anything, if someone wants to sell clothes, they go and people grow, grow and grow,” he said. “What free trade is, that’s the market, that’s what we bank on.”
A vast number of residents are self-employed. “They open a small business in the back of their houses, a kiosk, an ice cream shop, maybe a cyber [café], it is not formal but they are jobs that help many neighbors” says Sergio Delgado, twenty-one, a social worker and resident of the villa since his childhood.
“Milei won in the neighborhood because the kids are tired of not being able to get ahead and also because they are sweet-talked about the dollar,” adds Delgado, referring to the dollarization plan of Milei, one of his more popular promises among its voters. Dollarizing Argentina would mean eliminating the national currency, the peso, and adopting the US dollar as legal currency. Analysts call this bold plan perilous, given the complexity of its practical implementation.
Despite its inner market, which inhabitants call a small city, skyrocketing inflation — which is now close to 140 percent year on year — have had a major impact on workers in the villa. Yet, while Milei’s supporters may refer to Villa 31 as a free-market location, the dynamic between its residents and the authorities is more complicated. “The kids are so resentful they don’t see the state presence,” said Delgado.
The public authorities have, indeed, been increasingly present in the neighborhood since the beginning of a renovation plan led by the right-wing city hall starting in 2018. The plan aims at urbanizing the neighborhood through the construction of twelve hundred new homes and an improvement plan for the existing ones, which will consist of providing them with infrastructure connectivity for drinking water, electric power, and sewage, as well as the provision of educational, health, and mobility services.
Significant results are yet to be seen, according to residents, who acknowledge some achievements but mostly point out the superficiality of the plan. “The renovation of my mom’s house that started shortly before the pandemic is still not finished,” explains Delgado.
Crisis of Representation
Almost half of all employed people in Argentina have informal jobs, according to the latest data from the national statistical institute. These include a growing number of self-employed precarious workers who do not rely on an employer. Since the pandemic, seven out of ten newly created jobs have been informal.
Informal jobs in the Argentinian economy include both paid jobs that are not registered by employers, and low-skilled, low-income self-employment. The specialists whom I spoke to argue that such high informality rates owe to efforts to reduce labor costs and tax burdens — as well as the lack of more effective controls on the sectors with the highest rates of informality.
“Workers of the informal sectors, including workers of the popular economy and self-employed workers who take to the streets to earn a living, continue to lose as much with [center-left president] Alberto Fernández as with [his 2015–2019 center-right predecessor Mauricio] Macri’s administration,” says researcher Capalbo.
In 2019, Fernández took two-thirds of the votes in Villa 31. His economy minister, Sergio Massa, is the Peronist candidate for the coming presidential election. However, much of this political camp’s narrative is oriented toward the middle class. One of Peronism’s strengths, since its first appearance in the 1940s, has always been its capacity to address and mobilize working-class Argentinians.
“What is happening with the more traditional discourse of Peronism, is that it is no longer able to address these new workers of the informal economy as much as it used to,” says Capalbo.
What is clear is that Milei’s antiestablishment narrative greatly benefits from this crisis of representation and the fact that informal workers find ever less of a voice in the traditional parties.
In Retiro’s station forecourt, meters from the entrance to Villa 31, a group of Milei’s supporters are campaigning when a middle-aged lady approaches them. She firmly reminds them a prosecutor recently launched a criminal case against their champion for urging Argentinians not to save or make investments using the peso. As the conversation grows more tense, the supporters start chanting one of Milei’s slogans at her: “The caste is afraid, the caste is afraid, the caste is afraid.” Faced with his agenda, many Argentinians have reason to worry.