In Argentina, Javier Milei’s Shock Therapy Is Wreaking Havoc

Four months into his term, Argentina’s “anarcho-capitalist” president Javier Milei has drastically slashed public spending and sought to suppress wages. It’s a disaster for the country’s working class and its public institutions of research and learning.

President of Argentina Javier Milei delivers a special speech during the 2024 edition of IEFA Latam Forum at Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires on March 26, 2024 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)

The week Argentine president Javier Milei reached the one-hundred-days-in-office mark was nothing short of catastrophic. Argentina was hit by two megastorms, one on March 11 and a second on March 20, both unleashing violent winds, egg-sized hail, and inches of rain, damaging factories, houses, and road signs. The storms left thirteen dead and wrought economic losses to the tune of hundreds of millions of US dollars.

Meanwhile, an ongoing epidemic of dengue fever had claimed seventy-nine lives and left 120,000 infected. And a wave of narco-violence swept through Rosario, the third-largest city in the country, after the drug cartels declared war on the mayor with a deadly shooting rampage that targeted bus drivers, pedestrians, and a parking garage attendant.

“We are missing the locust and the frogs, and we’ll soon reach the ten plagues,” Martin, a friend in Buenos Aires, joked after a couple beers. We were both standing in the kitchen late one night toward the end of March and, for a moment, his eyes turned somber. “I am going to be ok, and they are going to be ok,” he reassured me, looking at his fifteen-year-old son, who had stayed up late with us. “We have a home, and I have an income. I don’t know whether I will still be employed at the end of this month, though. But that is a different story.”

Martin is a law clerk who has worked with the same judge for over twenty years; he earned a law degree from the University of Buenos Aires and is the main breadwinner for a family of four. The radically neoliberal Milei government’s recent economic measures, which include drastic cuts to federal spending and government employment, have him and many others worried.

“I think that what [the government is doing] is a disaster,” Luis Alberto Beccaria, renowned economist and a professor at the Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, said. “The policies it is implementing are having a devastating impact on the most vulnerable parts of the population.” Beccaria, who has extensive experience directing the INDEC (the National Institute for Statistics and Census) and researching wages and employment, explained that Argentina’s inflation, a historical challenge, has slowed but remains in the double digits — 25 percent in December, 20 percent in January, and 13 percent in February.

But now inflation is occurring not only in Argentine pesos, but also in US dollars, which is proof to Beccaria that that Milei’s strategy of reducing the deficit through wage suppression is like “kicking the can down the road.” “Between January and February 2024, real wages have dropped around 17 percent,” he added.

In an interview on April 8, Milei referenced Jumbot, a Twitter account claiming to track online prices from the Jumbo supermarket chain, to boast about an alleged steep drop in consumer prices for March. But the Jumbot account revealed itself to be a hoax that same day.

“This account is a social experiment,” read a Jumbot tweet on April 8. “[We] never analyzed prices, nor was there a bot that tracked Jumbo’s products. But [this experiment] did serve one purpose: to show the need that many have to tout the results that reality denies them.” Luis Caputo, Milei’s economy minister, had also referenced the fake bot a week prior.

In the meantime, the actual data shows that prices keep going up in Argentina, which has led to a sharp decline in the purchasing power of wages and pensions. All this could push the country deeper into a social crisis.

Milei’s Austerity Program

Reducing government employment and public spending in 2024 Argentina — Milei’s stated goal — is a delicate matter. One in every two workers is either informal (employed outside of government oversight) or temporary, with contracts that are often at will or that only last for a year. This leaves half of the workforce in a vulnerable position, without access to unemployment benefits or any type of protection in case of layoffs.

Gustavo De Santis is a carpenter and set builder. He works for the Cervantes Theatre, the national stage and comedy theater, building backdrops and props for plays and performances. Yet for some time now, he’s been driving a cab, which is currently his main source of income. “I used to have a lot of work building stages for plays, then I worked for soap operas on TV,” he reminisced. “Now, all that has stopped, and the requests I get for carpentry jobs are dismal.”

De Santis believes that the Argentine president governs for the rich. “Nobody has money, and people are losing the little hope they had, if they had any,” he lamented.

The government’s rabid austerity is drawing criticism from many quarters. “This government doesn’t have an income policy,” House representative Nicolás Massot told me during a phone conversation. “It is allowing the markets to set exchange rates and utility rates but have frozen wage negotiations.” Once a member of PRO, the right-wing coalition founded by former president Mauricio Macri, Massot emphasized the inconsistency of a government that claims to be liberal yet fixes salaries and halts “paritarias” (the periodic negotiations of wages between unions and employers).

“In an economy with normal formal structures [unlike Argentina’s], income policies are primarily wage policies, bargained by strong unions,” Massot explained. “Argentina, with its large informal sector [including scrap collectors, recyclers, and day laborers], should consider in its income policies not only salaries but also informal wages, pensions, and social assistance — all of these items that will keep on losing against inflation.” Despite supporting some government initiatives to lower public spending, Massot has criticized Milei and his economy minister, Luis Caputo, for what he sees as their neglect of retirees and informal workers.

Since Milei took office over three months ago, public institutions such as the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), along with other national universities and research institutions like CONICET (the national commission for scientific and technological research, akin to NASA in the United States), have been in the government’s crosshairs as part of its assault on public spending.

“The president has not approved the new budget, and we are operating with the same funds approved for 2022, despite accumulated inflation of 200 percent over two years,” explained philosopher and professor Federico Penelas. “There have been layoffs, and there’s a looming threat of even more, but what’s impacting us the most is the lack of funds to cover operating costs.”

Penelas, researcher and a member of the Executive Committee for the College of Philosophy and Literature, is very concerned about the cuts. “CONICET’s research and doctoral grants were slashed in two, from 1,300 [grants] to six hundred.” The hardest-hit areas are in STEM fields. “Labs and new technologies are costly to maintain,” he pointed out.

On March 15, Penelas published an op-ed in Página 12, an influential left-leaning newspaper in Buenos Aires, warning that Argentina’s public sector is now fully experiencing Milei’s anarcho-capitalist revolution. “It is not a matter of whether the government has money or not,” he wrote. “What matters is that Milei believes it shouldn’t have any.”

Attacks on the University

As soon as the rain gave Buenos Aires a break in mid-March, I visited UBA’s Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, where I studied for five years. The school sits in the massive, refurbished building of an old tobacco processing factory, nestled in the lush neighborhood of Caballito. The school year hadn’t started yet, so the hallways were unusually quiet, with only a few dozen people walking up the concrete staircase that leads to the first floor. The walls, however, were still as I remembered them, emblazoned with red banners handwritten in black and white, advocating for abortion rights and against government austerity measures.

In front of the Aula Magna, the largest classroom in the building, I met Emilse Icandri, a junior art student wearing a red T-shirt that read “Las Rojas” (the red ones). A member of Ya Basta, an anti-capitalist college organization, Icandri was overseeing the check-in table for an open class where some two hundred students were discussing the future of the school and how to best resist the government’s attempts to defund it.

“We have sent letters requesting funds and urging that the government reconsider its plan, but we have come to realize that the institutional way is a dead end,” she explained. “It is frustrating, because our concerns are ignored, and all political factions seem to be allowing the government’s agenda to proceed unchecked.” Behind her, applause signaled the end of one speaker’s presentation, the noise blending with the sound of the rain that had started to patter on the corrugated tin roof.

A week later, I spoke to Natalia Zaracho, a former scrap collector turned representative in 2019, and reelected in 2023. Zaracho won her seat in the House for UTEP, the Union for the Workers of the Popular Economy, which represents people who live, as she once did, on the fringes of the formal economy. That day, UTEP and other social organizations staged pickets on bridges and avenues, cutting off main access points to Buenos Aires, as a response to the government cessation of food supplies to thousands of soup kitchens.

“Today there’s a palpable sense of urgency,” Zaracho began, glancing first at me and then over my shoulder. A muted television behind me flickered with the images of rows of riot police in full gear, arms locked on a street, poised for the arrival of the first column of protesters advancing into Buenos Aires from the neighboring city of Avellaneda. “We represent the new workers of the twenty-first century — those who work but have no rights,” Zaracho declared.

Behind Zaracho hangs a painting of a litter picker in a blue and yellow uniform, stacking a wall of papers from floor to ceiling. A friend, she tells me, gave her that painting on the day she got elected, a reminder of her roots, and she has kept it in her office ever since. As a child during the 2001 crisis, Zaracho learned the city by picking cardboard with her parents. Comparing then to now, she noted that social movements today are much more organized. They have spokespeople, representatives, and a powerful media presence.

“We stand united and strong, and I can’t fathom our movements putting up with this kind of starvation program for much longer,” she said.