BUENOS AIRES — On Sunday, Argentina is facing one of the most important presidential elections in its recent history.
The South American nation is one of the world’s largest food suppliers and possesses valuable natural resources, such as the lithium used to produce batteries for electric vehicles. Yet this year, the country has seen inflation near 150 percent and a sliding currency.
All this has served to polarize society — and two appropriately contrasting candidates are going head-to-head in a presidential runoff: current center-left Economy Minister Sergio Massa, and the libertarian congressman Javier Milei.
Pre-election polls in the November 19 runoff between Milei and Massa show a dead heat.
Milei has brought the Libertarian Party that he currently helms to a popularity that many would have considered unimaginable — with the help of his characteristic unkempt hairstyle, no-nonsense attitude and affinity for flashy props. He often appeared at campaign events wielding a chainsaw, a symbol of what he intends to do to the economic system, or a $100 bill with his face on it, as he pledges to shift from the peso to the dollar.
Milei, an open admirer of former US president Donald Trump, has blasted what he depicts as a corrupt political class. He proposes to slash the size of the government and rein in inflation, which has soared to the triple digits on Massa’s watch.
He has awakened massive support as well as passionate opposition in different corners of society. Massa has warned voters that electing Milei would mean an end to public education, health care, consumer subsidies and welfare programs. Milei has denied this, saying his free market approach will generate economic growth in the country and that it doesn’t imply the removal of subsidies or state assistance in healthcare or education.
Milei is also the only candidate who has openly, and for years, defended Israel’s right to self-defense, unequivocally condemned Islamic terror, and shown — even before becoming widely known — an affinity for Judaism.
He is aware, of course, of his radical image and the fact that his opinions spark as much anger in some as they do love in others. His controversial manner of speech has earned him comparisons to Trump and Brazilian politician Jair Bolsonaro — though he has lately adopted a more temperate and diplomatic tone. But, above all, he is convinced that Argentina needs a change, both as a country and on the world stage.
At the hotel where he is staying until the election results come out, Milei remains calm and thoughtful as he speaks with The Times of Israel in one of his final interviews before the election.
The Times of Israel: How are you? How do you feel after everything you experienced during the election campaign?
Javier Milei: A campaign is very physically demanding. The fewer financial resources one has, the more physical effort needs to be made, and this makes me reach the end of the campaign very tired. Obviously, this has some collateral physical aspects. You get exhausted, and the daily diet isn’t what it should be, but I believe it is worth it.
I’m pregnant and my baby will be born at the end of March. There will be a new government by then. Into what Argentina am I bringing my baby?
Congratulations. If we win, your child will witness the reconstruction of Argentina, the turning point from decline and Argentina’s path to once again be among the best countries in the world. And if not, your son or daughter will be in a place that is on the way to becoming the largest slum in the world — and if that happens, you might see your child emigrate.
Do you ever stop and think about why you took on this struggle?
Partly the reason I got into this is that I was involved in a political-cultural battle. I dedicated myself to giving lectures, discussing ideas of freedom, and at one point during the quarantine promoted by President Alberto Fernandez, I felt the state was pursuing me, setting up fake news against me.
Did you receive any kind of threats?
Yes. Those threats happen in politics here.
Can you describe any of them?
There were some episodes that weren’t pleasant. Let’s say they’re kids who play hard. When I saw that the ideological battle was getting complicated and observed how my opponents had stopped giving space to liberal economists in many public spaces and media, that’s when I decided to get into politics. The truth is, their move backfired pretty badly because now I’m neck-and-neck fighting for the presidency.
Let’s talk about the world. You believe Israel and the United States could be Argentina’s top allies. What does Israel mean to you?
What I admire the most about Israel is its culture, its people. It gives me a lot of admiration to see how they manage to combine the spiritual world with the real world. That, to me, is formidable and admirable.
How long have you felt that way?
I’ve always felt a quite pronounced admiration, initially unconsciously and then more consciously. I remember that every Easter, the only movie I never missed was “The Ten Commandments.” Obviously, I already had felt a very strong attraction to the personality of Moses. But later on, as time passed, I had a student at the university who was also studying to become a rabbi, and I was surprised by the kind of questions he asked me. So, I asked him, “Where do you get this way of asking questions? Because this is great.” And he said to me, “No, it’s super easy. Because every morning I study to become a rabbi,” and I thought, “This is awesome.” Later on, I had the pleasure of meeting Axel Wahnish. He is my main rabbi today. He is a truly remarkable person, and obviously, along with my sister, they are my spiritual guides.
What do you think about the war in Israel?
I have taken a very clear stance. I did it when I gave my last speech in Congress. In fact, not only did I condemn the terrorist acts of the Hamas group [which killed 1,200 people in southern Israel in a brutal rampage on October 7], but I also expressed my solidarity with Israel. Above all, I emphatically expressed my support for Israel’s legitimate right to defense. And I didn’t stop there; I sent a proposal for that purpose in Congress, managed to get the agreement of the bloc presidents, and we had a clear consensus. The next day we sent a proposal urging the government to investigate Hamas to declare it a terrorist group.
To include Hamas in the Argentine lists of terrorist groups…
Exactly. Indeed, it was a successful statement because a day later, the G7 issued a statement similar to the one we had made. We are proud that we made a good assessment on the international stage.
If you were to become president, what would you do to try to recover Israeli-Argentinians who are held captive by Hamas in Gaza?
One has to demand the recovery of all Israeli hostages, not just Argentinians. In the statement we crafted, we also used a very specific term called a “well-being truce,” which doesn’t even require a ceasefire, but it opens a channel through which people can be rescued. It creates an opportunity for individuals to be released. We are working on that.
Would you really move the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
Yes, of course. I don’t care if I’ll be criticized by world leaders. I truly believe that’s the right thing to do.
Would you convert to Judaism during or after your political career? It’s not easy.
It’s very difficult because I wouldn’t be able to fulfill all the precepts due to the demands I’d have as president. You know if you’re a convert, you have to comply with all of the Jewish religious precepts. I was recently in New York and I even had the privilege of visiting the office of the [late] Lubavitcher Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson]… The thing is, I’d possibly plan to convert after my political career is finished.
Dollarization is one of your main stated goals. Would you dollarize the whole economy within a year?
We believe that the economy could be dollarized within a year, yes.
The criticisms you’ve received, being called crazy, weird, or even Nazi — without valid reason — have they made you doubt yourself?
No. Because none of those criticisms are harsher than my own self-criticism, since I live in a constant process of self-critique.
Thank you. Churchill would say that a good statesman is not the one who thinks about the next elections but the next generations.
Well, we have presented a government plan that spans between 35 and 45 years.
Are you grateful for this opportunity?
Yes. Very grateful, to hashem [God].
Let’s wish the best for the country, whatever happens.
We will definitely work for it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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