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David Agren
David AgrenOctober 20, 2023
Matias Abate holds an Argentine version of a MAGA hat he wore to a rally for libertarian presidential candidate Javier Milei in suburban Buenos Aires. Abate, an unemployed metal worker, plans to vote for Milei as a protest against the political class. Photo by David Agren.Matias Abate holds an Argentine version of a MAGA hat he wore to a rally for libertarian presidential candidate Javier Milei in suburban Buenos Aires. Abate, an unemployed metal worker, plans to vote for Milei as a protest against the political class. Photo by David Agren.

UPDATE: Economy Minister Sergio Massa finished on top in the first round of Argentina's presidential election, a surprise result that perhaps reflected voters' wariness about handing the presidency to his chief rival, a right-wing populist who upended national politics and pledged to drastically diminish the state.

Mr. Massa's victory over Javier Milei, a chainsaw-wielding economist and freshman lawmaker, came despite the fact that on his watch inflation has surged into triple digits. But with 98.3 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Massa had 36.7 percent and Mr. Milei was at 30 percent, meaning the two will go to a November runoff. Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, gave Mr. Milei a slight lead and put Mr. Massa in second place. Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main center-right opposition coalition, finished in third place with 23.8 percent.


Hundreds of Argentines gathered in late September at the San Cayetano shrine in Buenos Aires for the annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Luján, home to Argentina’s national patroness.

The pilgrims received blessings, prayed to Our Lady of Luján, and then set out in jubilation on the roughly 35-mile journey. But several banners hanging outside the shrine—where down-on-their-luck Argentines pray to the patron saint of bread and work—cast a political pall over the pilgrimage.

“The people love Pope Francis. Milei hates him,” reads one banner, referring to the vituperative presidential candidate Javier Milei, who has regularly assailed his fellow Argentine, Pope Francis.

Candidate Javier Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, has derided Pope Francis as “a malignant presence on earth”and denounced him as a “filthy leftist.”

“The people love peace. Milei hates it,” reads another. “The people love the Malvinas. Milei hates them,” according to a third banner that referred to the contested Falkland Islands, over which Argentina fought a brief war with Great Britain in 1982 and which Argentina considers an integral part of its national territory.

Mr. Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, has derided Pope Francis as “a malignant presence on earth,” denounced him as a “filthy leftist” and charged that the pope had “an affinity for murderous communists.”

Many of the pilgrims at Our Lady of Luján preferred not to talk politics, and shrine officials disavowed the banners but kept their comments on politics somewhat vague. “We don’t know who put them there,” the Rev. Lucas Arguinban said of the banners. “We would say what we want is that whoever governs, that they think of the people, that they think of the poorest.”

The rise of Mr. Milei—and his attacks on Pope Francis—have been a source of discomfort for Catholic leaders in Argentina. The Milei campaign’s hostility toward the pope was on full display on Oct. 18 at the concluding rally of his campaign. There, the conservative economist Alberto Benegas Lynch—a man considered a powerful influence on the candidate—called for the severing of diplomatic relations with the Vatican “while the totalitarian spirit resides there.”

Archbishop Jorge García Cuerva of Buenos Aires expressed dismay over that idea and especially the rousing applause that comments attacking the pope received from Milei supporters.

The candidate’s growing popularity has been especially painful for the curas villeros, a team of priests working with the poor in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires and its environs.

“This is a time in which we are trying to ask for a united Argentina. We’re experiencing a violent moment, with words, aggression. I think that we need to build bridges, the culture of encounter, this idea that the pope is working on,” the archbishop told local media.

“We find ourselves embarrassed by a campaign closing event, where someone proposes [breaking ties with the Holy See], in the name of ‘my Catholic religion.’”

The candidate’s growing popularity has been especially painful for the curas villeros, a team of priests working with the poor in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires and its environs. Their efforts as “slum priests” were promoted by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires prior to his election as pope in 2013.

A libertarian firebrand with a fondness for cosplay and a socially conservative streak, Mr. Milei surprised Argentina and the world in August when he claimed a plurality of the votes in the primary election. It was a victory completely unanticipated by Argentine pollsters, as voters, especially the young, delivered a rebuke to the country’s political class, an electoral expression of discontent after decades of economic mismanagement.

Now Argentine pundits expect Mr. Milei to perform strongly again in the presidential vote on Oct. 22. His strongest contenders for the presidency include Patricia Bullrich, former security minister from the center-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition, and Sergio Massa, the minister of economy from the center-left coalition Unión por la Patria.

The rise of Mr. Milei—and his attacks on Pope Francis—have been a source of discomfort for Catholic leaders in Argentina.

Most predict that he will advance to runoff elections scheduled for Nov. 19, assuming he does not celebrate an outright victory on Sunday. He must reach 45 percent of the vote to avoid the runoff or reach 40 percent of the vote with a lead of 10 points over other candidates.

“It is remarkable that a figure like Javier Milei has not appeared earlier,” said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank in Washington.

“In Argentina, things are so bad that voters do not appear satisfied throwing out the ruling Peronists; many of them are demanding something totally new, and they find Javier Milei’s broadsides against business-as-usual politics to be highly appealing,” Mr. Gedan said. He is a former officer on the Argentina desk at the U.S. Department of State.

Mr. Milei’s abrupt political ascension comes amid simmering discontent because of galloping inflation, which reached 138 percent this year, and the continuing devaluation of the Argentine peso, which Mr. Milei recently dismissed as “excrement.”

Mr. Milei also proposes dollarizing Argentina—an idea finding favor among Argentines who already routinely use greenbacks for savings and big purchases. Many economists call the idea unfeasible.

“In Argentina, things are so bad that voters do not appear satisfied throwing out the ruling Peronists; they find Javier Milei’s broadsides against business-as-usual politics to be highly appealing.”

On the campaign stump, the candidate routinely promised to chasten “the caste in power,” tapping deep disdain among Argentines for their nation’s ruling elite and public exhaustion with Argentina’s recurring economic crises. His platform also calls for eliminating 10 of the country’s 18 government ministries, slashing spending by 15 percent of the gross domestic product and shutting down Argentina’s central bank.

The subdued public reaction to Mr. Milei’s attacks on the pope suggest the somewhat ambiguous feelings of many Argentines to Pope Francis. It also highlights the pope’s complicated role in the public life of his country of birth, where politics remain deeply divisive.

Many in the right-leaning opposition have come to see Pope Francis as a Peronist sympathizer, an adherent of the homegrown social and political movement founded in the 1940s by then President Juan Domingo Perón. The movement was defined in The Economist as “a vague blend of nationalism and laborism,” with three banners of “political sovereignty, economic independence and social justice.”

Fortunato Mallimaci is an Argentine sociologist who studies religion. “The problem in Argentina is that Bergoglio cannot just be Francis,” he said, explaining that a pope admired by Catholics all over the world does not seem able to escape his past and how he is remembered in his native land.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013, Archbishop Bergoglio confronted President Nestor Kirchner (now deceased) and his successor and wife, Christina Fernández de Kirchner, for corruption and building patronage networks. (The couple’s “Kirchnerista” movement emerged out of Peronism.)

Mr. Milei routinely promises to chasten “the caste in power,” tapping deep disdain among Argentines for their nation’s ruling elite and public exhaustion with Argentina’s recurring economic crises.

But Pope Francis’ relationship with Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, now vice president, has improved, much to the unhappiness of Argentina’s conservative opposition. That ire only deepened after he appeared with a long face in a photo with non-Peronist President Mauricio Macri in 2015 at the Vatican. His decision not to visit Argentina over his 10 years as pope also causes bewilderment.

Peronists often speak of “social justice,” which provides for social inclusion and benefits like free education at all levels, access to health care for all—including nonresidents and people coming from poorer countries—and support for the needy.

Pope Francis “was always a Peronist,” said Mariano Cointte, a translator attending a Milei rally in the northern city of Salta. “He’s more a politician than a religious figure.”

And contemporary Peronists do not disagree. “The pope is a Peronist. He hasn’t hidden anything,” said Luis Cabrera, a Peronist supporter in a rough Buenos Aires suburb who described Milei supporters as “voting for their own executioner.”

Peronist voters may express fondness for Pope Francis. But in a country covered with images of soccer superstars Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to World Cup victories in 1986 and 2022 respectively, public depictions of Pope Francis are hard to find.

Pope Francis “was always a Peronist,” said Mariano Cointte, a translator attending a Milei rally in the northern city of Salta. “He’s more a politician than a religious figure.”

The curas villeros—some of whom have sympathies with the Kirchneristas, according to political observers in Argentina—deny that Pope Francis takes sides in national politics. They also find themselves at odds with Mr. Milei’s plans to slash state social services. They live and work in shantytowns where government support already feels stingy, and they often agitate for improved social services.

“He’s a pope who wants to defend the poorest, who speaks of social justice, speaks of things that are obviously not communist,” said the Rev. Lorenzo De Vedia, a cura villero known as “Padre Toto.”

“He’s of a classic form of Argentine thinking, of the thinking that comes from Peronism and understands that it’s going to touch on special [economic] interests, and that’s why they try to confuse it, saying things like: ‘He’s communist.’”

The curas villeros celebrated a Mass of reparation in September in one of the capital’s shantytowns as a rebuke of Mr. Milei’s comments.

Church observers say the Mass was not universally popular. But the Argentine bishops’ conference did release a statement condemning Mr. Milei’s attacks on Pope Francis—without naming him—noting that the pope “has seen himself mistreated systematically by some media outlets.”

A conference spokesperson declined to comment further. Mr. Mallimaci says the timid church response to Milei’s attacks on the pope revealed an uncomfortable reality.

“Perhaps we’re voting badly with Javier,” said Eduardo Escobar, 53, an unemployed journalist. “But such is the powerlessness, the anger, the fraud of the past 40 years that it doesn’t matter.”

“Their greatest worry when they battled with Milei is that Milei is winning in their barrios,” he said. “One would hope that the Catholic Church would come out and defend [Pope Francis], but no. It was one bishop and 25 priests in a shantytown” who participated in the Mass.

Like most Argentines Mr. Milei was born Catholic, but he has embraced Judaism in recent years and often compares himself to Aaron, the brother of Moses. “God sent Aaron [to Moses] to spread the word.... I’m the one who spreads it,” he said in comments published by the newspaper Página 12.

Single, unmarried and the owner of five cloned English mastiffs—most named after conservative economists—Mr. Milei, 54, expresses pro-life views, a sharp contrast with most libertarian politicians.

His position on abortion “is based on a philosophical question, which has to do with the right to life,” he told The Economist, describing abortion as “qualified murder...because it is true that the mother has the right over her body, but not over the body of the child, which is a totally different body.”

Mr. Milei’s agenda can seem wonky, especially when speaking of the country’s central bank, which he called, “the worst garbage that exists on this earth,” according to Bloomberg, but he’s been spreading his libertarian message for more than a decade as a talking head of public affairs programming.

Mr. Milei draws comparisons to firebrand politicians across the hemisphere, from former U.S. President Donald Trump to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

He has also proved a hit on social media, especially among young people in a country where the voting age is just 16. A poll commissioned by The Economist found Milei boasting a 74 percent approval rating among men aged 18 to 25, “compared with slightly less than half for women the same age.”

“We’ve had the same government for years and there hasn’t been any change. Milei is different. I don’t know if he will be better, but he’s different,” said Paola Tolaba, 18, a psychology student in the northern city of Salta, attempting to explain his appeal. “For young people, it’s his image, the way he talks.”

Ms. Tolaba noted one presidential debate when Mr. Milei did not sugarcoat the challenges ahead for this generation, explaining that it would take Argentina 35 years to reach U.S. levels of economic development under his leadership. “He was sincere,” she said. “He doesn’t lie.”

Mr. Milei draws comparisons to firebrand politicians across the hemisphere, from former U.S. President Donald Trump to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Supporters at his rallies welcomed him with shouts of “Freedom!”

In Salta and suburban Buenos Aires, many waved yellow flags with a stylized lion’s head; some waved the “Don’t tread on me” flag popular with U.S. libertarians. One attendee even wore a blue MAGA cap. This time for “Make Argentina Great Again.”

“New ideas are coming from other places,” said Matias Abate, 27, an unemployed metalworker donning the MAGA hat. “They’re coming from the United States, coming from Brazil, from much of the right. That’s why I bought the cap, as a way to represent without having to go around shouting or fighting in the street.”

Many Milei voters, however, seemed merely to want to rage at the status quo more than to express any ideological inclination.

“Perhaps we’re voting badly with Javier,” said Eduardo Escobar, 53, an unemployed journalist in Salta. “But such is the powerlessness, the anger, the fraud of the past 40 years that it doesn’t matter.”

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