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Buenos Aires and the Presidential Election

I ride off the ferry with Carolyn and Eric, the bikers from Australia that I met on the other side, and we complete immigration and get our bike permits before going our separate ways. They’re headed off to a nice hotel for some R&R, and I’m headed to the suburb of Palermo and an Airbnb I’ve booked.

The city centre is full of fine architecture, much of it French inspired, and Buenos Aires was once comparable to Paris and New York city. In the 1920-30s, Argentina had an economy that was considered greater than that of the US and it reflects in some of the city's public buildings and parks.

Today things are a little run down. Litter and graffiti spoil what was once a glorious and proud city.

The suburb of Palermo is leafy and trendy, and the area I’m staying in is named Hollywood. Another area nearby is The Bronx. I park the bike in a commercial garage around the corner and am pleasantly surprised at the nice little apartment that lies hidden behind the grey and graffitied exterior.

I explore my delightful neighbourhood on foot and find great cafes and restaurants everywhere I look.

My landlord Sebastian recommends a great seafood joint just up the road and that evening I enjoy superb garlic prawns.

Tomorrow is election day for the position of Argentine President. There have been two run-off elections so far, and a rank outsider, Javier Milei has swept within striking distance of the favourite, the current finance minister Sergio Massa. Bearing in mind Argentina's collapsed economy, it’s hard to imagine the finance minister running as favoured to win, but with so many people working in government positions in a bloated bureaucracy, and many others on welfare, there’s a large voter base right there.

The newcomer Milei promises to slash welfare and take an axe to government spending and largess. He’s quite a character with wild hair and a passion for economics.

He has an interesting background, having studied economics at the renowned Austrian Economic Institute and lectured in economics for the past 20 years. He’s also been a singer and the front man in a popular local rock band, as well as a Tantric Sex instructor (good work if you can get it).

After only polling 17% in the first run-off, then 33% in the second, he has been working hard at rallies across the country. He bounces on stage with a revving chainsaw, to the delight of the crowd, saying that he will take the chainsaw to slash the bloated bureaucracy and will run the government on a shoestring, as he has his campaign.

I’m very interested to see the election result and Sebastian convinces me to hang around another day to watch what happens. I’m a bit of a political tragic, and I take the bait. I spend some time with Seb, and I learn a little of what it’s like living under the system that has brought Argentina to its economic knees.

Seb and his family own a 600-cow dairy farm 4 hours south of Buenos Aires, and he splits his time between living here in BA with his grown son, and working down on the farm. He informs me he makes more profit from his little Airbnb than from his dairy farm. The problem, he says, is government interference. The government sets the price for the milk he sells, has its tentacles everywhere and thousands of bureaucrats are employed to administer this government control. In Argentina only 2 people in 10 are positive taxpayers. Government workers can’t be included in this calculation as their salary must be paid by the 20%.

For many years, since the Peron era, Argentina has been printing money, borrowing money and subsiding higher costs to keep its citizens happy, and using military force to maintain control. Argentina is the largest borrower from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and is no longer capable of repaying interest on its loans, let alone repaying any debt.

Just a month ago, Argentina ran out of petrol. Its major petrol retailer YPF is government owned and sets the (subsidised) fuel price for all other retailers. It could no longer afford to pay its suppliers, and pumps ran dry across the country, until a deal was struck with China that would make payment and allow fuel tankers to begin unloading at ports.

The timing of this fuel crisis couldn’t have come at a better time for Javier Milei and he pointed the finger directly at his opponent, the finance minister. His polling was rapidly rising, and he was proposing Americanising the currency by getting rid of the peso and adopting the $US. This would stop the ability to print more $ as only the US federal reserve can do that, and Argentina would be forced to confront its issues, instead of continually hiding from them, as they have done for decades. This worked for Ecuador when they changed to the $US some time ago.

Seb was very excited about the prospect of change, but worried that the people would rather maintain the status quo rather than face a long period of austerity to get Argentina on its feet again. In the polls leading up to the election Sergio Massa still had a commanding lead, but Seb assured me that when people were being polled by the media, they were staying tight lipped and not prepared to openly express their discontent. He said many years of military rule still has an effect on the way people behave here.

Well, election day dawned, and people gathered at the polling booths to decide Argentina's future. All eligible voters' names are listed outside the local school or hall in the district you are allowed to vote in.

Voting closes at 8 pm and the results are known at 10 pm.

I dine at a nearby restaurant with Seb. No alcohol is allowed to be sold on voting day, but seeing as I’m not voting, and not the rioting type, I ask the waiter if the rule might be bent a little for me. He considers my request for a moment before disappearing out the back and reappearing with a water glass filled with white wine. He delivers it to our table and says, “Enjoy your apple juice, Sir”.

Later in the evening he reappears and asks, “More apple juice, Sir?” and tops up my glass.

Shortly after that, the results are in. Argentina have done it. They’ve voted for change. Milei romps home with 56% of the vote as Massa slumped to 44%. Seb was right, the people hid their feelings until they got inside the voting booth. There is cheering and clapping in the streets, but no rioting. Those employed by the government and those on welfare will be worried for their future, but change has arrived.

Milei has work to do. The government he will have to work with are opposed to his ideas of change, but he calls them parasites and promises to make the changes anyway, by presidential decree if he has to.

In the morning I have breakfast in the great cafe across the road.

But first I must get some more peso by exchanging some $US. The guy who owns the garage where my bike is stored had whispered ‘dollar blue’ to me when I’d dropped my bike there, so I head around the corner to check it out. Sure enough, Gustaf takes me back into his office and relieves me of a crisp $US100 bill, in exchange for 92,000 Argentina pesos. That will keep me in food, beer and fuel for the next few days.

When I first arrived here 3 months ago I received 72,000, now it’s 92,000. That’s socialism at its worst. Margaret Thatcher once said, “Socialism works fine, until you run out of other people's money”, and that’s exactly what’s happened to Argentina, they’ve run out of other people's money. Yesterday was their day of reckoning and they’ve decided to face reality.

It’s been a great day and the next morning I leave beautiful Buenos Aires behind and head across the great expanse of central Argentina, towards the Andes once again.


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