Why Massa Outperformed Milei in Argentina
The “minister of inflation” saw his popularity rise in part thanks to the pope.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Argentines vote in the first round of a tense presidential election, Hurricane Otis batters Mexico, and Brazil’s baseball team bests regional powerhouses.
Massa vs. Milei
Argentine Economy Minister Sérgio Massa won the most votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday. It was a remarkable result for the man presiding over an economy with annual inflation rate of more than 130 percent. With 37 percent of the vote, Massa will advance to a Nov. 19 runoff against far-right economist and lawmaker Javier Milei, who followed with 30 percent.
Milei’s party is called Liberty Advances, but its support base didn’t advance much from a nationwide primary held in August. Milei handily won that contest, while Massa’s center-left Peronist coalition came in third. Yet Massa’s support grew far more in the interim weeks. The center-right coalition led by Patricia Bullrich, which had outperformed Massa in the primary, came in third place and was knocked out of the race.
Though Argentina’s economic troubles are ripe for an anti-establishment outsider, Milei was apparently beyond the pale to some on the center-right. A longtime critic of mainstream politicians of all stripes, Milei has publicly said he used a doll of former centrist President Raúl Alfonsin as a punching bag. Bullrich, for her part, acknowledged that she had an uninspiring performance in one debate—which may have helped Massa surge.
Bullrich’s political camp is pivotal to determining the runoff. She endorsed Milei—saying that she was keen to block another Peronist government—but some leaders within her coalition said they would not take a stance. Other center-right allies slammed her decision to back Milei.
The presidential contest now appears very tight, with one poll this week putting Milei 1 percent ahead; another gave Massa an 8 point lead. Political analysts have noted that public opinion remains fluid ahead of the runoff—in part because events that occurred during the last few weeks of campaigning appeared to sway decisions ahead of Sunday’s first-round election.
One such event was an accelerated drop in the value of the peso. Milei’s flagship proposals include dollarizing Argentina’s economy and abolishing its central bank, moves that most economists warn would trigger even greater monetary instability in the country. When Milei doubled down on those promises after the August primary—saying on Oct. 9 that the peso was worth less than “excrement”—the currency took a new plunge.
The pope’s unexpected entry into the political conversation in recent weeks also likely impacted the election’s outcome. Pope Francis is from Argentina, and Milei has called him a “leftist son of a bitch” and an “imbecile”; one of Milei’s advisors suggested that the country break relations with the Vatican. In an unusual move, Francis gave an interview to Argentine public television where he did not mention Milei directly but warned of the danger of “Messianic clowns” and “pied pipers” who lead people to drown. The subtext was clear.
El Diário AR conducted interviews in a town called San Antonio de los Cobres, which swung hard for Milei in the primary but saw support for Massa grow significantly on Sunday. Many voters cited the spat with the pope as having impacted their candidate preferences. Some two-thirds of Argentines are Catholic.
In addition, Massa—still in control of the public purse—issued new income tax breaks for Argentines earlier this month. Unions also sponsored an ad campaign on trains and buses to make tangible the value of Massa’s public spending. Screens displayed a so-called “Massa price” to show how much state subsidies are offsetting transportation costs for consumers; it was contrasted with a “Milei price” and “Bullrich price” based on the candidates’ proposals to slash spending. Massa’s performance between the primary and Sunday’s vote improved in many poor districts such as the Buenos Aires suburbs.
The campaign was also shaped by an international component. Both Milei and Massa have leaned on help from neighboring Brazil: The son of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promoted Milei’s campaign, while Massa hired marketers who worked on the 2022 campaign of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. One video that circulated online directly compared Milei to the “nightmare” of Bolsonaro, and Massa’s recent speeches have styled himself as a national unity candidate, much like Lula did last year in his own campaign.
Taking stock of the chaotic past few weeks and Milei’s hesitancy to moderate his positions ahead of Sunday, Martín Rodríguez of Panamá Revista wrote that “after a short trip into the unknown,” Argentines chose “the familiar, the bad known.”
Argentina now has three weeks until the runoff. Milei will be pressed to detail his policy plans, including his foreign-policy agenda. Thus far, he has vowed to align with the United States and Israel and eschew membership in the expanded BRICS grouping (originally composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which Argentina announced it would join this summer. Massa has pledged to maintain Argentine ties in Latin America and around the world—including with the Vatican. Though Massa has not spoken much about Argentina’s climate commitments, he has not called climate change a “socialist lie,” as Milei has. Both candidates are now running to try to win over the center.
Tuesday, Oct. 31 to Thursday, Nov. 2: Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos.
Wednesday, Nov. 1: Brazil’s central bank makes an interest rate decision.
What We’re Following
Otis’s destruction. The hurricane that slammed into southern Mexico on Wednesday was not originally predicted to be so damaging. Days earlier, Otis had been identified as a tropical storm, but forecasters said that it “explosively intensified” over a 24-hour period and reached Category 5 before making landfall in the state of Guerrero. Researchers say climate change makes such rapid storm growth more likely.
The storm caused flooding, landslides, and power outages, and as of late Thursday, authorities were still scrambling to understand the extent of its ruin. Hotels in the popular tourist zone of Acapulco were hit, and initial casualty tolls reported 27 people dead and four missing. Experts have said Otis was the strongest storm in recorded history to land along Mexico’s Pacific coast, The Associated Press reported.
Venezuelan opposition primary. Politician María Corina Machado swept to victory in Venezuela’s opposition primary on Sunday. She could potentially face off against President Nicolas Madúro in an election expected to be held next year.
Observers said the primary gained more legitimacy in the aftermath of last week’s sanctions relief-for-elections deals among the United States, the Maduro government, and an opposition coalition. In the agreements, Maduro’s government committed to allowing an open presidential contest in 2024.
Caracas had previously banned a string of high-profile opposition figures from holding political office, including Machado. Following the basic logic of the deals, Machado should now be allowed to run for office. But her ban has not yet officially been lifted, and Maduro himself called the opposition primary a “fraud.”
Machado won an overwhelming 92 percent of the primary vote. Though she has long been part of the hard-right faction of Venezuela’s opposition—professing admiration for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the past—she has described herself as a centrist in recent months.
Play ball. The Pan American Games kicked off last week in Santiago, Chile. The multisport event, which is held every four years and is akin to a Western Hemisphere Olympics, includes delegations from the United States and Canada as well as from Latin American and Caribbean nations. And the latest competition has already produced some upsets. They include surprise wins by Brazil’s baseball team, which defeated Venezuela and Cuba. The tournament’s final baseball game is on Saturday.
Baseball is more popular in Latin American countries that are geographically close to the United States; Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela are traditional powerhouses and have sizeable domestic leagues. But Brazil’s upset could boost the sport’s domestic popularity. The country has no professional league and only a few Brazilians play overseas.
Baseball’s popularity in Brazil grew as part of a coincidence of global migration—but not from where you might think. This week, Andre Kobayashi Deckrow wrote for Defector that Japanese migration to Brazil boomed during the early 20th century—precisely as baseball was growing in popularity in Japan. That’s why so many of Brazil’s baseball stars are of Japanese descent.
Question of the Week
When were the first Pan American Games held?
The competition took place in Buenos Aires.
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In Focus: The New Energy Earnings Map
The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual forecast of the global energy transition on Monday. The report provides insight into how much—and when—Latin American countries can expect to capitalize on the mining of critical minerals such as lithium.
In 2022, revenue from oil, coal, and natural gas across Latin America and the Caribbean was more than $420 billion. Revenue from a group of seven critical minerals, which includes copper, lithium, and zinc, amounted to less than a quarter of that.
One of the IEA’s projection scenarios assumes that world governments will actually carry out their announced climate policies, such as phasing out gasoline-powered cars. If this occurs, the IEA projects that, by the end of this decade, revenue from the aforementioned group of critical minerals in the region will increase by some $60 billion.
By 2050, under the same scenario, the minerals will bring in more money for the region than fossil fuels—around $180 billion from the former, compared to around $150 billion from the latter. Most of the region’s critical mineral sales will come from copper, with lithium fast-expanding, the IEA said.
While the projection underscores the opportunities linked to the region’s lithium rush, it is also a warning for countries currently dependent on selling fossil fuels, from Mexico to Argentina. Revenue from lithium and other critical minerals can make up for part of the earnings they currently get from fossil fuels, but not all of it.
Brazil and Guyana stand apart from the rest of the region. They have hedged their bets on vastly expanding oil production in the coming years, thanks in part to the recent discovery of new oil fields in Guyana; between now and 2035, they will be the two countries in the world expected to add the most new oil production, according to the IEA.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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