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Argentina's newly elected right-wing president proposes massive reforms

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Argentina's new president, Javier Milei, has a big right-wing agenda. Not even a month in office, he has sent Congress a series of reform packages that would radically transform the Argentinian state. For more on this, we're joined by Daniel Politi. He is a freelance reporter based in Buenos Aires. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL POLITI: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So first, tell us about these new changes that the president is set out to enforce. How big a deal are these changes?

POLITI: Well, I mean, to be honest, these first few weeks of Milei being president have been really dizzying here in Argentina. There's been just a package after package of reforms that he's putting forward that - he really wants to implement a wholesale change in Argentine society. First, he issued an emergency decree and then sent a massive bill to Congress in which he's seeking to nix or annul or amend hundreds of regulations and laws - basically, deregulating the economy as much as possible. And he's also implementing some social changes, such as placing limits on protests and threatening jail time to those who block roads as a form of protest, which is a very common thing here. And in probably what is one of the most controversial moves, Milei is calling on lawmakers to give him superpowers, to cede some of their power that lawmakers usually have so he can make unilateral decisions on the economy, on taxes, on pensions, among other issues.

RASCOE: And why does he say these changes are needed?

POLITI: Well, Milei has compared Argentina, basically, to an intensive care patient who needs dire shock measures in order to improve and avoid a wholesale collapse. It's no secret that Argentina is a famously crisis-engulfed economy. It jumps from crisis to crisis, and it's been suffering from high inflation for years. And Milei has blamed that on the country's yawning fiscal deficit and the penchant of governments to print as much money as possible to pay for social programs. So, he says, Argentina must make itself more attractive to investors, get rid of economic distortions that came after years of different subsidy programs and welfare programs that were set up by really left-leaning governments.

RASCOE: And economically, like, what would change if these packages were approved?

POLITI: Milei is an economist. He describes himself as a libertarian. And he wants to basically get rid of the state's ability to regulate the economy, get rid of any sort of price controls on things like health insurance and fuel. And he wants to decrease the size of the state and also privatize any state-run companies. There are around 40 companies, some big, some tiny, that he wants to be able to privatize to basically cut down the cost of the state, which, he says, will help to close the fiscal deficit and can help get the economy moving again.

RASCOE: You've been talking to a lot of voters. What have they been telling you about these moves that Milei is making? And what's been their reaction?

POLITI: Well, I mean, opposition to Milei's measures were pretty immediate. The emergency decree, this package of laws that he sent to Congress, immediately spurred protests across the country, in Buenos Aires specifically. There are regular protests outside Congress and key points of Buenos Aires, for example. But to be honest, for now, it seems most people are putting these reforms in the back seat because they have more immediate concern, which is prices in Argentina have been skyrocketing since Milei took office. He lifted price controls, and also, he devalued the local currency by more than 50%. So prices have been increasing at a really dizzying pace in a country where price increases were already normal, so it's sort of - people are really struggling to keep up. They seem willing to give Milei the benefit of the doubt for now, but it's unclear how long that's going to last. The main labor union has already called for a general strike later this month to oppose some of these measures. So it's likely that these sort of protests and social unrest around Milei's proposals will continue to increase.

RASCOE: Well, you know, one of the packages put forward relates to labor rules and changing those, but that package was struck down by a court. Can you tell us about that?

POLITI: Yeah. A court gave way this week to an injunction request by the country's largest labor union, which is the one that I had said earlier called for the strike, which effectively puts the measures on pause that have to do with labor, which involves, for example, making it easier for companies to fire people, making it cheaper to take on new workers.

Many constitutional experts have said that Milei's decree is patently unconstitutional, and what's happened this week with the labor package is just a preview of the legal battles that are likely to lie ahead because a lot of organizations are likely to put forward legal challenges to many of the different sections of the decree and the proposed law.

RASCOE: That's Daniel Politi, freelance reporter in Buenos Aires. Thank you so much for joining us.

POLITI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAPELIER FOU'S "HORSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.