When this columnist was a small boy not long after mid-century, donkey rides were a stock feature of a day on a British beach in those distant times and in due course a nonsense rhyme nursery song arose around this tradition including the verse: “Were you ever off Cape Horn,/Where it's always fine and warm,/And seen the lion and the unicorn/Riding on a donkey?/Hey, ho! Away we go!/Donkey riding, donkey riding, etc.”
Sheer nonsense, of course, but also an uncannily accurate reflection of recent news. A monster iceberg several times the size of this city has just broken away from Antarctica and is heading into the South Atlantic so that global warming could cause that Cape Horn reference to lose its irony and become all too true (hopefully COP28 now underway in Dubai is taking note). Just a fortnight ago the libertarian lion Javier Milei was elected president and nobody was more delighted than Argentina’s most famous unicorn Mercado Libre – somehow Marcos Galperin’s single-word post of “libres” seemed much louder applause than far more gushing congratulations. And how did the president-elect spend much of last week? Donkey riding in the form of a visit to Washington’s Democratic administration (for almost two centuries that beast of burden traditionally considered the most stupid of animals, although stubborn would be more apt, has been the party symbol as representing the humble worker).
That stateside visit threw something of a spanner into what is anyway very much a stop-go process of transition and Cabinet-building – Milei would seem anxious to remind people of the first half of his self-definition as an anarcho-capitalist. At the formal level the transition is moving along smoothly enough (with even two such extreme antipodes as Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her successor Victoria Villarruel going through the motions) but behind that level it seems to be running beyond smoothly to be in a state of constant flux. After seeing the rotating door in action in such areas as the Central Bank and health, this bewildered columnist has decided to postpone any comprehensive analysis of the Milei Cabinet to the post-inauguration column in a fortnight’s time (the last in this series). They also serve who only stand and wait, as John Milton wrote.
Comprehensive analysis would be premature but a couple of preliminary comments on specific cases – one in favour and the other not. Starting with the latter, the key portfolio is evidently the Economy Ministry and this columnist remains unhappy with Luis Caputo being given the nod. Both his surname and his track record trigger doubts. Attributing his rise to the pressures of ex-president Mauricio Macri on the grounds of his being not only finance minister and Central Bank governor during that administration but also the cousin of tycoon Nicolás Caputo (said to be Macri’s bosom pal) might be putting two and two together to give five since this choice seems to have been somewhat more complex but Caesar’s wife here – anything which looks like a Macri foot in the door is bad news for Milei. The fact that he only lasted the third quarter of 2018 as Central Bank governor also speaks against him. This brief stint crashed over the misgivings of the International Monetary Fund regarding Caputo’s scheme for transferring Lebac bonds to Treasury notes (with the suspicion that IMF remittances would be oiling this switch) – now Caputo is proposing a similar stunt to trade Leliq four-week bonds to “sterilise” pesos for far more liquid pases instruments. Such financial legerdemain by this “Messi of finances” seems too far a cry from the deep structural electoral reforms which Milei sold to the electorate.
Nor does Caputo seem a good team player from his fastidious vetoes of the Central Bank helm and other appointments, but perhaps his destiny is to be a stepping-stone to do the dirty work (like Jorge Remes Lenicov for less than four months in 2002) with his time at the Economy Ministry as brief as his Central Bank stint in 2018 and the next Roberto Lavagna still lying ahead.
By way of contrast, the ANSES social security administration is moving in a positive direction. Milei’s first pick was his defeated Buenos Aires Province gubernatorial candidate Carolina Píparo – a poignant tragedy back in 2010 when her baby boy only lived a week after she was shot in a bank hold-up just before childbirth but does this give her the technical and professional qualifications to head such a complex organisation as ANSES handling millions of pensions and benefits? Treating this important post as a political consolation prize raised deeper questions as to whether Milei was serious about moving towards a professional civil service or were we in for the same old cronyism of the “caste” and La Cámpora?
But four days later Milei had second thoughts about this reflex choice and replaced Píparo with Córdoba provincial Economy Minister Osvaldo Giordano, an excellent choice as a sound economist with technical expertise in the pension field and presiding over eight years of fiscal surplus in his province – even if there could be political criteria also afoot here with the Córdoba Peronists seen as the thin end of the wedge for cherry-picking into the Peronist movement.
Not only is Milei’s Cabinet far from complete but it remains to be seen how the new Congress falls into place as from next Thursday. The new Speaker is still very much in the air between Cristian Ritondo to seal Milei’s alliance with PRO and Florencio Randazzo, the running-mate of outgoing Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti on his presidential ticket, with ‘El Flaco’ as another thin end of the Peronist wedge while libertarians are demanding their say. Meanwhile provincial governors across the political spectrum face an early moment of truth with Milei since their Christmas bonuses are up in the air due to Economy Minister Sergio Massa’s tax cuts. Next Saturday on the eve of Milei’s inauguration we will surely know more.