How Javier Milei plans to use Thatcher’s own creed to win over the Falklands

Javier Milei
Javier Milei

Javier Milei has started his libertarian economic experiment to transform Argentina. In a series of dispatches, The Telegraph’s World Economy Editor, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, travels through what used to be one of the world’s richest nations to examine whether “shock therapy” can work. You can read part one of the series here and part two here.

Memories of the Falklands War are not allowed to fade away in the sleepy blue-collar town of Escobar, a car manufacturing hub at the mouth of the River Plate.

The mayor maintains a building with an old howitzer parked outside as a combined museum and social club for Malvinas veterans. A sign above the entrance says simply “always ours” and “forbidden to forget”.

The former conscripts are a tight-knit group, some bitter over their treatment at the hands of the British, others philosophical about the adrenaline of war, but all courteous and all absolutely convinced of the rightness of the Argentine cause.

Nestor Gomez was severely wounded by machine-gun fire when the Scots Guards swooped down on his army unit in the final days of the conflict near Fort Stanley.

“If it wasn’t for the British doctor I would have lost my legs,” he said, over black coffee and medialuna croissants in a room decorated with maps, ships, and units in which they served.

“He treated everybody the same way, whether they were Argentine or British. He was very kind to us: that has to be acknowledged. His name was Rick Jolly,” he said.

Escobar veterans
In Escobar a museum memorialising the Falklands or Malvinas War doubles as a social club for Argentine veterans of the conflict

A map of Operacion Rosario hung on the wall, detailing the exact movements of troops and landing craft on April 2, 1982, the day when Argentine forces entered Fort Stanley. None of the teenage recruits from Escobar had any idea what they were getting into at the time.

“I was 19 years old and knew absolutely nothing. We all thought this was going to be so easy,” said Enrique Aguilar, a machinist on the Type 42 destroyer Hercules. It was built by Vickers in Barrow-on-Furness, the twin of HMS Sheffield.

“None of us thought the English were going to fight. We still didn’t realise how serious it was until the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano. That was when I understood that the machine room is the most dangerous place you can be on a warship. It’s what they target first to cripple the lights and power,” he said.

The town pays for four veterans to fly to the islands each year to visit the graves. The newly returned quad were indignant over their reception.

“The islanders were incredibly hostile. We were charged £15 each to enter the San Carlos cemetery, which to me is dishonourable,” said Julio Penalba, a former combat engineer and now a bank manager.

The ageing veterans have won their battle for recognition from the Argentine nation but only after years of oblivion.

“When the war was over they wanted to brush everything that happened in 1982 under the carpet and never talk about it,” said Juan Carlos Monti, the president of the Escobar group.

“But we would not let them forget, and over the years everything has come back from under the carpet, and we have found our place,” he said.

Escobar veterans
The Escobar veterans received a frosty welcome from Falkland islanders when they returned to pay respect to their war dead - Rocio Morale Otero

The striking feature in every town across Argentina is how salient the issue has become again – much more so than during my last visit during the hyperinflation crisis in 1989. One can hardly turn a corner in the north Patagonian city of Neuquen without seeing something that keeps the flame alive.

The central park has its cenotaph for the fallen. Nearby stands a hall of Malvinas murales. Billboards mounted by the families of the dead line the main walk-way. The narrative is scrupulously objective.

It recounts the back and forth of Spanish and British imperial possession in the 18th Century. It accuses the military dictatorship under General Leopoldo Galtieri of launching a diversionary political war to escape economic crisis. But it also states emphatically that the Argentine claim is a “just cause”.

“Forty-two years after the war, the question of the Malvinas has taken on a new political potency, and ‘remembering the boys’ has become a form of patriotic sacrament,” says the left-leaning Centre of Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

This is the powerful political undercurrent that president Javier Milei must navigate as he tries to hold Argentina together through what he calls “the most ambitious shock therapy in the history of the humanity”.

He is by nature uninterested in national sovereignty or the Westphalian concept of the state. His political Bible is Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. It is a borderless ideology. His intellectual affinities lie with American and British libertarian conservatism, and this gets him into trouble in Argentina.

The Peronists thought they had found his Achilles heel during the electoral campaign when he said that any solution to the Falklands requires the consent of the islanders and can only be achieved through diplomacy.

“You can’t deny that they are already on the land, or refuse to recognise that they exist.  Of course their interests have to be taken into account,” he said.

He compounded the heresy by calling Margaret Thatcher “one of the great leaders of humanity” – a transformative figure who set in motion the collapse of Communism and “crushed the Left”. Most Argentinians are used to thinking of her as the “great pirate”.

“You have to come clean: is Thatcher your idol?” he was asked in the killer line of the presidential debate. Milei deflected it with a counter-attack against plastic patriots, and refused to back down on Lady Thatcher.

He survived the encounter and won a landslide days later. The revulsion against the Peronist casta overwhelmed all else. Next time may be harder.

UK relations with Argentina hit rock bottom under last government after Sir Alan Duncan wrote in his memoirs that the country’s deputy foreign minister had worked through a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label before signing a cooperation document at the British embassy, and was “so pissed” that he could not remember what he had agreed to the following morning.

“It is true that there was a lot of drink flowing, but that was later, and the minister himself was a teetotaler. But it created such a scandal in Argentina that the poor man still had to resign,” said one witness to that bacchanalian evening.

Sir Alan later confessed to poetic licence. The damage was done. The Peronists tore up the accord.  

Javier Milei says “chest-beating” chauvinism will not regain the Falklands. Argentina must make itself a country fit to join, and work to win over the islanders. “Nobody is going to listen to claims of serial defaulters and corrupt politicians,” he said.

“You have to offer them something worthwhile, and you are not doing that now if it is a country that people want to leave. Are you really going to force the islanders to become Argentinians, and impoverish them, and drag them into misery?”

Margaret Thatcher in Falklands
Javier Milei has courted controversy with his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and his insistence that diplomacy prevails on the Falklands question

Milei has a twin-pillar strategy for seducing the kelpers, as they are known here: lifting Argentina to OECD levels of per capita income by means of a free market capitalist revival; and pivoting towards the Anglo-Saxon powers in defence and foreign policy.

On his trip to Davos in January he was offered over 60 bilateral meetings by global figures. He accepted only two, and one was with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron.

We now have an inkling of what was in the works. Britain has since lifted its objection to the sale of American F-16 fighter jets, from Denmark’s old stock, in a concerted move with Washington to bind Argentina to the Western security system.

Lord Cameron’s choreographed trip to the Falklands in February – with lofty talk of their eternal place as a British territory – is best understood as a move to assuage the nervous islanders, who might suspect that the ground is shifting from under their feet.

It is why Milei has sought to play down the political storm. “I don’t see it as a provocation,” he told the BBC.

In April, Milei stunned Argentina by appearing with the chief of US Southern Command at the Antarctic port of Ushuaia and announcing a joint military base to patrol the Strait of Magellan, effectively shutting the Chinese navy out of the region.

Milei has justified this American military base to critics at home as “the greatest assertion of Argentine sovereignty in 40 years, a first step towards thinking about getting back the Malvinas.”

The logic is that if Argentina stops flirting with the authoritarian axis, and plants itself squarely in the free world, it might open the door to talks with London eventually.

“Many positions have changed over time,” he told the BBC.

It might also soften the implacable opposition of the islanders to some hybrid arrangement that offers autonomous self-government – like Greenland under Danish sovereignty today.

What such a formula might look like is anybody’s guess. Sir Lawrence Freedman reveals in his official history of the Falklands that the Thatcher government held secret talks in 1980, proposing a deal that would hand over titular sovereignty to Argentina but with a lease-back for 99 years. The Argentine side wanted something closer to 30 years.

Foreign office minister Nicholas Ridley, eager to reach an accord, met with his Argentine counterpart at Hotel du Lac in Coppet on Lake Leman, under the cover of a family trip to do some watercolour painting. The plan unravelled when the Falkland islanders and backbench MPs got wind of the moves.

By then the junta in Buenos Aires had concluded that Britain was ready to relinquish the islands and would not respond to an amphibious attack. General Galtieri’s second error was to think that Ronald Reagan would give him a free run.

Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron
Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron visited the islands in a bid to reassure locals of their place 'as part of the British family' - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It is far from clear whether Javier Milei can hold to his Malvinas plan once his political honeymoon fades and the longstanding forces of Argentine politics reassert themselves. His governing coalition is an uneasy pact between libertarian anarcho-capitalism at one end and something closer to Falangist Catholic nationalism at the other.

His vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, is the daughter of a right-wing army officer and Falklands veteran who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the constitution.

She is author of The Silenced Dead: The Civilian Victims of Argentina’s Terrorist Guerrillas in the 1970s. “Victoria Villarruel has military blue blood,” said the Centre of Legal and Social Studies.

The think tank said the emotions of the Malvinas are being mobilised to restore the Argentine military to a central place in national life, washing away the sins of the dictatorship. It alleges that officers condemned in court for torture are being rehabilitated.

Milei is focussed like a laser on the economy and is leaving the Villarruel wing of his government to operate in parallel. But he has also tilted in their direction to cover his flank, consenting to the use of the military in police roles for the first time since the restoration of democracy.

“The political class wanted to wipe away our collective memory, harassing and humiliating our armed forces.  I say that time is over. You are a source of pride for our nation, and in this new Argentina you will enjoy the respect that has long been denied to you,” he said last month in a speech to the veterans.

It is hard for an outsider to judge whether this is really the start of a militarist revival, or whether the hypersensitive Left is seeing shadows on the wall. Every normal country celebrates its armed forces.

What one can say is that the culture wars and the bedlam of social media have combined with the whirlwind rise of Javier Milei to break down all restraining structures and uncork elements that may prove hard to control.

Argentina is not alone in that.