Argentina has survived without scratches a presidential debate that heated up for weeks and died down just as the candidates took to the stage Sunday night in Santiago del Estero, a thousand kilometers north of Buenos Aires. The ultra Javier Milei, who spent the last few days wielding a chainsaw at his rallies, chose to comb his hair, put on his glasses and stick to the written speech. He was the candidate to hit: not only because he was the most voted in the primaries of last August 13, but because the previous debate was marked by speculation about whether he would endure on the stage without the outbursts that took him to the polls.
Milei smiled dismissively in the face of criticism, hesitated to explain his educational plan, and encouraged for the first time to deny the military dictatorship. "The state forces committed excesses, but the terrorists of the ERP and Montoneros killed, planted bombs and committed crimes against humanity," he said, facing criticism from leftist candidate Myriam Bregman. It was the most tense moment of a debate that became entangled at the beginning in the economic discussion and deflated immediately afterwards because, to discuss the rest of the agenda, the candidates had already exhausted their five requests for replies in that segment.
The debate ended without a clear winner. The Peronist candidate, Sergio Massa, took more blows than the rest, but they were not as hard as those received by Patricia Bullrich, of the traditional right, who made water when trying to explain her economic plan. Amid the crossfire, anti-Kirchnerist Peronist Juan Schiaretti called for federalism. The presidential elections are three weeks away. The candidates will meet again next Sunday for the final debate in the capital.
Here are some of the highlights of the debate.
"Patricia, I was not clear about your economic proposal"
Patricia Bullrich, Mauricio Macri's former security minister, is third in the polls behind Milei and Massa. The debate was her chance to recover, but the candidate of the traditional right became entangled when trying to explain her economic proposals. "We all cry out to end the anguish we are experiencing," he said when presenting his economic plan. "With me, this is over. I'm going to wipe inflation off the map," he announced. He didn't delve deeper. The two minutes allotted to the subject were muddied in a vague description of Argentina's greatest evil. "When there is no inflation, you buy without surprises. You can buy a house. Without inflation, you don't buy it," he got confused. During the cross-questions, Milei and Massa agreed to press her to explain herself. "Patricia, your economic proposal was not clear to me," the Peronist chided her in direct questions. Milei accused her of "running away" and answering "sarasa," a very Argentine way of saying she was improvising.
The Minister of Economy apologizes for the crisis
Bullrich was badly placed on the economic issue, but most of the blows were taken by the Peronist Sergio Massa, Minister of Economy of the current Government. Massa proposed from sending tax evaders to jail to a digital currency for Argentines with money abroad to return to the country without consequences. None extinguished the criticism he received as the visible face of the government he leads with Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, which has inflation at 124% annually and poverty drowning more than a third of the population. "I am clear that the mistakes of this government have hurt people and I apologize," Massa said at the start of the debate. Then he distanced himself from the current administration completely: "Now comes a new government, mine."
Milei relativizes the military dictatorship
The audience was able to choose one of the axes of the debate and put human rights on the table. The focus was again on Milei by his candidate for vice president, Victoria Villarruel, daughter and granddaughter of soldiers, who went so far as to describe the dictatorship as "an internal armed conflict, a low-intensity war." Milei, who as a television commentator had criticized the atrocities of the dictatorship and as a candidate the economic policy of the military, was flagged this Sunday behind Villarruel. "We value the vision of Memory, Truth and Justice. Let's start with the truth: there were not 30,000 disappeared, there are 8,753," he said, denying the number of disappeared defended by organizations such as Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. "In the seventies there was a war," said Milei, contrary to what was determined by the historic Trial of the Juntas, which in 1985 led to the conviction of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and the main leaders of the dictatorship. "We are absolutely against a one-eyed view of history," he said, later adding that "state forces committed excesses" and leftist guerrilla groups "crimes against humanity."
The most important Argentine in history
In recent weeks, Milei found a fierce enemy in the Catholic Church. The ultra spent years insulting Pope Francis as a "disgusting lefty," "imbecile," "communist" and "representative of the Evil One." The priests of the popular neighborhoods united in their rejection, and since a month ago the mobilization in support of the Pope began. The direct crossing between Massa and Milei focused on this discussion. When it was his turn to question the ultra, the Peronist demanded a public apology. "Argentina has millions of faithful Catholics and you offended the head of the Church," he said. "I want you to take advantage of these 45 seconds to ask forgiveness from the Pope, who is the most important Argentine in history." "My statements were made in a context when I was not yet in politics," Milei replied meekly. "I have no problem repeating that I regret that."
The left, against everyone
The eve of the debate was marked by the scandal of a Peronist official who was discovered on holiday in Marbella with a model on a private yacht and expensive gifts. The table seemed set for the attack on Massa, but the issue flew over among other urgencies. The one who touched him most clearly was Myriam Bregman, candidate of the left. "While they starve the people they go on their luxury yachts to walk around Europe," he criticized in his presentation, and distributed against everyone. "It's not a lion," he said of Milei, "it's a cuddly kitten of economic power." He then accused him of "dirty" the word freedom. "When Milei talks about freedom, she's talking about the freedom to fire without compensation. Freedom for him is, if you want health, pay it. It even defends the freedom to pollute rivers. In short, freedom for Milei is every man for himself."
Bregman eloquently confronted Milei's economic plan, Massa's current management and Bullrich's past managing security. He was so even-handed in his criticism that, in the round of direct crossings, Massa chose to ask him if he really thought it was the same whether Peronism or the ultra-right governed. "I think the problem the country has is different," he replied. "I think it's time to say enough, to stop thinking about voting for someone less bad than the other and start having convictions, principles and values." It remains for next October 22 to know if it was so convincing as to add votes to the 2.65% it got in the August primaries.
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