Presidential debate: candidates cross swords over economy and human rights

Digital currency, educational vouchers and a cuddly kitty: here’s what candidates said in the first debate

Argentina’s five presidential candidates faced off in the first presidential debate on Sunday, ahead of the October 22 elections. Economy was front and center: rival candidates accused Sergio Massa (Unión por la Patria, UxP) of failing to control inflation, Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza, LLA) of making unfeasible proposals, and Patricia Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio, JxC) of not having a clear economic program.

Massa also faced questions from Myriam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda-Unidad, FIT-U) about Martín Insaurralde’s resignation as chief of staff in the government of Buenos Aires Province amid a scandal over a luxury trip to Marbella with a model.

Bregman went viral on social media after quipping that Milei is not a lion, his self-appointed moniker, but “the economic establishment’s cuddly kitten.”

The fifth candidate was the non-Kirchnerist Peronist Juan Schiaretti (Hacemos por Nuestro País, HNP), of Córdoba, who promised to represent Argentines who live in the provinces better than his Buenos Aires-based opponents.

The three topics for the debate, which was held in Santiago del Estero, were economy, education, and human rights and democratic coexistence. Next Sunday, the second debate will be held in Buenos Aires. For that debate candidates will talk about security, work and production, and human development, housing and environmental protection. 

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Milei discussed economic proposals including drastically lowering public spending, simplifying the tax system, privatizing state-owned companies, and closing the Central Bank — although he didn’t speak about one of his most controversial proposals: dollarization.

Bullrich commented that very few countries don’t have a central bank, and most of them are small countries that function as tax havens. She gave the examples of the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Micronesia, and accused the libertarian of wanting to turn Argentina into a tax haven.

Massa, who is the current economy minister, appeared to mark distance from President Alberto Fernández’s administration, apologizing for the national government’s mistakes. He pointedly mentioned that he only took office a year ago and could not take responsibility for what happened before that. He continued that, if elected, he would implement an Argentine digital currency, a tax amnesty for Argentines with assets abroad, and seek jail sentences for tax evasion.

Both Milei and Schiaretti claimed that Massa’s policies had put Argentina on the verge of hyperinflation. While Bullrich said she would end inflation if elected, Milei and Massa accused her of not having proposals to do so. “I will wipe inflation out with political conviction, temper and courage for change,” she said. “With economic order and fiscal balance, the country will move on.”

Bregman blamed the government’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for the economic crisis.

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Bullrich and Massa criticized Milei’s proposal to use vouchers to pay for education and health care. “Take those vouchers to the Puna [the north-west region closest to the Andes range], where there is only one school,” Bullrich said, speaking directly to the libertarian. “You don’t know Argentina.”

Massa defended the right to public education and spoke to mothers watching the debate: “Those who promote free arms sales want to send your kid to school with a revolver. I want to send them with a laptop.”

Bullrich called for a longer school year to compensate for teachers’ strikes.

You may also be interested in: Patricia Bullrich: the security and order hawk with a Peronist past

Human rights

Milei made denialist claims about the victims of state terrorism during the last military dictatorship. “There weren’t 30,000 [disappeared],” he said, referring to the number established by the democratic state. “There were 8,753.” He also endorsed the “two demons” or “dirty war” denialist theory, saying that there was a war in the 1970s in which the armed guerrilla organizations committed crimes as bad as those of the military government’s repressors and torturers.

Massa and Bregman repeated human rights organizations’ historic demand for memory, truth and justice. Bregman also blamed Bullrich for repression by security forces that led to the deaths of Santiago Maldonado and Rafael Nahuel while she was security minister.

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