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Milei, the president of cash-strapped Argentina, starts another US tour and plans to meet Elon Musk

ISABEL DEBRE
April 10, 2024

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- President Javier Milei of Argentina kicked off a visit Wednesday to the United States, where he'll meet with tech billionaire Elon Musk, as his government seeks an infusion of cash to overhaul Argentina's embattled economy.

The populist president started his four-day trip in Miami, home to one of the largest populations of Argentines in the U.S., where he received an honor from the Jewish community Wednesday at an Orthodox synagogue. Milei will meet with Musk on Friday in Texas, his spokesperson said, where he will also tour a factory for Tesla, Musk's electric car company.

Milei's third trip to the U.S. in merely four months as president comes as he reshapes Argentine foreign policy in line with Washington. Standing beside Gen. Laura Richardson, head of the U.S. Southern Command, at the southernmost tip of South America last week, Milei vowed to boost the nations' "strategic alliance" -- underscoring how he sees U.S. support as vital to the economic overhaul on which he has staked his presidency.

"We took advantage to present a new foreign doctrine for Argentina," Milei wrote Wednesday on social media platform X of his meeting with Richardson. In the same post, apparently directed at Musk -- a self-declared free speech absolutist -- Milei said he promoted "true freedom of expression" and slammed journalists critical of his administration as trying to "stop us from speaking."

"We are not going to remain silent in the face of slander, insult or defamation," he wrote.

Milei's plan to drastically cut public spending has inflicted economic pain and encountered resistance in a nation where annual inflation tops 276%. On Wednesday, police forcibly dispersed anti-government protestors blocking a main Buenos Aires artery.

Not only is the U.S. the biggest investor in Argentina, it also has the most influence over the International Monetary Fund, to which Argentina owes $42 billion. The IMF has endorsed Milei's shock therapy for Argentina, agreeing to disburse $4.7 billion from a bailout package the country took out six years ago.

The State Department's investment climate statement last year noted "capital controls, trade restrictions, and price controls" as factors hampering investors in Argentina. Milei has vowed to roll back those interventionist policies with market-oriented changes favored by business leaders, like Musk, one of the world's richest men who leads rocket company SpaceX, social media platform X and Tesla.

Milei and Musk -- who both share a brash personality-driven style and distaste for government overreach -- have expressed mutual admiration. Ahead of his inauguration last December, Milei praised Musk as an "icon of freedom in the world." Musk gushed over Milei's speech lambasting socialism at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, commenting "So hot" with a meme of a couple having sex while watching Milei speak.

With its vast lithium reserves, Argentina has much to offer Musk, a dominant player in the electric auto industry who has dubbed the metal, an indispensable ingredient in electric car batteries, "the new oil."

Milei's free-market policies have raised hopes in the U.S. that the metal and other badly needed raw materials can be extracted closer to the U.S., breaking China's dominance of the battery supply chain. The Biden administration said it was exploring investment opportunities in Argentine lithium earlier this year.

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