Axel Kicillof: Reforming Argentina’s Economy… and Hearts

In late January of this year, Argentina faced a steep currency plunge, which has since been equated to one equal to the nation’s economic collapse of 2002. This, coupled with the police strike, has left many Argentine cities discouraged, dismayed, and uncertain.

Image courtesy of meridianoactual, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of meridianoactual, © 2012, some rights reserved.

After the 2002 currency crisis, Argentina’s policies were incredibly generous—favoring welfare to help poor families pay bills. Furthermore, Argentina has increasingly applied policies of quantitative easing in the last decade. In other words, the government has been printing money and therefore fuelling inflation—which external independent economists value at 28%.[1] Investors have grown wary of the economic situation in Argentina, especially after the government renationalised the YPF, Argentina’s biggest oil company. Re-nationalisation has been largely accredited to a young, charming, and growing celebrity in Argentina, an economy minister called Axel Kicillof. Kicillof comes at a pivotal time in Argentina’s history—times of uncertainty and bad fortune—but does not represent the hesitancy held by citizens and investors. Kicillof is strong, confident to the point of arrogance, and, honestly, sexy. He’s attracted so much attention that Ezequiel Burgo has written a book about him, called The Believer, deeming him “the strongest economy minister Argentina has had in a decade.”[2]

Before working as the economy minister to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Kicillof taught economics at the University of Buenos Aires. His writings offer a Marxist interpretation of the long-celebrated economist, John Maynard Keynes, and consistently called for greater state controls in Argentina. Additionally, Kicillof was once the director of Argentine steel company SIDERAR, and a senior manager at Aerolineas Argentinas, displaying an ability to function in the real world—and not just existing in the world of economic theory. Kicillof began to garner a celebrity like status himself in 2012, when he administered the renationalisation of YPF—which was formally controlled by Repsol, the Spanish energy giant. Tabloids in Argentina have written about what they describe as his “relatively modest lifestyle,” describing what kind of car he drives, what neighbourhood he lives in, and the daily life of his wife, a literature professor, and two children. Argentina’s obsession with him is so real that one tabloid published an in-depth analysis of his sideburns. Is he making a mockery of traditional authority? Is he mimicking nineteenth century Argentinian styles in order to exhibit his strength and power? I wish I knew. His fame has spread internationally, especially after a Vanity Fair piece was written about him where he infamously said “I have hypnotised Cristina,” referring to Argentina’s female president. Whether or not this was said in jest, it is believed that he enjoys a significant amount of authority at Casa Rosada, the Argentine palace of government.

Jokes aside, Kicillof’s power and vitality are all too real. He has established a reputation as a sort of “bad boy,” due mainly to his flair for confrontation, especially with his critics. He has even accused his opponents of generating “psychosis” regarding the real economic state of the nation. Furthermore, Kicillof has stuck to his guns, specifically concerning the plunge in the peso. Currency plunges are significant, particularly in the developing world, because their currencies need to be able to compete internationally. Furthermore, Argentina’s economy—like many developing economies—relies heavily on commodities trade, and there are fears that the demand for said commodities is dwindling. I’m not entirely convinced of his bad boy status, mostly because of his long-term obsession with data and numbers. His interest drove him to request spreadsheets from certain industries, earning him the incredibly dorky nickname of “Excel”—after the Microsoft application used to create spreadsheets.

Critics have candidly suggested that he has created many of the problems he is trying to solve. Former president of the central bank, Alfonso Prat-Gay lacks confidence in Mr. Kicillof’s unorthodox methods. Currently, Kicillof is working on negotiating the repayment of Argentina’s estimated $10 billion of debt in France, which Mr. Prat-Gay has referred to as “a scandal.” Furthermore, Argentinian citizens have grown increasingly wary of government fixes to economic turmoil. Marcelo Rosales, a security guard offered, “It’s always the same here, a crisis every 10 years,” adding that, “the government will not assume the political cost of dealing with this. It is only healing minor cuts with plasters.”[3] Regardless of a hot new economy minister, the people of Argentina lack confidence in the economy—particularly government solutions to problems like inflation.

Kicilof has risen to superstardom in Argentina and even internationally. He is outspoken and frequently critiques neoliberal policies. His criticism brings difficulty to his job as the Minister of Economy, because part of his job is to negotiate foreign aid with organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Despite this, he remains steadfast in his protectionist, nationalisation-prone policies to bring growth to Argentina. Issues of energy will continue to mark his time in Casa Rosada. His close relationship with the president, rockstar-like style, and celebrity may have ascended him to prominence, but if he does not manage to lead the revival of Argentina’s economy, he may be out of a job by 2015. Sideburns, suave, and sass can only get him so far. So far, so good.