Sharp economic downturns, such as the one unfolding in Argentina, can sometimes create openings, especially in politics when an outsider promises disruption.
That helps explain the upset victory of Javier Milei, a first-term legislator from a fringe, far-right political coalition, in a presidential primary last week in Latin America’s third-largest economy. Many voters are fed up with a political elite that reigns over 113% inflation, a collapsed peso, and mass poverty. Mr. Milei pledges to cut government spending, dismantle the central bank, and eliminate half of the federal agencies, including education and health, if elected in October.
His policies may have limited appeal, pollsters say. The reason could lie in how ordinary Argentines have responded to decades of economic mismanagement and corruption. They have formed bonds of community. “We’re all trying to float,” Marina Furlanetto, a gallery owner in Buenos Aires, told Here Magazine. “It’s not a competitive struggle.”
The cohesive strength of local communities resides in the cultivation of mental defenses against despair and cynicism – such as trust, creativity, and the shared good of self-reliance. Those qualities characterize a culture of entrepreneurship that has endured despite the downward economic trends.
In Buenos Aires, for example, a business incubator supports nearly 300 startups, anchoring Argentina as a fast-growing global hub for financial technology services. One of those companies, Ualá, reached a value in excess of $1 billion before listing publicly. Some 20% of such “unicorns” in Latin America are from Argentina.
During a 12-month period from mid-2020 to 2021, while the country defaulted on its international loans and the economy shrank, investment in startups grew more than fivefold. Overall, the value of Argentina’s entrepreneurial activity jumped by 164% from 2020 to 2022 compared with the previous two-year interval.
Changes in tax law helped support that growth. But investment bankers and business developers say the real source of resilience is individual and shared persistence. “A distinctive feature of entrepreneurs in Argentina is adapting to change,” Julián Gurfinkiel, founder of a flight comparison website, told the investment bank BBVA Spark. “The country’s rules and economic climate train entrepreneurs to act more quickly in the face of adversity.”
Lately, an emerging class of Generation Z business creators is adding its own sense of shepherding the common good by starting companies and changing consumer patterns. Their moves reflect frugality, social and environmental transparency, and a strong defense of intellectual property rights.
One such entrepreneur is Tomás Machuca. Raised in a poor neighborhood in the city of Rosario, he made a pair of shinguards for himself out of plastic bottle caps as a teenager – and then built a company. He now supplies hundreds of neighborhood and professional clubs and gives away one pair of shinguards for every one he sells.
Mr. Machuca’s ideas on business capture something larger about Argentina’s economic resilience. “We can allow ourselves to dream big no matter where we come from and how we are pointed out from the outside, regardless of social class and economic level one has,” he told the Endeavor network, an Argentinian incubator. “Don’t look for the best answers, but find the best questions.”
The secret to Argentina’s renewal resides in a disposition among its citizens to build things up rather than tear things down. A disrupter in politics may merely reflect the creative disruption by people reinventing their economy.