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President Milei and the Discovery of America

26 January, 2024 | Ricardo Changala

The speech delivered by Argentine President Javier Milei at the January 2024 Davos Forum generated numerous comments, mostly highly critical.

In the midst of a journey back to the 19th century, his depiction of a flourishing world shaped by heroic entrepreneurs and libertarian leaders, alongside with a multitude of fake data and unsustainable analyses lacking minimal conceptual complexity, revealed a characteristic of Milei that had not been mentioned until now: he is not very fond of work.

His presentation in Davos essentially amounted to a repetition of previous speeches he has given to various audiences in recent years. Immediately after his intervention, social media overflowed with recordings from earlier events that left no doubt about this. Additionally, during his stay in the small Swiss town, the Argentine president engaged in such a high volume of messaging on social media that it seems temporally impossible for him to have done anything else. There appears to be a lack of necessary diplomatic work in such settings, despite not dedicating much effort to preparing his intervention.

However, the points mentioned above should not be presumed as irrelevant to Milei’s participation in Davos. On the contrary, I believe the exposition by the occupant of the Casa Rosada contains revealing aspects not only of his own convictions but also of the political direction of the current government of the South American country.

Among the numerous aspects that deserve commentary, I would like to focus on three points that, at least so far, have not received much analysis.

Firstly, during his speech, Milei stated that his beliefs are a “creed.”

Although mentioned in passing, the assertion deserves analysis because it signifies, on the one hand, that beyond rational criteria, we have a president who acts based on a faith shared with others, forming a religious community. This faith, like in Catholicism since the year 511 AD, implies a liturgy, a ritual that is recited because it has been established. Therefore, it does not admit arguments or rational criteria in the form of questioning.

Presented in this way, the dogma does not allow space for debate, dialogue, or agreements that involve modifications to the foundations of that conviction.

The second aspect I would like to highlight is the link Milei made between the agenda for nature protection and the fight against climate change with feminist claims, freedom over one’s body, and the regulation of voluntary pregnancy termination.

After questioning the pursuit of gender equity and equality, which he believes are already resolved in his liberal creed, he attacks the fight for the conservation and protection of nature, falsely claiming that one of the chosen tools for this is demographic regulation, the decrease in births, for which, he says, “bloody” abortion is advocated.

The falsehood of this passage is evident, but I want to emphasize how he presents the issues, condemning feminism and environmentalism in one stroke while labeling all those who share these values as bloody murderers, opposing them to pro-life beliefs against regulated pregnancy termination.

However, where I want to focus most in this brief article is on the expression Milei used to refer to the historical event of the arrival of Spanish ships in the American territory: he spoke of the “Discovery of America.”

Someone might think that it is just a trivial error without relevance in the context of Davos, because, furthermore, Milei is not the first (and likely not the last) Argentine president or high dignitary to use this expression or validate it in some way.

Not too long ago, President Fernández, Milei’s predecessor, in a commented speech, repeated the historical absurdity that Argentines descend from European ships, as if the southern country’s territory had no inhabitants before the arrival of Spaniards, Italians, and other migrants, not to mention the slave ships.

Far from it, the expression has significant relevance in understanding the ideas and trajectory of the current Argentine government.

At this stage of the 21st century, using the term “discovery” instead of conquest, invasion or similar terms, cannot be understood as a coincidence or a trivial matter but rather as an adherence to a doctrine clearly functional to the economic and political interests of ultraliberalism.

A United Nations study from 2014 argues that the so-called “doctrine of discovery” originates from papal bulls based on the alleged racial superiority of Christians.

The word “discovery” has been used as a justificatory framework to dehumanize, exploit, enslave, and subjugate indigenous peoples, stripping them of their most basic rights, laws, spirituality, worldview, as well as their lands and resources. Ultimately, it is the very foundation of genocide.

The effects of the doctrine of discovery remain devastating, of great significance, and intergenerational, as expressed in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noting that the doctrine of discovery combined with related doctrines of conquest and European racial superiority was a driving force behind the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples worldwide, whose consequences are still being felt.

More recently, in a public statement in March 2023, the Vatican deemed it necessary to establish that the “doctrine of discovery” is not part of the Catholic conception. The documents related to the issue were written in a specific historical period and related to political matters but are not part of the Catholic faith because the papal bulls of that time (Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455), and Inter Caetera (1493)) did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.

As the Vatican states, the legal concept of “discovery” arises in the 16th century, consolidating in the jurisprudence of the 19th century in the courts of different countries, according to which the discovery of lands by settlers granted the exclusive right to extinguish, through purchase or conquest, the title or possession of said lands by indigenous populations. In other words, asserting the validity of the “doctrine of discovery” today is nothing more than a political and pseudo-legal ruse to facilitate the appropriation and exploitation of lands and territories that are either in the hands of indigenous communities or have legal titles that are often disregarded by authorities.

Furthermore, this “doctrine of discovery” aligns fully with the historical, social, and economic foundations that President Milei has articulated on various occasions, such as in his inaugural speech or in the consideration of the bill titled “Law of Bases and Starting Points for the Freedom of Argentines” dated December 27, 2024.

The title of the legislative initiative is taken from the most important text written by Juan Bautista Alberdi, the document “Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic,” from1852, considered the most important conceptual input for the Argentine constitution the following year.

In that text, Alberdi asserts that “America has been discovered, conquered, and populated by the civilized races of Europe.” In the mid-19th century, the author understands that “to govern is to populate” because, in his perception, either there were no inhabitants in the Argentine territory or those who existed would not be sufficient for national goals.

Therefore, he believes that the Argentine Constitution should be made to populate the “solitary” land of the country and to alter and modify the condition of the current population. “We need a policy of creation, of population, of conquest over solitude and the desert.” Furthermore, it would not be just any population, but a different one from the existing population at that time: “With three million indigenous people, Christians, and Catholics, you certainly would not make the republic,” so he proposes to encourage the presence of Anglo-Saxon population because it is “identified with steam, trade, and freedom, and it will not be impossible to establish these things among us without the active cooperation of that race of progress and civilization.”

The noteworthy aspect is not so much Alberdi’s conception, which was not exceptional in his time and, like any historical event, should be located and analyzed in its context.

Rather, it is remarkable that the Argentine president in 2024 confesses to basing his government on these ideas. In practice, the “doctrine of discovery” is expressed, through action and omission, in the principal political initiative promoted by his government to date, the “Law of Bases and Starting Points for the Freedom of Argentines,” also known as the “Omnibus Law” due to its extensive and varied thematic content, with more than 600 articles covering a wide range of issues.

By action, much of the legislation is aimed at modifying, generally eliminating substantively, protective and/or regulatory laws regarding the use of land and natural resources.

For example, there is a profound modification of Law 26331 on native forests with the clear objective of allowing the elimination of forests to advance the agricultural frontier. This modification is closely related to other proposed changes, such as the current regulation on the possibility of massive burns for economic exploitation or the limitation of buying and selling land for foreign individuals, as well as legislation on glaciers, among other aspects.

By omission, there is no mention whatsoever of the indigenous peoples and communities who are either owners or holders of many of the lands in question or who care for natural resources through balanced and consistent use in line with their preservation and development. It is important to remember that Argentina has long incorporated into its legislation International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. This convention stipulates, among other contents, that before adopting any administrative or legislative measures that may affect them, indigenous peoples must be consulted and give their consent.

The “doctrine of discovery” which disregards the existence and hence the opinion of the indigenous population and underlies the appropriation of their lands from the “desert” Alberdi wrote about, cannot tolerate the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making, especially in those of high economic interest for large corporations.

In a demonstration of his newfound friendship, Elon Musk sent a message to Milei after his speech in Davos: “so hot, m…” he said, while a gentleman attentively followed the Argentine president’s speech despite being accompanied by a naked woman.

Whether he was truly motivated by the eloquence of the speech or the possibility of benefiting from Argentine lithium, in either hypothesis, it is unlikely that either of them is thinking about consulting the inhabitants of the territories where they can exploit the metal but rather extraction without bothersome collectives obstructing the heroes of the world.