On November 19, Javier Milei won the Argentine presidency with nearly 56% of the nationwide vote. In Antarctica, where Argentinian base personnel were also called to vote, Milei’s score was 90.57%. A result that raises a number of questions.
Over 90% of Antarctic station scientists and staff chose Javier Milei as their president. A crushing victory for a man who presents himself as ultra-liberal, promotes less government and is a climate skeptic. These positions seem indeed to be in complete contradiction with the Antarctic situation. How to explain then such a high score, and above all, what implications and consequences might this election have for Argentinian and international Antarctic research?
To find out more, we interviewed Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia, affiliated researcher at the Millennium Institute Biodiversity of Antarctic and Subantarctic Ecosystems (BASE) in Chile. Here is their analysis.
Javier Milei was elected by more than 90% of Argentinian voters based in Antarctica at the time of the vote. What are the reasons that pushed these people to vote so massively for him?
Klaus Dodds: Support for Milei was and is largely based on a widespread sense of frustration – and Argentines of all socio-economic backgrounds have had to grapple with crippling inflation and a general sense that the country is failing them. Up to 40% of Argentines live in poverty or close to it. There is a general feeling that Argentina’s political parties have failed the public over many years.
Scientists and staff working in the Antarctic are largely dependent on the government for their research, survival and transport. How can we explain the fact that Argentine scientists and personnel voted for a candidate who advocates less government? Don’t they vote against their own interests?
Klaus Dodds: Yes Argentine scientists and staff do rely on government funding for Antarctic operations – and whoever is president has a constitutional responsibility to defend and protect the Republic which includes the Argentine Antarctic Territory and the disputed islands of the South West Atlantic. The new president’s anger is being focussed around institutions that have failed Argentina’s economy and society not Antarctic operations. However, if the state is “dismantled” then there is a danger of collateral damage. The president will no doubt be told that Argentine science performs an essential geopolitical role in Antarctica.
Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia: Considering that the southern areas, Antarctica and the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas) represent crucial geostrategic zones for the country, it seems difficult to envisage budget cuts in these areas.
What impact might this have on the operating budgets of Argentina’s Antarctic stations and on research?
Klaus Dodds: The operating budgets to survive a slash and burn operation will need to do two things. First, persuade a climate sceptic president that this research does more than tell him what he might not care for. Antarctic research helps protects the fundamental interests of the Republic – he is a populist nationalist after all.
And second, it might drive Argentina to work more closely with countries like China who might see this as an opportunity to offer to support and invest further in polar gateways and infrastructure. The UK should be watching developments with concern – Argentina and China working more closely with one another might have unwelcome ramifications for the Falkland Islands and their fishing licensing economy.
Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia: It’s difficult to anticipate the budgetary implications of Argentina’s activities in Antarctica. This analysis is based on a consideration of the geostrategic role of these regions both for the country and for the tourism industry, which is of considerable importance in the port of Ushuaia.
Argentina’s Antarctic policy is the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, which oversees the Secretariat for the Falklands, Antarctica and the South Atlantic. This secretariat in turn includes the National Antarctic Directorate, the Argentine Antarctic Institute and the National Directorate for Antarctic Foreign Policy, as well as the Ministry of Defense, which oversees the Armed Forces, the main operators of Argentine Antarctic activities. Their continued presence under Milei’s mandate seems undeniable, for obvious reasons: their function is essential to the country’s integration into the international system, and to safeguarding the defence and security of its interests.
In addition, it is important to emphasize the instrumental role played by science in national interests. It is not only a means of cooperation, but also a strategic tool for positioning the country in the Antarctic system. This explains why Argentina’s scientific activities do not come under the Ministry of Science, as they play a strategic and political role in the Antarctic system.
The same question arises regarding the nature of research carried out in Antarctica. Why elect a climate skeptic when you are a scientist who works, directly or indirectly, on issues related to global warming?
Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia: Milei’s exceptionalism in the face of the planet’s climate crisis may well generate some controversy over his personal stance on the issue. However, it must be remembered that Milei will govern a democratic system and as such cannot take unilateral decisions without the support of the legislative power, where he does not have a majority. On the other hand, the Antarctic policies of the member countries of the Antarctic system must be consistent with the principles on which the Antarctic system is based. These include peace, science, environmental protection, cooperation and teamwork. If the country strays from these principles, its national image and reputation, which have been built up over the last 60 years, could be compromised, which would not be in any way positive for the country.
Milei is not the first ultraliberal and climate skeptic president to be elected. We’re thinking here in particular about Donald Trump, who could possibly be re-elected in 2024. What could be the consequences for the global research in Antarctica, particularly at an interdisciplinary and international level?
Klaus Dodds: The new Argentine president follows a path that has been trodden by other populist nationalists in Latin America and beyond. At the moment, we were fortunate that former President Trump did not “discover” Antarctica as opposed to Greenland. Argentina’s scientists and academics will hope that their new president does not take a too close interest in the far south of the country. What they will worry about is a loss of potential funding and support and it might mean that Argentina’s scientific programme will need to be more “geopoliticised” in order to survive.
Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia: By limiting the sovereign territorial claims of certain states, the Antarctic Treaty offers better conditions for non-government action. Scientific research in Antarctica is governed by the guidelines set by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), a state body that reports to the International Science Council, and its role has been decisive in establishing the principles and rules that regulate the system. With this in mind, scientific research in Antarctica enjoys a high degree of autonomy, and states rely on its expertise to establish cooperative relationships within a framework of collective action. In the Antarctic system, states, unable to exercise effective sovereignty despite national hegemonic rhetoric, are faced with cooperation dilemmas typical of a system with a common resource, but on an international scale.
Interviews by Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal