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Viva Libertad Silicon Valley

Sideburns, pursed lips, and two thumbs in the air—Argentina’s President Javier Milei was fully in character during a selfie snapped with META founder Mark Zuckerberg posted to X on Thursday. For his part, Zuckerberg was all smiles and comfortably rested his hand on the diminutive Argentine’s shoulder. The two were clearly smitten.

The photo was part of a 36-hour whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley where Milei met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Zuckerberg. The meetings are intended to broker new investments into the struggling South American nation, and the high-profile swing was exactly the sort of spectacle that has come to mark the chainsaw libertarian’s brand at home and abroad.

“His challenge now is to turn the photo-ops into concrete investments in the country,” remarked Marcelo García, director for the Americas at geopolitical risk consultancy firm Horizon Engage.

And though it’s uncertain what was said or promised to the tech giants during his California jaunt, each company offers a different sort of unique intrigue for a nation crippled by spending, spiraling debt, and annual inflation approaching 300 percent.

Milei’s courtship of Cook and Apple appears centered around hopes Apple will open a store in Argentina, after a 2017 attempt in Buenos Aires never materialized. Apple only began selling to Argentines in 2017, and by 2022 the price of an iPhone was “months of rent,” making it prohibitive for the vast majority of everyday people. The steep price was in some part due to protectionist trade policies that Milei was elected to erase.

At Stanford, Milei met with OpenAI founder Sam Altman and stressed the “enormous possibilities offered by a libertarian Argentina.” Milei is attempting to privatize Argentinian public utilities and commerce including the nation’s largest airliner Aerolineas Argentina. 

“The trip is valuable by itself because basically you’re attempting to put Argentina at the center of a global conversation about material development and investments in relation to technology,” Mariano Machado, principal analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft told CNBC.

Lithium is what Argentina is selling, and Musk needs literal tons of it. Argentina is home to the world’s second-largest Lithium reserves, a key material used in the rechargeable batteries found in every Tesla. From the 2006 Roadster to the 2023 Model Y, Lithium-Ion battery packs have featured in every Tesla vehicle. 

“We’re very committed not only to exporting raw materials but also to adding value,” said Argentina’s Ambassador to the U.S. Gerardo Werthein.

Of the four tech visionaries, Milei’s closest relationship is with Musk, and not only because of the lithium. There seems to be an ideological match: Both men are ardent supporters of “free markets and defend the ideas of freedom.”

The meetings come as Milei seeks to build a coalition in the Argentine Senate, where his party only holds seven of 72 seats. He has worked with the pro-business PRO party and moderates to build support for legislative bills aimed at deregulating the Argentine economy and trimming the national deficit. Nevertheless, they have been stuck in a political stalemate for weeks. 

Even more troubling, Milei has little time to assure major players in international finance that he can make good on more than $9 billion in foreign currency debt the country owes early next year. 

Faced with these issues, however, Milei has managed a 50-percent approval rating in recent polling, and his administration has successfully lowered the monthly inflation rate from 25.5 percent in December to 8.8 percent in May. Milei left the United States on Friday afternoon, but his journeys abroad for the summer will not end there. He is scheduled to meet Brazil’s President Lula for the first time at the G7 summit in Italy this July. While there, he will also rub shoulders with Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Pope Francis. If Milei achieves nothing else, he has already reignited international interest in Argentina’s economic and geopolitical possibilities—a feat that seemed impossible just a short time ago.

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