Blinken, in Argentina, hails Milei's efforts on economy, touts mining opportunities

By Simon Lewis and Adam Jourdan

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -U.S. top diplomat Antony Blinken on Friday praised Argentina's libertarian leader Javier Milei for his efforts to stabilize his country's embattled economy, and talked up hopes for U.S. involvement in mining critical minerals in Argentina.

Milei, an economist and former sharp-tongued pundit, has taken a strongly pro-U.S. stance, though ideologically is more closely aligned with Republican former U.S. President Donald Trump, the main challenger to President Joe Biden in elections later this year.

Secretary of State Blinken is the most senior Biden administration official to visit Argentina since Milei won office last year promising "shock therapy" for the economy through austerity measures.

"The work that’s being done to stabilize the economy is absolutely vital," Blinken said at a news conference, calling his meeting with Milei earlier in the day "incredibly positive."

The U.S. was exploring investment opportunities in critical minerals, especially lithium, through its International Development Finance Corporation and a new Minerals Security Partnership, said Blinken, adding Washington wants U.S. companies to remain Argentina's partner of choice.

“We see extraordinary opportunity here in Argentina, but maybe most important, what’s so evident is that Argentina has what the world actually needs," he said, referring to minerals used in batteries needed for the transition to renewable energy.

Blinken declined to weigh in on Milei's proposal to dollarize the Argentinian economy, which he said was "a decision for Argentina to make."

Milei has visited U.S.-ally Israel in a show of support for its response to Oct. 7 attacks by Palestinian militants Hamas.

Blinken said he appreciates Milei's strong condemnation of the attacks "and his support for Israel's right to ensure that such an attack never happens again."

Asked at the start of their meeting at the Casa Rosada presidential palace what was his message for the United States, Milei replied that “Argentina has decided to return to the side of the West, to the side of progress, democracy and, above all, freedom.”

Adding a bit of spice to Milei's relationship with the Biden White House, the Argentine leader is scheduled to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend in Washington, where Trump is also set to appear.

Argentine Foreign Minister Diana Mondino said she could not say whether Milei would meet with Trump.

Blinken arrived in Buenos Aires on Thursday after visiting neighboring Brazil, where he met with left-wing leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who in contrast to Milei has clashed with Washington over his criticism of Israel's assault on Gaza.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis in Rio de Janeiro and Adam Jourdan in Buenos Aires Editing by Alistair Bell and David Gregorio)