Argentine President Milei heads to CPAC in Brazil, snubbing Lula and escalating a political feud

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Given the choice between a far-right convention to bash his enemies and a presidential summit to discuss regional trade policy, Argentine President Javier Milei preferred the stadium packed with cheering fans.

The libertarian leader on Sunday strode onto the stage of Brazil’s CPAC, an extension of the conservative political action conference, to a soundtrack of heavy metal rock. Basking in his cult-like following, Milei rhythmically threw his hands up in the air, chanting, “Freedom! as the audience hooted and pumped their fists.

Before delivering his go-to manifesto about the evils of socialism and virtues of the free market, Milei gave a hearty hug to Brazil’s hard-right former President Javier Bolsonaro, who just days earlier was indicted by federal police in a scheme to embezzle Saudi diamonds.

“My friend Jair Bolsonaro is suffering judicial persecution,” Milei said onstage from the conference in Brazil’s southern city of Balneario Camboriu.

In skipping the Mercosur trade bloc summit in Paraguay and publicly backing Bolsonaro — who also stands accused of attempting to subvert Brazil’s 2022 election result — Milei delivered another harsh rebuke to Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, escalating a risky feud with his country’s biggest trading partner.

Apparently aware of those stakes, Milei made no mention of Lula in his speech Sunday after months of branding the leftist leader a “communist,” calling him “corrupt” and refusing to deal with him. Local media was awash with reports citing Brazilian diplomats Sunday that they were considering the unprecedented move of pulling the Brazilian ambassador from Buenos Aires if Milei doubled down on his insults of the president while in Brazil.

When the crowd began shouting, “Lula, you thief, your place is in prison!” Milei allowed himself a quiet smile before returning to his speech.

“The winds of change are blowing in the world,” he said. “The ideas of impoverishing socialism have failed and people know it.”

Milei’s photo-ops with disgraced ex-President Bolsonaro — shaking hands in front of their respective national flags as though they were counterparts — marked the latest example of Milei’s provocative foreign policy, courting the global spotlight through friendships with hard-right allies rather than following diplomatic convention.

The night before, Bolsonaro opened the Brazilian CPAC with a fiery speech declaring his desire to see former U.S. President Donald Trump return to the White House next year. He and Milei were then spotted together in a downtown hotel lobby littered with drained wine glasses, watching Uruguay kick Brazil out of the 2024 Copa America.

Since the irascible Milei rode to power last December on a promise to fix Argentina’s worst economic crisis in two decades, relations between the long-time allies and commodity powerhouses have rapidly deteriorated.

The ideological enemies crossed paths for the first time at the Group of Seven summit last month in Italy, where their efforts to avoid each other as much as physically possible grabbed local headlines. As their war of words intensified in recent weeks, Lula demanded an apology from Milei’s government.

Experts say that mingling on the sidelines of the South American trade bloc meeting on Monday would have offered Milei a low-stakes opportunity to defuse tensions with Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy with a population of some 200 million.

Brazil buys nearly a sixth of Argentina’s exports, supplies most of Argentina’s auto industry and backs its neighbor’s bids to get badly needed aid from International Monetary Fund.

Instead, Milei has doubled down on a foreign policy gamble that experts have criticized as misguided.

“He seems to be shooting himself in the foot,” Michael Shifter, a scholar of Latin America at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said of Milei. “It’s shocking and counterproductive for him to thumb his nose at Lula in this way because there could be a lot of cost for Argentina, that could affect his ability to carry out his policies.”

The president’s ideologically driven strategy set off a political storm earlier this year in Spain, the second-largest foreign investor in Argentina, as Milei shunned meetings with the socialist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and instead gave a similar speech lambasting socialism at a far-right rally organized by the country’s Vox Party.

The snub spiraled into a diplomatic crisis between the historic allies when Milei called Sánchez’s wife corrupt and Spain pulled its ambassador from Buenos Aires.

Despite five trips to the United States since taking office, Milei has yet to enter the White House. But he has hugged Trump at CPAC in Washington, bonded over his love of free markets in Texas with billionaire Tesla executive Elon Musk and met top tech CEOs in Silicon Valley.

“He wants to present himself as a rock star of international politics which does generate admiration in some sectors of Argentina,” said Fabio Rodriguez, director at Buenos Aires-based consultancy M&R Asociados. “But already polls indicate that this may be changing, that people are seeing this as a liability, feeling abandoned in the sense that their president spends his time on tour while things are not improving on a daily basis.”

Pressures are building in Argentina, where annual inflation nears 300% and the local currency last week touched a historic low of 1,430 pesos per dollar on the black market, where Argentines sell their rapidly depreciating pesos. The government this week revised its own growth projections, saying it expected the economy to contract by more than 3% this year.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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