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LATIN AMERICA | 07-07-2024 08:42

Milei takes his far-right roadshow to Lula’s backyard in Brazil

In a Latin America dominated by leftists, Argentina's libertarian leader Javier Milei is all alone.

Javier Milei’s efforts to forge alliances with right-wing allies across Europe reveal a hard truth about his Presidency: Back in a Latin America dominated by leftists, the libertarian Argentine is all alone.

This weekend, he’s visiting Brazil with designs on sparking a far-right resurgence that will give him friends closer to home.

Milei will headline a conservative rally in southern Brazil on Sunday alongside right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro, the biggest gamble yet on an unorthodox foreign policy approach that’s already blown up Argentina’s relations with Spain.

The trip threatens to turn his feud with leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva into a full-blown crisis, and any fallout with Brazil — Argentina’s top trade parter — would risk spilling over to the already-battered economy Milei is attempting to resuscitate.

But the visit is also the latest sign that Milei is betting the house on a total reorientation of global politics, as far-right parties make gains across Europe and Donald Trump eyes a return to the White House. And with sluggish economies taking a toll on leaders like Lula and Chile’s Gabriel Boric, the Argentine is positioning himself at the vanguard of a movement aiming to swing Latin America back to the right as well.

Milei is set to receive a hero’s welcome at CPAC Brazil — an offshoot of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States — where Bolsonaro’s allies and supporters see him as an inspiration for their battle against Lula.

Ahead of the main event, the convention centre in Balneario Camboriu was full but not yet crowded. At the entrance, booths sold books by conservative authors along with Bolsonaro merchandise from mugs to shirts, notebooks and even wine. Anti-abortion stickers were handed out and a Brazilian Milei lookalike posed for photos with attendees.

On stage Saturday, Bolsonaro defended the unity of the right to strengthen it. Speakers repeated Milei’s motto “long live freedom, dammit!” to the delight of the audience, which shouted “Bolsonaro back!” and applauded every time Lula was criticised. 

Brazil’s next presidential election isn’t until 2026, but the right is targeting October municipal contests for a show of strength. Still recovering from Bolsonaro’s defeat and subsequent eight-year ban from seeking office, the movement has begun to hitch itself to Milei, seeing his self-described “anarcho-capitalist” efforts to rebuild the Argentine economy as fuel for their own arguments against Lula’s leftist approach.

“Milei is a serious threat to Lula’s power project, since Argentina’s positive economic results, even obtained at high social costs, can be used as political-ideological propaganda by Lula’s main opponents in Brazil,” said Uria Fancelli, a Brazilian international relations specialist and expert on populism. 

José Antonio Kast, a far-right former lawmaker who lost to Boric three years ago, also spoke at CPAC Brazil. With Boric’s popularity slipping and Chilean voters swinging sharply back to the right last year, Kast is now angling for a rematch with the young leftist in 2025.

Rallying with fierce rivals of his global counterparts has become a regular occurrence for Milei, who endorsed Trump during a February US trip that included no scheduled meetings with Joe Biden or other White House officials. In May, he provoked the ire of socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez by attending an event for the far-right Vox party just ahead of European parliamentary elections.

That strategy carries substantial risk, as Lula can attest. The dispute between the neighboring leaders kicked off during the Argentine election, when Lula sent a team of campaign veterans to work for Milei’s opponent. Relations with Milei — who called the Brazilian a “Communist” during the race — have only soured further since. 

 

Mercosur no-show

So far, that hasn’t dented long-standing trade and economic ties. Brazil sent an emergency shipment of natural gas to Argentina amid a winter shortage. Talks between the governments over the construction of pipelines to import gas from Argentina’s resource-rich Vaca Muerta region have also continued amid the spat. 

But Brazil’s patience appears to be wearing thin. Milei cancelled plans to attend Monday’s summit of Mercosur leaders in Paraguay, the latest signal that the customs bloc of which Argentina and Brazil are the two largest members has fallen down his list of priorities.

“This absence doesn’t change the summit, but politically it’s regrettable,” Ambassador Gisela Padovan, secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters last week.

Lula, meanwhile, is keeping a close eye on Milei’s foray into his backyard. The Argentine’s criticism of Sánchez during his May trip to Madrid led Spain to yank its ambassador from Buenos Aires, a diplomatic crisis that still hasn’t been resolved.

Brazilian officials have discussed the possibility of summoning the country’s ambassador to Argentina back to Brasília for consultations as a potential response to any speech or actions it deems offensive, according to two people familiar with the situation who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Such a move remains unlikely, the people said. But that it is even under consideration is a sign that the continued provocations could soon pose real threats to relations between South America’s two largest economies.

“The last thing you want is to fight with your main trade partner,” said Lucas Romero, the director of Synopsis, a political consultancy firm in Buenos Aires. “That’s what’s so incomprehensible about this conflict.”

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by Daniel Carvalho & Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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