Milei Backs Bolsonaro Without Attacking Lula in Brazil Visit

Argentina’s President Javier Milei gives a speech at CPAC Brasil 2024, Sunday. (AP Photo/Heuler Andrey)

(Bloomberg News/TNS) — 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 visited Brazil with designs on sparking a right-wing resurgence that will give him friends closer to home.

Milei headlined 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 threatened to turn his feud with leftist leader Luiz Inacio 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 Milei decided not to take risks. For fewer than 20 minutes he read a speech in which, as usual, he contrasted socialism with capitalism. He made no mention of Lula and quoted Brazil in just two moments: When he said that “censorship and oppression” are beginning to happen in the country and during a defense of Bolsonaro.

“Look at the judicial persecution suffered by our friend Jair Bolsonaro here in Brazil,” he told a euphoric audience at a convention center in Balneario Camboriu.

The visit was also the latest sign that Milei is betting on a total reorientation of global politics. 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.

Milei received a hero’s welcome at CPAC Brasil — an offshoot of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the U.S. — where Bolsonaro’s allies and supporters see him as an inspiration for their battle against Lula.

Milei’s speech on Sunday set an attendance record at the convention center, but there were still empty chairs. At the entrance, booths sold books by conservative authors along with Bolsonaro-themed merchandise that ranged from mugs to shirts, notebooks and even wine. Pro-life stickers were handed out and a Brazilian Milei lookalike posed for photos with attendees.

During his speech Saturday, Bolsonaro said the right-wing must walk together to get stronger. The crowd shouted “Bolsonaro back!” and applauded every time Lula was criticized. 

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. 

Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right former lawmaker in Chile 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 rivals of his global counterparts has become a regular occurrence for Milei, who endorsed Donald Trump during a February U.S. trip that included no scheduled meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden or other White House officials. In May, he provoked the ire of socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez 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. 

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 canceled 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, was keeping a close eye on Milei’s foray into his backyard. The Argentine’s criticism of Sanchez 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 Brasilia 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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