Milei’s provocations strain diplomatic relations with large Latin American economies

Colombia has demanded an apology and will expel diplomats after the Argentine president called Gustavo Petro a ‘terrorist murderer’ during an interview with CNN

Gustavo Petro, Javier Milei and Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Left to right: Gustavo Petro, Javier Milei and Andrés Manuel López Obrador.Getty Images

Since taking office as president of Argentina, Javier Milei has maintained the incendiary tone that made him popular during the electoral campaign, but his provocations are now morphing into diplomatic crises. After the tension sparked by his early attacks against the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, the most recent bilateral relation that Milei has tested has been with Colombia. Bogotá has demanded an apology after Milei called Gustavo Petro a “terrorist murderer” during an interview with CNN, and has announced the expulsion of Argentine diplomats from the country. Ties with Mexico have also become strained: Andrés Manuel López Obrador has accused Milei of “despising the people” after the Argentine right-wing leader described him as “ignorant.”

“With his grievances and offenses, Milei has broken 200 years of peaceful and friendly relations between Argentina and Colombia,” said former Argentine foreign minister Santiago Cafiero. He also accused the president of placing bilateral trade in jeopardy due to his “childish foreign policy.” Colombian Minister of the Interior Luis Fernando Velasco denounced that Milei “cannot go around the world with this kind of attitude and [with these] accusations against someone who represents the unity of the State, the unity of the people of another country.” Velasco condemned Milei’s “vulgar attitude” and stated that “he owes an explanation to his own people.”

Current Argentine Foreign Minister Diana Mondino on Thursday attempted to relativize the tension, arguing that bilateral relations with Colombia and Mexico are defined “in the very long term” and go beyond clashes between presidents. As on previous occasions, the Foreign Ministry has tried to prevent the conflict from escalating, deploying a pacifying strategy that differs from that of the president. Far from displaying concern about the political melee, Milei devoted himself to tweeting posts from six months ago, when Petro compared the then-presidential candidate to Adolf Hitler.

The bond between Argentina and Colombia, despite two centuries of diplomatic relations, has never been particularly close. Not only because they are at opposite ends of Latin America, but also due to diplomatic decisions, such as when Bogotá refrained from supporting Buenos Aires in the Falklands War. But the current level of tension is unprecedented.

Milei’s words concerning Petro are particularly incendiary in Colombia because they touch on the sensitive subject of the armed conflict and the president’s search for an elusive “total peace.” Petro was a member of the M-19 guerrillas, a group with more social democratic than communist leanings, which signed a peace agreement more than 30 years ago. The organization adhered to its decision to lay down its arms and become a political party despite the assassination of its leader and then-presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, in April 1990. As a political formation, M-19 was one of the fundamental forces in the drafting of the 1991 Constitution, recognized as a great advance in democratic openness and social rights.

For the Argentine president, that past — and the three decades Petro has dedicated to politics — does not seem to exist. But for Colombians, they certainly do. The decision to expel Argentine diplomats is one of the few that the Colombian president has made that has aroused general support, judging by the backing or the silence of the country’s main political leaders, despite the fact that Petro’s approval rating is barely hovering around 35% and the country is embroiled in a clear political polarization.

Tension with Mexico

López Obrador did not let Milei’s latest offense go unanswered: his response came Thursday on social networks. The Mexican president, who addresses the country on a daily basis, took a vacation for Easter and did not give his usual morning press conference. On X, however, he wrote: “Milei claimed that I am an ‘ignoramus’ because I called him a ‘conservative facho [fascist]’. He is right: I still do not understand how the Argentines, being so intelligent, voted for someone who despises the people and who dared to accuse his countryman Francis of being a ‘communist’ and ‘representative of the Evil One on earth,’ when he is the most Christian Pope and defender of the poor that I have ever known or heard of.”

Since he became president, López Obrador has maintained Mexico’s policy of not meddling in foreign affairs. The Mexican president has only taken a firm position during the crisis triggered in Peru by the attempted self-coup of former president Pedro Castillo and the arrival of Dina Boluarte in power. But following the victory of the extreme right-winger in Argentina, he could not avoid expressing his dissatisfaction. After the first round of the presidential elections, he described Milei as a “conservative facho” and, after Milei’s victory in the second round, he said that the Argentine people had scored “an own goal.” Recently, during a visit by former Argentine president Alberto Fernández to Mexico, he avoided referring to Milei when faced with questions from the press seeking to compare the relationship between the two countries under the previous and the current administrations. He did not mention Milei by name but criticized in general terms the course imposed by the Argentine government. “It is a failed model,” he said.

López Obrador did something similar last Wednesday, after fragments of Milei’s interview were broadcast. Without naming the Argentine president, he puffed out his chest regarding the Mexican “super peso,” which this week reached its strongest level since December 2015. “The peso is the currency that has strengthened the most in the world in relation to the dollar,” he said on social media. “Poverty and inequality have been reduced. With facts, we are demonstrating that the Moral Economy is better than neoliberalism.” The presidential candidate for López Obrador’s party, Claudia Sheinbaum, who has also been attacked by Milei, responded along similar lines, stating that Mexico and Argentina are following different national projects. “We vindicate the free market, private investment, the role of entrepreneurs… we are against corruption, but we also vindicate the role of the state in terms of the welfare state.”

Milei’s combative relationship with the leaders of the major Latin American countries contrasts with his praise for the United States and Israel, which he presents as his main foreign policy allies. This is a radical turn in Argentina’s international relations, which previously maintained an equidistant stance between Washington and Beijing and placed great emphasis on regional ties.

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