‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ Latin diplomacy devolves into schoolyard taunts

Cutting to the chase
Cutting to the chase

Summary

Region’s presidents really really don’t like each other, judging from the vitriol flowing on social media.

Forget black-tie dinners or summits at picturesque locales.

The irascible leaders of some of Latin America’s biggest countries are instead taking a decidedly disdainful approach to diplomatic relations. In a region far from global conflicts, presidents here are instead embroiled in the kind of verbal spats commonly found on schoolyards—a war of words playing out on television and via posts on X.

“Ignoramus," Argentina’s president, Javier Milei, said last week of his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“Fascist," López Obrador shot back.

And Venezuela’s government—never apprehensive about issuing put-downs—had caustic words for those criticizing strongman Nicolás Maduro, who last month blocked popular opposition figures from running against him in July’s presidential election.

“Shove your opinions wherever you can fit them," Foreign Minister Yván Gil said, directing his ire at two normally friendly presidents, Gustavo Petro of Colombia and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, after they weighed in gingerly against the measure.

Argentina’s Milei, a libertarian economist who’s not one for speaking softly and carrying a big stick, tends to find himself in the middle of most every melee.

After all, he has lashed out at leftist opponents in Argentina as “useless parasites" and “human excrement." During last year’s presidential campaign, he deployed a chain saw to show how he’d destroy old institutions.

“This is no time for nice words and good manners," he said.

He has carried that conviction into the presidency and foreign relations—as was on full display in an interview this past week with host Andrés Oppenheimer on CNN en Español

Milei called the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela—countries with no free or fair elections—“truly despicable" and Latin America’s worst presidents.

“After them, there are other cases on the same path, like Colombia, with Mr. Petro," said Milei, entering delicate ground since Petro was elected in 2022 in a free vote. “You can’t expect much from someone who had been a murderous terrorist, a communist."

A member of a leftist rebel group in his youth, Petro, too, has rarely held back—often insulting leaders whose policies, particularly conservative ones, he doesn’t like.

He’s gotten into a row with Israel’s ambassador over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza. And he accused El Salvador President Nayib Bukele of running concentration camps by jailing thousands of suspected gang members.

Bukele took the bait with glee, noting El Salvador’s sharp decline in homicides and Colombia’s trouble with crime. And when Petro’s son became enmeshed in a corruption scandal last year, Bukele responded: “Everything OK at home?"

Petro and Milei clashed last year when the Colombian leader compared Milei to Hitler and backed his opponent. It seems Milei hasn’t forgotten.

López Obrador—perhaps still smarting from when Milei called the Mexican politician’s supporters the “small-penises club"—entered the latest fray by branding the Argentine “a conservative fascist" and expressing surprise that Argentines had elected him.

He also wrote on X to throw his support behind Petro in his fight against Milei.

“Thank you Andrés Manuel," Petro wrote back. “I think Milei is looking to destroy, or at least delay, Latin American integration."

This is hardly the first time the region has erupted in an insult-fest, although many of the past barbs tended to be aimed at the U.S. Fidel Castro, the late Cuban dictator, famously called President Ronald Reagan “a madman, an imbecile and a bum" in the 1980s after the U.S. leader included Cuba in a group of outlaw states that sponsor terrorism. Reagan described the leaders of those nations as “the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich."

Access to social media seems to be adding fuel to the flames these days, says Michael Shifter, a longtime scholar of Latin America at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington

“You have lots of leaders in Latin America that really love using Twitter and relish sparring with other leaders," he said. “They are naturally combative and polarizing figures. If they control their social-media accounts, the temptation is irresistible."

The concern for some is the war of words can lead to actions that could seriously damage relations. It seems, in fact, that’s happened.

Venezuela’s regime turned off water and power to the Argentine embassy last week after six opposition activists sought refuge, leading Milei’s government to call on Maduro officials to respect diplomatic protocols.

Maduro had previously called the Argentine leader “an outlaw" after the Argentine government had turned over to the U.S. a Venezuelan aircraft suspected of carrying crew members tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“They stole our plane…Crazy Milei!" said Venezuela’s Maduro in a Feb. 15 speech. “He acts crazy, or is crazy, or both."

After Argentina said it would take diplomatic actions against Venezuela for prohibiting access to its airspace, Venezuela’s foreign minister accused Milei of running a “neo-Nazi government" that was “submissive and obedient to its imperial master," referring to the U.S.

Argentina, which has become a leading critic of Venezuela’s crackdown on the opposition, brushed off the insults.

“What more can you expect from a donkey besides a kick?" said Argentina’s presidential spokesman, Manuel Adorni.

Eric Farnsworth, a former high-ranking State Department diplomat, is exasperated by what he’s seeing.

“A lot of it just seems so unnecessary," said Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas policy group in Washington. “What’s the point of this?"

Héctor Fernando Córdoba, a retired accountant in Buenos Aires who backs Milei, is also wondering. He likes Milei’s free-market economic policies and tough austerity measures.

Still, he’d rather the president focus on fixing Argentina’s inflation-ravaged economy. “This fight just brings more complications for people who today need solutions," he said.

But Milei isn’t one to back down from a verbal donnybrook. He had some choice words for Mexico’s president.

“It’s an honor that an ignoramus like López Obrador talks badly about me," Milei said. “I’m flattered."

Write to Ryan Dubé at ryan.dube@wsj.com

Silvina Frydlewsky and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this article.

‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
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‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
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‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
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‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
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‘Ignoramus.’ ‘Fascist.’ ‘Small-Penises Club.’ Latin Diplomacy Devolves Into Schoolyard Taunts
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