Milei to meet Bolsonaro in Brazil amid feud with Lula

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A feud between Javier Milei and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is threatening to become a diplomatic crisis as the Argentine leader uses his first official visit to Brazil to meet not the Brazilian president, but his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

The expected snub as Milei heads to Brazil on Saturday comes days before a summit of the heads of nations in the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which Milei has said he will not attend. Aides close to the Argentine president say he wants to avoid meeting Lula.

Milei is set to meet Bolsonaro this weekend at a conservative political conference in Brazil’s southern state of Santa Catarina, at which both are due to speak.

The libertarian Milei and socialist Lula have not had an official meeting since the Argentine president took office six months ago, despite the economic ties between South America’s two largest nations. Brazil is Argentina’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost 18 per cent of its total exports.

The diplomatic stand-off marks the escalation of a personal feud between the two men, which was reignited when Lula last week demanded an apology from Milei for calling the Brazilian leader “corrupt” and “communist”.

The outspoken Milei refused to apologise and then referred to Lula in a social media post entitled “idiot dinosaur”.

Political analysts say the impact of the spat will be felt by the Mercosur bloc, which has appeared rudderless in recent months after failing to close a long-awaited and much-vaunted trade deal with the EU.

“Mercosur is a bloc with very low institutionalisation, heavily dependent on presidential diplomacy. Milei’s decision not to attend [the summit] is, of course, a political snub rooted in the enmity between the two presidents,” said Marcelo Elizondo, president of the International Chamber of Commerce in Argentina.

“The truth is that Mercosur has been in a slow crisis for a long time, and Milei’s absence simply highlights its critical situation.”

Federico Merke, a political scientist at the University of San Andrés in Buenos Aires, said that Milei had long been critical of the EU-Mercosur trade deal and viewed the bloc as an obstacle to unilaterally opening up Argentina’s trade.

“Added to this is Milei’s general disinterest in strengthening ties with neighbouring countries,” he said.

“When you factor in the ideological distance between Lula and Milei, it’s likely that [Milei] thinks his support base would be happier seeing him alongside Jair Bolsonaro than with Lula.”

Bolsonaro — who served as Brazilian leader from 2019 to 2022 and who is accused by police of plotting a coup to stay in power following his election defeat to Lula — attended Milei’s inauguration in Buenos Aires earlier this year.

Relations between Brasília and Buenos Aires have also been complicated by the arrival in Argentina of scores of Brazilians who took part in violent anti-government riots in the Brazilian capital in January last year. The Brazilian government and Supreme Court have called the mob action an “attempted coup”.

Many of the rioters are seeking asylum in Argentina to avoid prosecution in Brazil, but their status has not yet been determined by Buenos Aires.

Gilberto Ackermann, an insurance broker who was arrested after storming Brazil’s presidential palace, told the Financial Times this week: “I can’t go back to jail. I’m 50 years old. If I go back to jail with a 16-year sentence, I’ll die there . . . [I] didn’t break anything [in the riot].”

He later cut off his ankle monitor and fled to Argentina.

Merke, the political scientist, said he believed Argentina would not rush to address the asylum situation and “will let Brazil handle the requests and co-ordinate with Interpol”.

“[But] my sense is that Argentina will not present obstacles if there are extradition requests,” he said.

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