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01/04/2024 | Opinion - Latin American Leaders’ Name-Calling Has Real-World Consequences

James Bosworth

Having multiple presidents fighting with each other as if they’re trying to win a reality show means that governing and cooperation do not occur.


Last week I wrote that Colombian President Gustavo Petro “tweets more than he governs,” but he’s far from the only Latin American politician who moonlights as an internet troll. The past few weeks have seen the insults fly among Latin American leaders, with Venezuela’s foreign minister labeling Argentina’s ruling party “neo-nazis,” and Argentina’s president calling Colombia’s president a “murdering terrorist.” Unfortunately for the region, the consequences of these statements threaten to be deeper and longer lasting than the ephemeral number of likes that a social media post receives.

The most recent dispute between Argentina and Venezuela goes back to 2022 when Argentina, under the previous administration of President Alberto Fernandez, detained a Venezuelan cargo plane tied to a sanctioned Iranian company. Venezuela said the plane was stolen from them and unjustly detained while the U.S. and Paraguay both believe there was something suspicious about how the aircraft was being used and its contents. When the government of Argentine President Javier Milei handed the plane to the United States in February, Venezuela acted with fury. While the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had relatively good relations with Fernandez and did not want to escalate the conflict, Maduro hates the government of Milei and the feeling is mutual. Maduro and Milei portray themselves as dimetric opposites on the left-right ideological spectrum and Milei has taken it upon himself to criticize all leftists as he defends capitalist ideals.

The real-world consequence of this dispute is that, in early March, Venezuela closed off its airspace to planes traveling to Argentina. Now flights to and from Argentina that would normally pass over Venezuela are being routed instead over the Essequibo, a region of Guyana that Venezuela claims as its own. While this is a simple logistics move by the airlines not intended to send any geopolitical message, it threatens to inflame a regional dispute that has at times threatened to become a military conflict. Online, critics of Maduro have taken to posting flight paths of planes to Argentina to demonstrate the emptiness of the regime’s rhetoric about the Essequibo.

This isn’t the only dispute in which Milei has been involved. In an interview with CNN’s Andres Oppenheimer last week, Milei called Gustavo Petro a “murdering terrorist,” referring to the Colombian president’s past as a guerrilla with the M-19 movement. In 1985, the M-19 held hundreds of people hostage in Colombia’s Supreme Court building, leading to more than 100 deaths when security forces stormed the building. Petro was in prison at the time and not involved in that attack. The real-world impact of Milei’s name-calling is that Colombia ordered Argentine diplomats to leave the country. It’s an “own goal” diplomatic failure by Argentina and the dispute will make basic relations between the two countries more difficult. In that same interview, Milei called Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “ignorant.” AMLO, no stranger to insults and media manipulation, has backed Colombia and said he doesn’t understand how Argentines voted for Milei, and now Mexico-Argentina relations could take a hit.

But the name-calling isn’t just about left vs. right.

Without referring to Petro by name, Maduro called out “cowardly leftists” who criticized his government’s decision to ban opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado. Colombia’s critique of Venezuela had been among the weakest in the hemisphere, but Maduro understood that any criticism from Petro was a threat due to the Colombian president’s leftwing credentials. Petro responded to Maduro by referring to “Chavez’s magic,” or the way in which former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tried to change the world by democratic means. Petro’s comment about Chavez was widely criticized in Colombia, where Chavez’s reputation is among the worst in the world given the millions of Venezuelan refugees who have been forced to flee to Colombia. However, on this issue, Petro very well may be playing a smart political hand against Maduro. For the Venezuelan opposition to obtain the sort of super-majority support that will likely be necessary to push for a transition of power in Venezuela, they must win over disaffected Chavistas. While the most hardline opponents of Maduro equally hate Hugo Chavez, there are plenty of Venezuelan voters who dislike Maduro but have a better opinion of the autocrat who died more than 10 years ago, before the country totally collapsed.

That last example of name-calling points to the real damage done by all the ridiculous presidential back-and-forth of recent weeks. The region has serious challenges, including economic development, climate change, and human rights. Among the most urgent at the moment is coordinating a response to the Venezuelan crisis and improving the electoral conditions in the country. Unfortunately, it feels like many of the region’s presidents are too busy insulting each other to effectively respond to the collapse of Venezuelan democracy. Venezuela has made the problem worse, using manipulative rhetoric to drive wedges among presidents in Latin America and between those leaders and their populations.

This sort of rhetorical fight on social media isn’t necessarily new. Almost 20 years ago, before world leaders used Twitter, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood at the podium of the United Nations and called former President George W. Bush “the devil.” Plenty of this hemisphere’s presidents, including former U.S. President Donald Trump and Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, have created internet personas that, like Chavez before them, use rude and undiplomatic language as a way to gain attention and smear their domestic opponents.

Still, the more Latin America presidents engage in such online battles, the worse it is for the region. Having one bombastic autocrat yelling online is annoying. Having multiple presidents fighting with each other as if they’re trying to win a reality show means that governing and cooperation do not occur.

There is a group of countries trying to apply the old internet rule of “don’t feed the trolls” to hemispheric relations. This past week saw a respectable coordinated statement about Venezuela from Latin American countries including Ecuador, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Chile also published criticism of Maduro that was responsible and avoided inflaming the situation. Those statements unfortunately did not get anywhere near the coverage of the Milei-Petro-AMLO feud, and the Maduro regime simply sidestepped the criticisms by focusing on the opponents they preferred. The Maduro regime is incapable of meeting high standards of decorum, but they can try to drag everyone else down to their level, and too many of the region’s presidents are eager to play that game.

***James Bosworth is the founder of Hxagon, a firm that does political risk analysis and bespoke research in emerging and frontier markets. He has two decades of experience analyzing politics, economics and security in Latin America and the Caribbean.





World Politics Review (Argentina)


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