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Argentina's Milei trades barbs with Mexican and Colombian leaders, ratcheting up tensions

BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Mudslinging between Latin American populist leaders dragged on Thursday, after days of Argentina’s President Javier Milei needling his leftist counterparts in Mexico and Colombia — coming to a head with a diplomatic blow the night before.

Since right-wing Milei stepped into the political spotlight last year, he has regularly traded barbs with Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But in recent days the political rivalry descended into long winded insults launched over social media.

It heated up after Milei lashed out at Petro in an interview with CNN, excerpts of which aired Wednesday night, prompting his Colombian counterpart to order Argentine diplomats out of his country.

“Not much can be expected from someone who was a terrorist murderer,” Milei said in one excerpt, a reference to Petro's past as a member of a guerrilla group. CNN's full interview is scheduled to air Sunday.

Milei and Petro harbor opposite political and economic ideologies. Petro won the presidency with pledges to create social programs to aid Colombia's long-neglected poor, while Milei — a self-described anarcho-capitalist — promised to slash government spending while eliminating ministries and costly programs as a means to rein in triple-digit inflation. He even toted a chainsaw on the campaign trail to illustrate just how aggressive were his intended cuts.

What the two have in common is a combativeness underpinning what each portrays as a righteous quest to fix his nation’s long-standing trouble. It comes at a time when many Latin American voters have sought to cast out the political establishment in favor of promises of radical change.

Colombia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday night that they were expelling Argentine diplomats because Milei’s recent attacks have “deteriorated the confidence of our nation, in addition to offending the dignity of the president.” Officials did not clarify who would be subject to the announced expulsions.

Milei previously called Petro “a murderous communist” who is sinking his country, and referred to socialists as “human excrement”. Petro responded on his social media channels that “this is what Hitler said.”

“Both of them are pandering to the crowd,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogota-based think tank. "They're essentially in a pissing match – who is a more right-wing and who is a more left-wing president.”

In the same interview with CNN that fueled tensions with Petro, Milei also took shots at Mexico's president, calling him an “ignorant.”

López Obrador, a Petro ally and Milei critic, jumped to Petro’s defense, writing on social media that “I still do not understand how the Argentines, being so intelligent” elected someone like Milei.

Brian Winter, vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas, said the back-and-forth between Latin American leaders could have longer-term repercussions on regional relations.

“Latin America has a long tradition of these food fights between leaders on the left and the right,” said Winter, noting historic rifts between Jair Bolsonaro and Alberto Fernández, former presidents of Brazil and Argentina that are the biggest nations in the Mercosur trade bloc but who still refused to speak.

“If we could see better cooperation between countries in Latin America, there would be a better payoff for the region's people, but this ideological divide runs deep. It reflects polarization not just within countries, but among them," Winter said.

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