Can conservative Latin American populists motivate the Hispanic vote? Republicans are counting on it

OXON HILL, Md. — On a recent evening outside Washington, Argentina’s president had the eyes and ears of a conservative crowd gathered to listen to Donald Trump. In a hoarse voice, Javier Milei shouted “Hola a todos” or “Hello everyone,” before introducing himself as a lion.

“What a beautiful day to make the left tremble,” joked Milei.

His eccentricities may have seemed new to the public, but the far-right populist has become well known among Latinos in the United States since he became president last year. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he was joined by El Salvador’s millennial president, Nayib Bukele, who delighted the crowd with a speech in fluent English in which he mocked philanthropist George Soros and “globalism.”

The Republican Party is joining some Latin American populists as a way to inject star power and the political landscape of immigrants’ homelands into this year’s U.S. elections. After reaching out to Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in South Florida by attacking those countries’ self-proclaimed socialist leaders, GOP leaders are replicating that model by promoting ties between Trump and leaders well known to Hispanic voters in the whole country.

Mercedes Schlapp, Trump’s former White House aide, told Spanish-language news anchors that Democrats have long cherished the Latino vote, but when Trump sought reelection in 2020, he told his strategists to “do everything they can to win the elections. Latino voice.” Schlapp said pursuing popularly elected leaders to join the recent conservative rally is part of that effort.

According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, Salvadorans outnumber Cubans in the U.S. with a population of nearly 2.5 million. The Argentine diaspora is much smaller. But both Bukele and Milei have attracted the attention of immigrants from Latin America as populist counterweights to left-wing strongmen spread across Central and South America.

Jose Aliaga, a Peruvian immigrant who attended CPAC as the Republican leader of a Michigan township, compared Bukele after his speech to Trump, who is nearing his third GOP nomination and a rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

“Bukele not only says the right things, he can also show results,” Aliaga said. “Bukele and Trump have the same message. They want to stop crime, they want to improve the economy, provide more jobs and give everyone a chance to get ahead.

“They both want to rule with an iron fist, but one speaks Spanish and the other English,” he said.

Milei campaigned with a chainsaw as a crutch to campaign for drastic cuts in Argentina and has expressed his admiration for Trump. Milei didn’t bring the chainsaw to CPAC, but when he saw Trump between their speeches, Milei rushed up to Trump and shouted “president!” and gave him a big hug before they posed for the photo. According to a video posted by one of his aides, Trump told him, “Make Argentina Great Again,” referring to Milei’s Trump-inspired campaign slogan.

The day before his visit, Milei met in Buenos Aires with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Biden administration officials. According to one of Milei’s ministers, U.S. Ambassador Marc Stanley, a Texas lawyer and Democratic donor, tried to dissuade Milei from appearing alongside Trump, saying CPAC was a “highly political” event.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Buenos Aires said: “We do not comment on private meetings.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American who has supported Trump, traveled to Argentina’s Casa Rosada last week to meet Milei and asked him to sign a mug with the slogan “No hay plata,” for “There is no money’. which Milei used in his campaign to say that the country will no longer subsidize public programs.

Eduardo Verástegui is a conservative activist who rose to fame in the 1990s as a heartthrob Mexican telenovela and tried to run independently for the presidency of Mexico. He describes Trump as a friend and was invited in 2020 to advise him on Spanish issues.

“It’s unique to have them here during an election year. It could shake up the Hispanic community in the US,” Verástegui said. “I think this could be a turning point.”

Maca Casado, a spokeswoman for Biden’s campaign, criticized Trump’s plan to appeal to Latinos, saying his policies as president and his proposals as candidates are anti-immigrant.

“We are talking about a man who has consistently demonized Latinos for his political gain, who has used his time in office to attack the Latino community, who has even parroted dictators and said immigrants were poisoning the blood of the country,” he said. Casado in a press conference. rack. “Our community knows the truth: Trump’s party doesn’t care about Latinos.”

Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, warned that these leaders are “deliberately antagonizing the White House or committing an easily avoidable diplomatic misstep.”

Bukele was perhaps even more popular at CPAC, with dozens of supporters following his speech Thursday blowing horns and shouting his name.

A Spanish-language journalist from Voz Media, a conservative outlet based in Texas, approached Bukele to ask questions about Biden and Trump. Bukele said the Biden administration was “not interested in working with us.” He said relations between the two countries were “much better” under Trump, but stopped short of voicing his support for Trump. “I leave that up to the people.”

Bukele has become extremely popular in El Salvador, as a result of his war on gangs that has led to 76,000 arrests, and among Salvadorans in the US, who are found in large numbers in California, Texas and New York.

Bukele made a point in his speech to call out the Clinton administration for deporting members of a gang formed in the US by Salvadorans who had emigrated to escape the 1979-1992 civil war. That gang was MS-13, which is often wrongly believed to have been founded in El Salvador.

A Bukele adviser said the leader wanted to speak to conservatives to promote his efforts to turn El Salvador around. Murder rates have fallen sharply and the country has gone from one of the most violent to one of the safest in America.

At a hotel across the street from the venue where conservatives met, two hotel maids knew exactly what time Bukele would show up. They hoped to catch a glimpse of the leader, saying their native El Salvador had changed.

When asked if they were as excited to see Trump, they smiled and shook their heads.


Associated Press writer Patricia Luna in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.