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

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — On a recent evening outside Washington, the president of Argentina had the eyes and ears of a conservative crowd that had gathered to listen to Donald Trump. In a raspy voice, Javier Milei called out, “Hola a todos,” or “Hello, everyone,” before introducing himself as a lion.

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

His eccentrics may have seemed novel to those in the crowd, but the far-right populist has become well-known among Latinos in the United States since winning the presidency last year. He was joined at the Conservative Political Action Conference by El Salvador’s millennial president, Nayib Bukele, who delighted the crowd with a speech in fluent English deriding philanthropist George Soros and “globalism.”

The Republican Party is aligning with some Latin American populists as a way of injecting star power and the political landscape of immigrants’ home countries into this year’s U.S. election. Having made inroads with Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in South Florida by attacking the self-declared socialist leaders of those countries, GOP leaders are replicating that model by promoting ties between Trump and leaders who are well known by Spanish-speaking voters across the country.

Mercedes Schlapp, a former Trump White House aide, told Spanish-language newscasters that Democrats have been nurturing the Latino vote for a long time, but when Trump was seeking reelection in 2020, he told his strategists to “do whatever you can to get the Latino vote.” Schlapp said that pursuing the popular elected leaders to join the recent conservative gathering is part of that effort.

At nearly 2.5 million people, Salvadorans outnumber Cubans in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center. The Argentine diaspora is much smaller. But both Bukele and Milei have grabbed the attention of immigrants from Latin America as populist counterweights to the leftist strongmen scattered across Central and South America.

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

“Not only does Bukele say all the right things, he has results to show,” Aliaga said. “Bukele and Trump have the same message. They want to stop crime, they want to improve the economy, offer more jobs and give everyone the opportunity to get ahead.

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

Milei campaigned with a chainsaw as his prop to campaign on drastic cuts in Argentina and has declared his admiration for Trump. Milei didn’t bring the chainsaw to CPAC, but when he saw Trump between their speeches, Milei rushed to Trump screaming “president!” and gave him a close hug before they posed for pictures. According to a video posted by one of his aides, Trump told him, “Make Argentina Great Again,” referencing 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 “very political” event.

The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires said, “We make no comments on private meetings.”

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

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

“Having them here on an election year is unique. It can awaken the Hispanic community in the U.S.,” 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 proposals as candidates are anti-immigrant.

“We are talking about a man who has consistently demonized Latinos for his political gain, who 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,” Casado said in a statement. “Our community knows the truth: The party of Trump doesn’t give a damn about Latinos.”

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

Bukele was perhaps even more popular at CPAC, followed by dozens of supporters after his speech Thursday who were 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 “has not been interested in working with us.” He said the relations between the two countries under Trump were “much better,” but he stopped short of throwing his support for Trump. “I leave that to the people.”

Bukele has become massively popular in El Salvador, as a result of his war on gangs that has led to 76,000 detentions, and among Salvadorans in the U.S., who can be 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 that was formed in the U.S. by Salvadorans who had immigrated escaping the 1979-1992 civil war. That gang was MS-13, which is often misunderstood as having been founded in El Salvador.

A Bukele adviser said the leader wanted to come to speak to conservatives to promote his efforts to turn around El Salvador. Homicide rates have fallen sharply and the country went from being one of the most violent to one of the safest in the Americas.

In a hotel right across the venue where conservatives met, two hotel maids knew exactly the time Bukele was set to appear and were hoping to catch a glimpse of the leader, saying their native El Salvador had changed.

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

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

Adriana Gomez Licon, The Associated Press




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