Explaining and Predicting the Impact of Latin American Leaders’ Attendance at CPAC 2024

The future of cooperation efforts between the U.S. and Latin American attendees of CPAC rely in part on who wins the 2024 U.S. presidential election, which is concerning.


Attendees at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Source: Pete Marovich/NYT.

As conservative activists, politicians, and organizations converge on Washington, DC, for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the spotlight is on Donald Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination, setting the stage for a 2020 election rematch with President Biden. CPAC, once a domestic affair, has gone global, with Latin American leaders like Argentine President Javier Milei and Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele stepping up to the podium. Though few leaders in the region share the views of those attending, many believe that their very presence signals a tacit endorsement of Trump, with possible implications for US elections. The popularity of Bukele, for example, could reflect in the large Salvadoran diaspora in the US, potentially impacting their voting behavior. This highlights a shift in hemispheric policy as ideological relationships seem to take precedence over institutional continuity. This piece dives into the ramifications of such endorsements on US-Latin American relations, revealing a troubling trend that could reshape diplomatic and cooperative efforts across the hemisphere.

What potential impact could the participation of sitting Latin American presidents in the CPAC conference, alongside figures like Donald Trump, have on relations with the US and its neighbors?

Across the political spectrum, Latin Americans have a positive image of the United States, according to a 2023 Latinobarometro survey. This is particularly true in centrist and right-wing circles, with 80 percent of those from Liberal, Christian Democratic, or Nationalist parties viewing the United States somewhat or very favorably. Donald Trump is still unpopular with the Latin American public, but Latin American leaders, including Mexico’s leftist President Andés Manuel López Obrador, have proven they can maintain high approval ratings while embracing the former US president. 

During the Trump administration, personal relationships between leaders played a major role in United States diplomatic ventures in the Americas – though many regard him as protectionist, semi-isolationist, and nationalist. Despite tension during the campaign seasons in the United States and Mexico, President López Obrador developed a good working relationship with President Trump. Together, Trump and López Obrador took a tough stance on Central American migration and while staying out of each other’s domestic policy, even while observers painted them as undemocratic. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández enjoyed positive relationships with the Trump administration as well, demonstrating that alignment with Trump’s policy goals can override corruption allegations and other traditional barriers to positive relations with the United States.

How might the alignment or perceived alignment of Latin American leaders with US political figures influence regional dynamics and alliances?

Right-wing politicians in the Americas are building intra-regional and international networks, but observers point out that there are many differences between those attending the CPAC group. Despite his fondness for the United States, Argentinian President Javier Milei’s free market absolutism contrasts with Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, which can include market interventions when perceived to be in the national interest. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s embrace of Bitcoin as the national currency and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s conditional cash transfer program Auxilio Brasil further demonstrate the diversity of right-wing politicians in the region as leaders incorporate personal beliefs and adjust to the different political realities of their respective countries. 

Despite their diversity, right-wing politicians have used CPAC and international networks to demonstrate their conservative credentials to voters. In the lead-up to the 2023 Argentine elections, former President Mauricio Macri visited Donald Trump to court far-right voters, while Milei attended a CPAC conference in Brazil. In 2022, Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, endorsed Eduardo Verastegui as “the future president of Mexico” at a CPAC conference in Mexico City. This year, organizers hope that the presence of high-profile conservatives from across the hemisphere will encourage Latinos in the United States to vote for Republican candidates this fall. 

Considering the historical significance of CPAC as a conservative platform, what message does the participation of Latin American presidents send to their domestic constituents and to the broader international community?

The presence of prominent Latin American presidents at CPAC may suggest a renewed focus on U.S.-Latin American relationships through shared identity and personal relationships. CPAC could sway hearts and minds across an increasingly conservative diaspora. Mercedes Schlapp, communications specialist and wife of CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, told Telemundo that connecting with the “naturally conservative” Latino community “is a priority for American conservatives.” 

It also posits national conservatism as a serious solution to long-neglected issues in the region. Decades of economic turmoil, corruption, and gang violence have left Latin American constituents jaded about traditional political parties. There’s a strong demand for leaders who make good on their promises. Bukele’s gang crackdown reduced the murders in El Salvador by 70 percent. Milei’s sweeping economic shock measures, which have yet to show results, received domestic and international backing. Bolsonaro supporters claim he “brought the spirit of patriotism and family values back to the people” and continue to deny his election loss. Despite many nations having suffered under right-wing dictatorships, today’s conservative presidents have worked to regain public trust. At CPAC, their actions will be recognized on an international stage.

What precedent does the attendance of Latin American leaders at CPAC set for future interactions and engagements between the US and the region?

Political contacts between Latin American political parties and their international counterparts date back decades. The parties of the left received intellectual and material support from the Soviet Union and later Cuba. Mexico was a particular country of interest for the Soviet Comintern. President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress saw in leaders such as Eduardo Frei Montalva of Chile the possibility of introducing a viable, democratic alternative to the temptations of the Cuban revolution. European party foundations such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation or the Friedrich Ebert Foundation played important roles in the 1980s and 1990s democratic transitions, as did the well known economic prescriptions arising from Washington-based financial institutions, the so-called Washington Consensus.

Today it appears that in terms of international influence in Latin American political parties, the momentum lies firmly on the side of the right-wing, populist-nationalist parties. In this respect, Latin American participation in CPAC follows a long standing tradition, but also appears to suggest how global and common challenges – real or perceived –  are being addressed by like-minded leaders. We can expect that in areas as diverse as immigration, climate change, the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, and sexual diversity, right-wing Latin American leaders will increasingly echo the populist-nationalist narratives being espoused in the Global North.

In what ways could the involvement of Latin American presidents in the CPAC conference impact diplomatic relations and cooperation on global issues between their respective countries and the US?

CPAC will occur the same week that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Milei in Buenos Aires. The White House has avoided addressing similarities between Milei and Donald Trump, even though Milei claimed to have an “almost natural alignment” with Trump. At the same time, Bukele’s participation in CPAC comes after a controversial reelection bid and alleged human rights violation accusations. The presence of both Milei and Bukele at CPAC complicates the Biden administration’s approach to bilateral cooperation efforts with nations if there are real or perceived ties between them and Trump.

Despite ideological differences, there are unifying issues for cooperation for the U.S. under Biden and right-wing-led countries. The Biden administration is open to incorporating Argentina into the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP) initiative. Immigration is one of the top issues for U.S. voters, especially conservative voters, and Bukele has made it a priority to work with the U.S. to stop the emigration of Salvadorans during both the Trump and Biden administrations. The future of cooperation efforts between the U.S. and Latin American attendees of CPAC rely in part on who wins the 2024 U.S. presidential election, which is concerning. While cooperation has traditionally been driven by institutions, agreements, and MOUs, the personalization of diplomacy risks pitting countries against each other ideologically rather than collaborating on shared interests.  

More Commentary

Scroll to Top