Pope Francis and Peronism: Part II

23rd January 2020

By Amadeo Gandolfo

Pope Francis and Peronism: Part II

With Alberto Fernández in the midst of his first international trip as President and a week before his first visit to Pope Francis, the time is right to continue our deep dive into the relationship between the leader of the Catholic Church and Peronism, Argentina’s largest political movement.

</p> <h2><strong>The Pope divides Kirchnerites</strong></h2> <p>After the 2013 Papal conclave elected Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, a massively influential Argentine figure, as the new Catholic Pope, Kirchnerites rapidly separated into two camps. The first was led by left wing intellectuals such as Horacio Verbitsky, as well as important figures inside the country’s human rights movement such as Estela de Carlotto and Hebe Bonafini. This camp stated that, as Francis, the new Pope would be no different than during his time as Archbishop Bergoglio, a <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2020/01/09/pope-francis-alberto-fernandez-cristina-nestor-kirchner-peronism-argentina-mauricio-macri">known rival</a> of the center-left government, and thus would have to be treated as the head of the opposition. What’s more, many in this camp believed Bergoglio had been somehow involved with the dictatorship-era repression of the 1970s, pointing to his alleged role in the in the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/15/pope-francis-argentina-military-era">disappearance of two priests</a>. (Bonafini and de Carlotto have <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/estela-de-carlotto-fue-un-error-vincular-al-papa-francisco-con-la-dictadura-nid1742007">recanted</a> this position since then, although Verbitsky hasn’t).</p> <p>On the other hand, some Catholic Peronists such as Julián Dominguez (then President of the House of Representatives), Guillermo Moreno and Eduardo Valdés proposed that Bergoglio’s transformation into Pope meant that continuing this enmity would be counterproductive because he was, in effect, the leader of Catholics all around the world.</p> <p><iframe title="Habemus Papam! Pope Francis election on Sky News" width="1333" height="1000" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZfAbTLlewjs?feature=oembed" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe></p> <p>Fernández de Kirchner soon adopted the second point of view. Key in this rapprochement was Valdés, who had been a part of Néstor Kirchner’s administration, working under Rafael Bielsa at the country’s Foreign Ministry. Valdés had been forced to resign after a conflict over a Cuban doctor and dissident, Hilda Molina, who wanted to migrate to Argentina. However, Valdés resumed conversations with Kirchner a few years later and, since 2011, had been close to Fernández de Kirchner.</p> <p>Valdés was also close to Bergoglio since the late 90s, when he proposed to him the idea of a universal income to ameliorate job insecurity, something which Bergoglio liked and took to Pope John Paul II and to the director of the International Labor Organization. When Fernández de Kirchner travelled to the ceremony in which he took office, she travelled with Valdés and Alicia Olivieri, one of the Pope’s best friends. For his role as a bridge builder, Valdés was quickly compensated with the position of Ambassador to the Vatican, which the Senate <a href="https://www.perfil.com/noticias/politica/cristina-nombro-como-embajador-en-el-vaticano-a-un-funcionario-que-echo-nestor-kirchner-20141015-0028.phtml">voted unanimously</a> in October 2014.</p> <img class="wp-image-7375 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/inauguration-300x200.jpg" alt="Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during Pope Francis' inauguration at Vatican City" width="540" height="360" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/inauguration-300x200.jpg 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/inauguration.jpg 594w" sizes="(max-width: 540px) 100vw, 540px" /> <p>The change of heart was reciprocal. From 2014 onwards, Pope Francis took the stance that the government of Fernández de Kirchner had to be propped up. According to multiple media reports, the Pope <a href="https://www.lapoliticaonline.com/nota/78290-preocupado-por-la-crisis-el-papa-francisco-pide-que-ayuden-a-cristina/">feared</a> that polarization, economic fragility and the growing dislike against the government would force Fernández de Kirchner out of office before the end of her term, an institutional crisis he wanted to help avoid.</p> <h2><strong>Cristina, Macri or Massa?</strong></h2> <p>The Pope’s support for Fernández de Kirchner also had to do with the political options of the time. Three major political figures were vying for the country’s leadership: Kirchnerism, led by Fernández de Kirchner; the anti-Peronist camp led by Mauricio Macri, who would go on to win the 2015 elections; and the renegade Peronists led by <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/05/30/who-will-sergio-massa-support-in-the-race-for-president">Sergio Massa</a>, whose figure was on the rise after beating the Fernández de Kirchner’s candidates in the 2013 mid-terms.</p> <p>Despite his rising popularity, Massa was intensely disliked by Francis since his time as Chief of Staff during Fernández de Kirchner’s first term. According to journalist Claudio Mardones, Massa had proposed <a href="http://www.infonews.com/nota/123751/la-foto-con-el-papa-esa-frustracion-que">Jorge O’Reilly</a>, a real estate developer in Massa’s homeland of Tigre municipality, as Ambassador to the Vatican. O’Reilly had ties with the Opus Dei, a right wing faction within Catholicism, and the plan to promote him sought to take advantage of Néstor Kirchner’s enmity with Bergoglio to empower the more conservative factions of the Church in Argentina instead. O’Reilly’s promotion was only the first step in a plan to “promote and remove” Bergoglio from the Archbishopric of Buenos Aires by sending him to Rome as part of Benedict’s administration, a plan that had the support of Héctor Aguer and other conservative Archbishops, as it would neuter Bergoglio’s role in Argentina.</p> <p>Even after becoming Pope, Francis never forgot that alleged conspiracy against him, and to this day Massa has not been able to secure an audience with the head of the Catholic Church, as opposed to most leading Argentine politicians. According to Diego Genoud, Massa’s biographer, Francis calls him “a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74G1HSgQYLA">false prophet</a>”.</p> <p>When it came to Macri, the differences in political vision and style were too many. Macri is a businessman that was never close to a “social view” of politics, and that never made a point of being in close contact with the poor. Pope Francis has still been an important figure for several members of his administration: he was the confessor of former vice-president Gabriela Michetti and Senator Esteban Bullrich, and has fluid contact with former Social Development Minister Carolina Stanley. But there’s also a standing enmity with both Marcos Peña and Jaime Durán Barba, two of Macri’s top allies. Durán Barba, Macri’s “spin doctor”, always underplayed the Pope&#8217;s influence, going as far as saying that his influence “doesn’t even change the mind of ten <a href="https://www.lacapital.com.ar/politica/duran-barba-el-papa-francisco-no-cambia-el-voto-ni-diez-personas-n483369.html">voters</a>,” while Peña was the one who authorized the country’s <a href="https://www.clarin.com/politica/papa-enojos-macri-marcos-pena-duran-barba_0_i8hhnk_Vv.html">first gay marriage</a> in Buenos Aires city.</p> <p>Macri and the Pope also have religious differences. The Pope sees Macri’s Cambiemos coalition as a generally frivolous bunch, and rejects their attraction to <a href="https://www.lapoliticaonline.com/nota/97616-el-papa-quiere-unir-a-los-movimientos-sociales-para-resistir-el-modelo-de-macri/">new age spirituality</a> and other similar trends.</p> <p>With Fernández de Kirchner, the Pope could find more common ground. First, there was abortion, which they both opposed. The two also agreed on crime policies, a hot-button issue for the tough-on-crime Massa back in 2014. The Pope is a strong believer in reformation and recuperation, close to the majoritarian position within Kirchnerism, which holds that social factors are the underlying explanation for crime. Francis supported a penal law reform that had been spearheaded by ex-Supreme Court Judge Eugenio Zaffaroni in 2014, which took this view, in direct opposition to Massa. Finally, the social aid initiatives launched during Fernández de Kirchner’s first term were also in line with Francis’ option for the poor.</p> <p>Still, Bergoglio was always hard to pin down politically, and as a Pope he continued to be independent of party politics. His closeness with Kirchnerism was not universal, and he campaigned against Fernández de Kirchner’s protégé in the crucial Buenos Aires province gubernatorial race of 2015. The Church criticized the Kirchnerite gubernatorial hopeful Aníbal Fernández (no relation with current president Alberto, nor with Fernández de Kirchner)  due to his support for <a href="https://www.clarin.com/politica/papa-francisco-gustavo-vera-anibal-fernandez_0_SyTXmVKPQg.html">drug decriminalization</a>, and close allies of the Pope even said that his government would turn a blind eye to <a href="https://www.cronista.com/economiapolitica/Anibal-Fernandez-sale-a-responderle-al-Papa-Argentina-no-es-un-pais-de-consumo-de-droga-20150310-0077.html">drug trafficking</a>, at a time in which Fernández was fighting allegations of ties with the criminal underworld.</p> <h2><strong>Alberto and the Pope</strong></h2> <p>As for President Alberto Fernández, there are several points of contact between the Pope and the current administration. First of all, there’s the support of <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/11/28/whos-who-on-alberto-fernandezs-new-ruling-coalition-kirchnerites-peronist-governors-unions-massa-social-movements">social organizations</a>, which group informal and unemployed workers, for Fernández’s governing coalition. An example of this is Emilio Pérsico, from the Evita Movement, who now <a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/236060-gabinete-de-fernandez-desarrollo-social-suma-a-movimientos-s">handles the Secretariat of Social Economy</a>, and has close ties with Francis.</p> <p>Another example is Caritas, the Catholic Church’s relief and social service organization, which is expected to play a big part in the National Council Against Hunger that Fernández proposed as a way to combat rising food prices and speculation. Monsignor Carlos Tissera, head of Caritas, has expressed a <a href="https://www.infobae.com/sociedad/2019/12/22/monsenor-carlos-tissera-presidente-de-caritas-con-el-hambre-hay-que-hacer-un-nunca-mas/">confluence of views with Fernández</a> concerning the issue.</p> <p>Some even go as far saying that <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/2dc9b652-c063-11e9-b350-db00d509634e">Francis drove the reconciliation between Fernández de Kirchner and Alberto Fernández</a>, with the explicit aim of taking Macri out of office. This would be another case of Francis acting as a Peronist, vying for a unity to take the movement out of the doldrums following the 2017 mid-term election defeat.</p> <p>But the relationship will be a challenging one. Fernández is a strong proponent of civil liberties, which include not only LGTB+ rights but also abortion. Before he took office, he said that an abortion bill would be one of the first to be sent for congressional approval. The move seemed to be supported by Valdés, who stated that the Pope “<a href="https://www.perfil.com/noticias/politica/eduardo-valdes-el-aborto-va-a-ser-legal-y-el-papa-francisco-lo-va-a-entender.phtml">would understand</a>”. But the Archbishop of La Plata, Víctor “Tucho” Fernández, one of the closest allies of Pope Francis in Argentina, whom his biographer Ignacio Zuleta even signals as his ghost-writer, came out strongly against getting into a discussion that “<a href="https://www.infobae.com/politica/2019/11/20/despenalizacion-del-aborto-la-riesgosa-apuesta-de-alberto-fernandez-para-construir-y-perfilar-su-poder/">divides Argentinians</a>”.</p> <p>This might be the most contentious topic of Fernández’s first visit to the Pope <a href="https://www.infobae.com/politica/2020/01/14/el-papa-francisco-recibira-al-presidente-alberto-fernandez-el-31-de-enero-en-el-vaticano/">next week</a>. Will Peronism’s fame as a party of political tightrope walkers manage to keep both the Church and the rising Argentine feminist movement as allies? Or is conflict between hard-to-reconcile factions waiting around the corner? We’ll surely begin to know soon.</p> <p>

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Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is an historian, journalist and researcher. He has worked at the CONICET (National Council For Scientific and Technical Research), writes at the Revista Crisis magazine and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires.