Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Franciscan Ways

Martin Gambarotta’s weekly ‘Politics & Labour’ column in the Buenos Aires Herald is the best English-language guide to Argentine politics. I miss the days when the superb exchange rate allowed me to subscribe to the Saturday Herald, and I could read the eternal soap-opera antics of the republic while safely ensconced abroad. Here, he analyses the election of Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope through the lens of Argentine politics.

If God is an Argentine then, apparently, the pope is a Peronist. At least that, “a Peronist,” is how much of the local press has chosen to describe Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who on Wednesday was elected pope and took the name of Francis.


Bergoglio is a son of Buenos Aires. If you happened to stroll through Plaza de Mayo on any given day you could sometimes see Bergoglio preaching to his flock from the steps of the Buenos Aires Cathedral while life went on around him.

Plaza de Mayo has always been a historic place. Now visitors will want to take another look at the cathedral, which for years was the headquarters of who is now Pope Francis.

If Bergoglio’s appointment has redefined the way in which you will look at a building then imagine the effect it will have on the nation’s volatile politics.

Resident of Buenos Aires (aka porteño), now you know what global attention feels like.

The minute Bergoglio’s election was announced the telephones in newsrooms started to ring. The questions made by reporters, mostly from radio stations from abroad wanting to grab a comment live from Buenos Aires, were straight and simple.

Were the people of Buenos Aires celebrating? Not immediately, no. The news took a long time sinking in. Was Bergoglio a conservative or a reformer? A bit of both really. Bergoglio opposed the same-sex marriage law approved by Congress in 2010 with the support of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Victory Front. But he has also said that children born to single women should not be denied baptism and has devoted time to working with the poor in the city’s sprawling slums.

The experts covering religious news were soon to take over. But at that point, almost seconds after the world knew it had a new pope from Argentina, what the international press wanted was a first impression of the man.

The story, as you know, never stopped until it reached the cover of Time magazine.

Cardinals, Pope Francis told the Vatican crowd on Wednesday night, had gone to “the end of the world” to find a bishop for Rome. The “New World” pope is what Time called Francis.

Immediately after the name of the pope was uttered in Latin one reporter from Canada telephoned and asked what the news meant for Latin America.

Well, Latin America is now a vibrant place with an economy that until not so long was booming. Maybe, possibly, Catholicism is more vibrantly alive in the Americas than it is in Europe?

The Bergoglio story, before you can start to comprehend the domestic political implications of it, is also about Buenos Aires. Bergoglio is a reader of the great porteño writer Jorge Luis Borges, who also cultivated a low profile. Bergoglio is a supporter of the soccer club San Lorenzo, which was founded by a priest. Bergoglio chats in the morning with the newsvendor where he gets his newspapers from.

There used to be a time when soccer was so much about Buenos Aires that the city’s metropolitan league championship was followed by the entire nation. Bergoglio is from Flores, a working-class neighbourhood tucked away far from the main beat that tourists walk when they visit. Flores is just as mysteriously beautiful, if grittier, as Borges’ Palermo neighbourhood. To make it more attractive Flores (not Palermo) is now the home of the acclaimed contemporary Argentine writer César Aira.

That would basically be the Bergoglio story as the glossy magazines would like to tell it. But move on from San Lorenzo, Flores, and Bergoglio’s almost Borgesian outlook and what you get is a darker, more complex story to tell.

That takes things back to the astonishing fact that much of the national press has chosen to describe Bergoglio as a Peronist. Why would the press choose to highlight that aspect of Bergoglio at a time when more simply he is an Argentine about to be anointed as the head of the Vatican state? Who knows. But a “Peronist” is what Bergoglio is being called.

One story in the opposition newspaper Clarín said that Bergoglio in the seventies was attracted by the centre-right Peronist faction Guardia de Hierro. Many Peronist factions in the seventies turned left and embraced socialism. Many priests also turned left and embraced the Liberation Theology. But, if you read between the lines, what the newspapers are trying to tell you is that Bergoglio embraced the more orthodox kind of Peronism that did not take up arms in the name of socialism.

The glossy magazines will also not cover the other thorny issues like allegations that Bergoglio did nothing to protect two Jesuit priests working in a slum that were abducted by the military in the seventies. The Vatican on Friday denied the allegations that Bergoglio had kept silent during the last military dictatorship and accused the “anti-clerical left” of leading a slander campaign (meaning presumably the pro-government newspaper Página/12).

Even without the bewildering “Peronist” factor in the story Bergoglio’s appointment was always going to be politicized here. Bergoglio’s past shows that he has always had an interest in politics and he has met in private with many of the country’s leading politicians.

Bergoglio clashed both with Fernández de Kirchner and Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO, over same-sex marriage. Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner placed themselves to the left of Argentina’s Catholic Church when they rose to power in 2003. The Kirchners’ liked to highlight their past as leftwing Peronist activists in the seventies. Symbolically, this made them completely different political creatures than Bergoglio (if you take all the talk about the new pope’s Peronist rightwing past seriously).

While the Kirchners chose to play a bruising style of politics at breakneck speed, Bergoglio was more prone to cultivating a calculated moderation to put across his ideas. Bergoglio has confirmed that he had taken the name of Francis after St Francis of Assisi. The most immediate message in taking that name is, as the pope put it yesterday, to champion “a Church for the poor.” But Francis of Assisi was also about avoiding direct confrontation at all costs without ever betraying his beliefs.

Bergoglio’s election as pope is the ultimate last-minute triumph using a Franciscan approach to politics (to the point that he will replace a resigning pontiff who is still alive).

There was a lot of subtext attached to the way the Kirchners and Bergoglio interacted. The Kirchners did not think much of the Catholic Church wanting to interfere in the affairs of the state. The Kirchners backed same-sex marriage. Yet Fernández de Kirchner still calls herself very much a Catholic and has stopped short of sponsoring laws to fully legalize abortion. When her government introduced child benefit for poor families Fernández de Kirchner decided that pregnant women should also collect the payment in what she described as “a decision in favour of life.”

The President on Wednesday sent Pope Francis a letter of congratulations. Then on Wednesday night, speaking to supporters at the Tecnópolis science fair, she again congratulated the pope and urged him to work in favour of the poor and send the message to the world’s powerful nations that they should accept dialogue to solve problems. Fernández de Kirchner spoke about the pope to mild jeering by some of her supporters. Many Kirchnerites expressed disappointment about the election on Twitter. But there are signs that Fernández de Kirchner is trying to reach out to the new pontiff.

On Thursday night the ultraKirchnerite lieutenant governor Gabriel Mariotto, described a personal friend of Pope Francis, was dispatched to a state-run television show and showered praise on the new pontiff calling a priest of the “Third World” who had a “Peronist” concept of life.

Bergoglio’s victory, in true Franciscan style, has come at a time when he looked defeated. His efforts to battle the same-sex marriage law in Argentina had failed even to win over a centre-right conservative like Macri. The dialogue and moderation he preached also fell on deaf ears as the nation’s polarization increased.

Will the nation’s bickerers be forced by the circumstances to behave themselves? Bergoglio’s transformation into Pope Francis is likely to revitalize the Argentine Church, which is still trying to recover from accusations that its hierarchy supported the atrocious crimes committed during the last military dictatorship. Politicians in general will have a more difficult time in arguing with each other. The President’s official delegation to the Vatican includes the Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti. Fernández de Kirchner announced to Congress on March 1 a plan to reform the justice system in what many observers see as a move to curtail the power of the independent Supreme Court. Yet now the President and the Supreme Court have no choice but to travel together to attend the installment of Pope Francis.

The Vatican has also announced that Pope Francis will meet with the President on Monday. How will that meeting go down with those who are fiercely critical of Fernández de Kirchner to the point that they want to see her out of office as soon as possible? It’s not difficult to predict that Fernández de Kirchner will not be turned away by Pope Francis if she seeks to mend fences. There’s many ways of looking at Bergoglio’s triumph. But the immediate effect of walking past that old cathedral in Plaza de Mayo is now simply a sobering one.

This post was published on Monday, March 18th, 2013 9:00 pm. It has been categorised under Church Pope Francis and been tagged under , , , .
K. Dontoh
18 Mar 2013 9:45 pm

But aren’t they, nominally more or less, all Peronists over in Argentina?

Andrew Cusack
18 Mar 2013 9:58 pm

Definitely not. Peron is a massively divisive figure, as is peronismo in its wide variety of shapes, forms, and incarnations.

L Gaylord Clark
19 Mar 2013 2:35 pm

It pleases me that most of these Argentinian commentaries describe him as a “right-wing” rather than a “left wing” Peronist.
Mr Cusack, are you able to enlighten us as to what this distinction might mean?

K. Dontoh
20 Mar 2013 9:51 pm

Very interesting, Andrew. I had been under the impression that the only reason Argentine elections were even remotely competitive was because the Justicialist Party was divided into multiple factions.

Andrew Cusack
21 Mar 2013 12:08 am

Mr Clark: To put it in overly simplistic terms, Peron’s first period of rule was a semi-kleptocratic anti-oligarchic populist regime built upon, and expanding out of, the labour unions and (of course) elements of the military.

Then, in 1955, Peron was forced out of power and went into exile. During that time, factions combined and realigned according to their general position relative to Peron. The general who overthrew Peron was considered too much of a gradualist in his anti-Peronism, and was overthrown himself by more hardcore anti-Peronists. Then, a year later, a faction of moderates in the army decided to combine with a faction of Peronists in the army to attempt a counter-coup, which failed miserably, but convinced the die-hard anti-Peronists that they needed to be more brutal.

Eventually, the ruling faction in the military (and thus the country) decided the best way of countering Peron would be to transfer the country to democratic civilian rule with the sole proviso that Peron would not be able to run and nor would Peronists candidates be allowed. Peron exerted his influence by telling his supporters to vote for this or that candidate, or to boycott the elections varyingly.

This civilian period was inevitably replaced by another military dictatorship, and from abroad Peron began cultivating links with everyone opposed to it and many within it. He masterfully courted far-leftists, guerrillas, university students (whom he had severely oppressed while in power), conservatives, the far-right, Catholics, Marxists, nationalists, just about everybody.

The military again decided to give up power, hoping to create a broad agreement for civilian rule minus Peron, but they gave up and allowed free and fair elections. In the campaign, left-wing Peronists dominated the Peronist movement, but once Peron actually returned to Argentina, it was clear that right-wing Peronists were in the ascendent. Tensions within Peronism grew, and the far-left assassinated a moderate conservative leader of the CGT (the main trade union, and Peronist through and through), which escalated into open violence between the various Peronist groups, as well as others.

Then Peron died, which was exceptionally inconsiderate of him, and… well, it goes on and on.

Reality is much more complex than what I have sketched here, but right-wing Peronism dominated the Partido Justicialista (as the Peronist party is known) during the 1990s when Menem was President of Argentina, and then the Kirchners slowly took over the party through the Frente para la Victoria, and now the PJ is dominated by the left.

Andrew Cusack
21 Mar 2013 12:12 am

None of which, I realise, particularly answers your question, Mr Clark, but oh well — Argentina is a very complex society.

L Gaylord Clark
21 Mar 2013 9:44 am

But you have indeed answered my question Mr Cusack: we know that Bergoglio got along well with Menem and not at all with the hateful Kirchners. Menem was recognisably Catholic (if not faultless) and was concerned to reconcile Right and Left by refusing to dwell on the past. The Kirchners have made a career of demonising the Right and putting 90 year od generals into prison. Bergoglio supported the former policy as any Christian should. Apparently this makes him a “Rightist” Peronist.
An interesting man, who will make the international (and particularly Catholic) Left far less happy with him than they seem to be now.

Andrew Cusack
21 Mar 2013 10:45 am

Yes, well I suspect the then-Archbishop would have had qualms with some aspects of Menem’s rule. I would be surprised if Bergoglio didn’t hesitate in opposing some of Menem’s economic policies, such as the president’s hyper-privatisation programme.

Menem even sold off the country’s natural resources, most prominently YPF the state petroleum and natural gas company. It was sold to a Spanish company which used it as a cash cow, collecting its revenue while refusing any inward investment and neglecting necessary modernisations. As a result, it has now been re-nationalised by Mrs Kirchner, which causes nearly as many problems as it solves. The lesson: keep your natural resources in your country’s hands in the first place!

Menem, for his part, has told the press that he thinks the election of Bergoglio is “a gift from God for the Church and for Argentina” and has spoken very warmly of the Archbishop’s election.

Andrew Cusack
21 Mar 2013 10:53 am

Part of Menem’s particular genius was that, once elected, he head-hunted talent from the Unión del Centro Democrático, one of the few relatively successful explicitly conservative political parties in recent Argentine history.

The flight of UCeDe leaders into the (PJ) Menem administration meant that the liberal-conservative economic policies of the UCeDe were put into effect at the expense of the party losing credibility and its support base flocking to the Partido Justicialista.

Menem, while not a statesman, was a very talented politician. Trying to get the country to move on instead of dwelling on and obsessing with the black nihilism of the Proceso years (1976-1983) was one of his finer aspects, whatever his motivation may have been.

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