Pope Francis forces Argentine political about-face

Debora Rey/AP Writer

Catholic doctrine considers the pope to be God’s delegate on Earth. That alone might explain the remarkable about-face that Argentina’s populist president Cristina Fernandez and most of her followers have managed to pull off in the days since the cardinal she treated as a political arch-enemy became Pope Francis.

But there are more earthly reasons for her turnaround, factors that have more to do with the dirty and often contradictory Argentine political landscape that Jorge Mario Bergoglio knows so well.

Fernandez had sought to neutralize the Buenos Aires cardinal’s political influence for so long that she and her allies suddenly found themselves out of step with the joy most Argentines have shown at seeing one of their own running the Vatican.

For years, they had labeled him “chief of the opposition” and “accomplice of the dictatorship.” Supporters of the president reportedly even tried lobbying other cardinals to turn against Bergoglio when choosing a new pontiff.

But that was before he became Francis. Now he’s suddenly the pope who shares the same commitment to the poor and dream of a “Patria Grande” (Grand Homeland) that the populist leaders of Latin America have been pursuing. Fernandez announced this herself, after a private lunch at the Vatican with her former foe that had Argentines glued to their TV sets, marveling over the sudden change. “The president made the simple calculation that this confrontation was totally a losing proposition,” and so the government decided to try to co-opt the Argentines’ fervor for their pope, political analyst Claudio Fantini said.

In Argentina’s polarized political universe, which treats everyone as either a friend or enemy of the president, Fantini called this a “Copernican shift,” as if everyone suddenly learned the true center of the solar system.

And Francisco, whose sharp political skills have long been apparent to Argentines, responded with his own highly symbolic gestures.

He invited Fernandez to share his first official audience as pope and then ended speculation in Argentina that he might visit home before October’s congressional elections, which could determine whether she will have enough votes to undo constitutional term limits and keep ruling beyond 2015. The president’s opponents had hoped he would come in July or September, and perhaps push votes their way.

These and other gestures by Francis, 76, sent a signal that when it comes to the populist governments of Latin America, he’ll avoid the kinds of direct confrontations that feed divisive politics, and instead will seek to co-opt them as well, joining forces to help the poorest benefit from society. “Bergoglio is a conservative, but his church career has always been directed toward doing things for the poor,” said Fantini.

At first, Fernandez seemed stunned by the election of Bergoglio, the man whose opposition to gay marriage and adoption she had compared to the Inquisition. On these and other social issues, from providing free contraception to enabling transsexuals to change their official identities on demand to rewriting divorce laws, she had enough votes in congress to ignore his complaints. His frequent homilies urging Argentina’s leaders stamp out corruption and fix societal ills were an annoyance, but not a threat to her political power.

Suddenly, the old man who lived alone in a church office building across the plaza from her government palace had become the world’s the most powerful religious leader.

She delayed congratulating him for more than an hour after his name was announced, and then buried a reference to his selection 40 minutes into an otherwise routine speech that day.

She had refused for years to cross the plaza and meet with him. Now she would have to travel around the world and face him before the cameras.

Activists most loyal to Fernandez and her late husband, President Nestor Kirchner, were even more disoriented. For years, they had shown their annoyance every time Bergoglio criticized society’s ills in a homily, or met with opposing politicians behind closed doors.

But Francis’s election exposed the group’s otherwise well-hidden fissures — and threatened to break it apart.

Kirchnerism includes human rights leaders fiercely critical of the church hierarchy’s failure to openly confront the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and others with close church connections. There are activists for the rights of sexual minorities and the separation of church and state, but also Catholics who are proud members of the same Peronist party that has dominated Argentine politics for generations.

And just as some Kirchnerites were cheering for Bergoglio ahead of the conclave, others were trying to derail his chances.

The Argentine daily El Cronista Comercial reported that some officials even tried to circulate a dossier of allegedly incriminating stories about Bergoglio with cardinals before they entered the conclave.

The Fernandez government denied it, but Bergoglio’s allies described a similar campaign in 2005, when the cardinals were sent anti-Bergoglio emails just as they were preparing to choose John Paul II’s successor. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called it a defamation campaign by a newspaper staffed by the “anti-clerical left.”

Lombardi was aiming at journalist Horacio Verbitzky, who kept publishing allegations in the pro-government Pagina12 daily even after Francis was elected, accusing Bergoglio of provoking the kidnapping of two of his Jesuit priests during the dictatorship.

Verbitzky wasn’t the only Kirchnerite unwilling to conform to the new posture.

National Library director Horacio Gonzalez took the microphone at a meeting of the “Carta Abierta” (Open Letter) group of pro-government intellectuals, called Francis a demagogue and described his election as some kind of global conspiracy.

“Every time he said something, he would shoot at the heart of the government, saying ‘there are poor people and you all are provoking it,'” Gonzalez complained. He called the papal election part of “a project to divert the masses from the political processes that aren’t controlled by the church.”

Most Argentines apparently don’t share such ideas now. A new nationwide poll by Management & Fit found nearly two-thirds have a positive image of Francis.

Meanwhile, other respected figures emerged, vouching for Bergoglio. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel said he’s in no way responsible for human rights violations. Emilio Persico, a leader of the pro-government Evita Movement, proudly recalled that Bergoglio led a mass to pray for the health of Hugo Chavez before the Venezuelan leader’s death.

To help reorient the government’s base of support, posters quickly appeared around Buenos Aires with the image of Francis over the words “Argentine and Peronist.” Another showed the hands of both Fernandez and Francis as she gave him a traditional set for drinking “mate,” an herbal infusion popular in Argentina, during their Vatican encounter. That poster carried the phrase “we share hopes.”

On her return to Argentina, the often-combative Fernandez described the new relationship in almost mystical terms.

“The marvelous thing is to re-encounter each other,” she said. “God made us in his image, but all of us in a different way, so that we have the option of deciding who we want to be. This is the human condition: diversity, plurality, and acceptance.”

Political analyst Ricardo Rouvier put it more cynically: that within Kirchnerism, politics triumphed over ideology.

“The first reactions from this space were ideological: he’s an ally of the dictatorship, a right-wing populist,” he said. Then came a “clearly political presidential reaction: moving rapidly from being perplexed and possibly uncomfortable to joining forces and actively participating” in the Francis phenomenon.