By David Agren
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As archbishop of the Argentine capital, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio clashed with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.
Shortly after being the cardinal was elected pope, however, posters blanketed Buenos Aires proclaiming Pope Francis an “Argentine and Peronist,” with the president’s supporters claiming Pope Francis as one of their own. They said he was part of the Peronist project to which they belong and which has dominated Argentine politics.
“Pope Francis has always been a fellow Peronist,” says Carlos Luque, one of the thousands of government supporters streaming from the Plaza del Congreso after the president delivered a three-hour address to Congress in early March.
Church observers say Pope Francis was at one time an adherent of Peronism, a political movement founded by former President Juan Peron and his wife, Eva Peron. The movement has had strains stretching from left to right on the political spectrum.
“Bergoglio always came across as allied with Peronism. Why? Because Bergoglio probably saw in Peronism a non-Marxist force and sensitive to people’s needs,” says Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Catholic magazine, Criterio.
“In the 1960s, Bergoglio was against the Peronism of the left that ended up in guerrilla movements. He instead stayed closer to a Peronism that was more to the right.”
Then Nestor Kirchner came to power after the political and economic crisis of 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its debts of nearly $100 billion. Supporters speak of both Kirchners’ spending on social programs, students and the poor.
But in the capital, the cardinal expressed suspicions of their populist politics and promotion of patronage groups among the poor. He criticized corruption during the traditional Te Deum Mass, celebrated on the May 25 national holiday and attended by the president.
The Kirchners took the criticism personally and stopped attending. Poirier figures they disliked the pope’s style as much as substance.
“One of the problems for Cristina Kirchner is that she’s not credible,” Poirier says.
“She has a certain charisma and political popularity, but her discourse often changes, and there’s a distance between the enrichment of many ministers and real life,” he adds.
“There’s a discourse that is not accompanied with a lifestyle. One of things that bothered them most about Bergoglio was his austerity.”
But with election of Pope Francis, priests and observers say both sides have made improving the relationship a priority. It’s improved to the point that Fernandez is expected to attend the Te Deum Mass this year, instead of heading for the provinces.
“Bergoglio has seen many people from Argentina now that he’s pope,” said Poirier. “He’s seen many politicians, union leaders, economic directors, and what generally leaks out is that he says: ‘Tend to Cristina. She has to finish her term. Institutions must be looked after. She’s the president.’”