Pope Fran­cis’ pull in pol­i­tics weighs on Macri’s fu­ture

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

BUENOS AIRES | He has ditched the grandeur of the Vat­i­can’s 16th cen­tury Apos­tolic Palace, driven up to the White House in a com­pact Fiat 500 and missed few op­por­tu­ni­ties to defy pa­pal pomp and pro­to­col. But his fel­low Ar­gen­tines know Pope Fran­cis’ care­fully crafted im­age of a hum­ble ser­vant be­lies a smooth op­er­a­tor who con­tin­ues to be a key force in his home­land’s lo­cal pol­i­tics.

Fran­cis’ less-than-cor­dial re­la­tion­ship with cen­ter-right Pres­i­dent Mauri­cio Macri has long fu­eled ru­mors of a “Pero­nist pope,” and weeks be­fore the first phase of a crit­i­cal midterm vote that could make or break Mr. Macri’s fu­ture, the pon­tiff’s every call and com­ment is be­ing scru­ti­nized here for its elec­toral value.

One Macri critic and close per­sonal friend of the pope’s, mean­while, has seem­ingly elim­i­nated the mid­dle­man and, in ef­fect, turned Fran­cis’ writ­ings — which he says call for “so­ci­eties that guar­an­tee land, hous­ing and work for all” — into the cam­paign plat­form for his “Pero­nism for the Com­mon Good” coali­tion.

“We carry the ban­ner … of ‘Laudato si,’ Fran­cis’ so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­cycli­cal, which clearly lays out that it’s time to re­think and move away from sav­age cap­i­tal­ism, trickle-down eco­nom­ics [and] un­tamed con­sumerism,” Gus­tavo Vera told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Mr. Macri, he said, was to blame for job losses, high prices and bru­tal aus­ter­ity mea­sures. Although he con­ceded he could not quite claim a pa­pal en­dorse­ment, Mr. Vera ar­gued the po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences of the pope — who as Car­di­nal Jorge Ber­goglio was the po­lit­i­cally en­gaged arch­bishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013 — were not hard to dis­cern.

“Of course, the pope doesn’t back any ticket; of course, he doesn’t take part in any elec­tion,” Mr. Vera said. “[But] you need only com­pare what the en­cycli­cal says with the poli­cies that cer­tain sec­tors of [Mr. Macri’s] na­tional gov­ern­ment push to no­tice that, clearly, they move in quite a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion from what the pope lays out.”

The pon­tiff’s huge pop­u­lar­ity in Ar­gentina makes such com­ments tricky ter­rain for the pres­i­dent, who, dur­ing his time as Buenos Aires mayor, clashed with Fran­cis and earned a pub­lic re­buke from the fu­ture pon­tiff over his re­fusal to ap­peal a rul­ing le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage in the Ar­gen­tine cap­i­tal.

Their Vat­i­can meet­ings, mean­while, have been short and stiff, and per­ceived pa­pal slights — such as Fran­cis’ hand­writ­ten let­ter to im­pris­oned so­cial ac­tivist and Macri critic Mi­la­gro Sala — have ir­ri­tated the pres­i­dent’s back­ers. The pope’s con­spic­u­ous de­lay of a first visit to his home­land, fi­nally, has only added fuel to ru­mors of bad blood be­tween the men.

The cen­ter-right pres­i­dent’s eco­nomic aus­ter­ity pro­gram and cuts in pop­u­lar sub­si­dies clash with many of Fran­cis’ writ­ings on eco­nom­ics and his skep­ti­cism of mar­kets. For­eign Min­is­ter Su­sana Mal­corra was even moved to deny there was bad blood be­tween the Ar­gen­tine pres­i­dent and the Ar­gen­tineborn pope af­ter meet­ing with Fran­cis in the Vat­i­can in April.

“I never felt that the re­la­tion­ship with the pope was bro­ken, as it has been pub­licly said,” she told re­porters af­ter the pa­pal au­di­ence. “Ar­gentina’s re­la­tion­ship with the pope is spe­cial be­cause we Ar­gen­tines feel that His Ho­li­ness is our own, and my con­ver­sa­tion with him to­day re­con­firmed how much he works for the world, not only for Ar­gentina.”

Although Mr. Macri again in­sisted dur­ing a cam­paign trip last month that Fran­cis was wel­come “when­ever he sees fit,” the pope’s re­fusal to ac­cept that in­vi­ta­tion may play into his hands, said Mar­i­ano de Ve­dia, an an­a­lyst for the La Na­cion news­pa­per and au­thor of two books about the pon­tiff.

“The gov­ern­ment, too, may have rea­sons to pre­fer [Fran­cis] not come be­cause it couldn’t be easy to com­pete with a pope who re­turns to his coun­try and points out out­stand­ing li­a­bil­i­ties,” Mr. de Ve­dia said.

The pope has made fre­quent trips to other Latin Amer­i­can na­tions since his sur­prise elec­tion as the first New World pon­tiff, in­clud­ing Brazil in 2013, Bo­livia, Ecuador and Paraguay in 2014, Cuba in 2015 and Mex­ico in 2016. The Vat­i­can re­cently an­nounced the 80-year-old Fran­cis’ first over­seas trip of 2018 will again be to South Amer­ica — a Jan­uary trip to Chile and Peru.

Needling the gov­ern­ment

Through his net­work of lo­cal in­ter­locu­tors such as Mr. Vera, though, Fran­cis has been able to nee­dle the gov­ern­ment even in his post as bishop of Rome and spir­i­tual leader to the world’s 1.2 bil­lion Catholics.

“The peo­ple who claim a cer­tain affin­ity or close­ness with the pope ev­i­dently have a con­nec­tion; they don’t make it up,” Mr. de Ve­dia said. “[Fran­cis] has a very per­sonal trait of main­tain­ing mul­ti­ple re­la­tion­ships with dif­fer­ent lead­ers in a ra­dial fash­ion. … He’s al­ways con­ducted him­self like this, more so than through in­sti­tu­tional chan­nels. That is, in some way, his per­son­al­ity.”

His per­ceived di­rect line to the Vat­i­can also meant that Mr. Vera at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion when he struck an al­liance with Guillermo Moreno, pop­ulist former Pres­i­dent Cristina Fernandez’s long­time in­te­rior com­merce sec­re­tary, at a time of frosty re­la­tions with thenCar­di­nal Ber­goglio.

Mr. Moreno is a feared and col­or­ful char­ac­ter ru­mored to have kicked off Cab­i­net-level ne­go­ti­a­tions by plac­ing a gun on a ta­ble, a story Mr. Vera dis­missed as a myth. For many Ar­gen­tines, he re­mains a sym­bol of Ms. Fernandez’s au­thor­i­tar­ian and in­flex­i­ble gov­ern­ing style.

His pres­ence on what lo­cal me­dia have dubbed “the pope’s ticket” has ir­ri­tated many who had al­ready per­ceived Fran­cis’ over­tures to­ward Ms. Fernandez in her ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fi­nal years as, vari­ably, in­ex­pli­ca­ble or un­com­fort­able.

“I love my pope, but I dis­agree with that be­cause we re­ally see and have learned of the heavy dam­age [Ms. Fernandez] has caused,” Raquel Ai­mar, a 67-year-old re­tiree from La Pampa prov­ince, said af­ter at­tend­ing Mass on Sat­ur­day at Buenos Aires’ Metropolitan Cathe­dral. “I don’t want to speak ill of the pope, but he [ought to be] every­body’s pope.”

Mr. Vera in­sisted that, un­like Ms. Fernandez and other high-rank­ing of­fi­cials of her ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mr. Moreno has never been tainted by cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions.

“He doesn’t have a sin­gle court case for un­law­ful en­rich­ment,” he said. “He is be­ing ques­tioned over many is­sues, but none have to do with his morals or his wealth.”

Still, the former sec­re­tary’s di­vi­sive legacy il­lus­trates the dan­gers Fran­cis faces by be­ing per­ceived to be get­ting in­volved in the dirt of lo­cal pol­i­tics. And Fran­cis has at times cau­tioned that the pa­pacy ought not to be turned into a po­lit­i­cal punch­line, Mr. de Ve­dia said.

“He of course has an in­ter­est in cer­tain po­lit­i­cal paths and in­du­bitably ex­er­cises in­flu­ence. [And] pre­cisely be­cause he is cog­nizant of that power and that in­flu­ence, he tries to step on the brakes,” Mr. de Ve­dia said. “And maybe that’s one rea­son why he doesn’t come to Ar­gentina.”

Ms. Mal­corra said the pope was cog­nizant not to be seen in­ter­fer­ing in lo­cal pol­i­tics as Ar­gentina gears up for a po­ten­tially di­vi­sive vote.

“The pon­tiff clearly said that he will re­main dis­tant from all this process,” she said in April. “He will not re­ceive any of­fi­cial vis­its un­til af­ter the elec­tions.”

But Ar­gentina’s trou­bled gov­er­nance calls for a break with diplo­matic niceties, and Fran­cis’ blunt­ness is what many Ar­gen­tines love most about “their” pope. Pol­i­tics is the name of the game, said Car­los Fernandez, an­other church­goer, and the pon­tiff has lit­tle choice but to wade into the fray.

“I don’t think it’s bad in a [cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem] as sav­age as the one we have,” said the 61-year-old store owner, echo­ing one of Fran­cis’ key con­cerns. “Pol­i­tics is the only so­lu­tion to our prob­lems. If you don’t do any­thing, will the mar­kets solve the prob­lem for you? Can you or I solve it on our own? I don’t think so.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pope Fran­cis’ less-than-cor­dial re­la­tion­ship with Ar­gen­tine Pres­i­dent Mauri­cio Macri (sec­ond from right) has long fu­eled ru­mors of a “Pero­nist pope,” and weeks be­fore the first phase of a midterm vote that could make or break Mr. Macri’s fu­ture.

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