Argentina’s initial enthusiasm for Pope Francis has faded

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — When Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis, many in his homeland celebrated as if he had just won the soccer World Cup. A decade later, the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church was born, divided and less enthusiastic opinions.

Francis, who still loves to listen to tango, left Argentina in February 2013 to attend the conclave that elected him as successor to Benedict XVI on March 13.

“Obviously there are people who are angry with him,” said Argentine journalist Sergio Rubin, who recently co-authored a book about Francis called “El Pastor” with Francesca Ambroghetti. Includes interviews with the Pope.

Rubin and some other analysts agree that the pope is keeping his homeland at arm’s length to avoid being drawn into the political polarization that has divided Argentina over the past two decades.

“Ninety percent of the reason he didn’t come is the division,” said Rubin, writing for the Argentine newspaper Clarin.

Rubin says there are reports from the Holy See’s Foreign Office advising Francis not to set foot in his home country because anything he does could be a “cause of conflict.”

Even without coming to Argentina, Francis found himself at the center of the ongoing fight between those who support the populist policies of Kirchnerism – the Peronist center-left current, led by Vice President and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). ) – and those who support center-right ex-president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019).

In 2016, one photo appeared to show Francis with a blank, almost angry expression when he met then-President Macri, which some read as a sign that he wasn’t happy with the way he was running Argentina. According to analysts, the photo, which quickly went viral, affected Francis’ popularity in his homeland.

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Francis is “a controversial figure, especially among the more conservative sectors of Argentina,” said political advisor Sergio Berensstein.

These segments of society did not “fully understand the change in attitude” of the pope when, in 2013, he took a friendly tone toward then-left-leaning President Fernandez, Bernstein said. This was a marked contrast to the sometimes hostile relationship he maintained with its government while Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The pope’s relationship with Argentine political leaders changed over the years. “He doesn’t talk to some, he still talks to others,” said Bernstein.

The legalization of abortion at the end of 2020 under President Alberto Fernandez marked a turning point after Francis cooled toward the left-leaning president, the latest Peronist leader, Bernstein said.

Some in Argentina have read the pope’s message against the accumulation of wealth leaving many behind, including criticism of “the economic system that continues to ignore souls in the name of the god of money,” as an endorsement of the Peronist movement. It was founded by three-time president Juan Domingo Perón who has social justice as a rallying cry.

Miguel Angel Picito, of the Macri-aligned opposition coalition, recently said the pope’s social views are “absurd for Argentina,” claiming that the pope is “against neoliberalism” and supports “schemes that make merit unimportant, that say private property is a secondary right.”

Far-right lawmaker Javier Milli, who is doing well in this year’s presidential election and who has accused the pope of encouraging communism, recently criticized Francis for saying people should pay taxes to protect the dignity of the poor.

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Milley tweeted to Pope that he was “always on the side of evil.”

A 2019 national poll on religious beliefs in Argentina showed a lack of enthusiasm for Francis when only 27% described the pope as a world leader denouncing injustice. About 40% said they were indifferent to the pope and 27% said he was too involved in politics, according to a poll by the publicly funded CONICET institute.

When Bergoglio was announced as the new pope in 2013, Buenos Aires drivers honked their horns in celebration and people packed the city’s cathedral for a celebratory mass.

Roberto Backmann, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, said Francis’ profile had fallen from a positive rating of 85% in the first years of his tenure as pope to 72% two years ago.

“I was disappointed,” said Maria de los Angeles López, a devout Catholic who believed Argentina’s pope would have a positive influence on the country. There is more poverty, crime, and worse division than ever before. I thought it could help reconcile us as a society, but on the contrary, it lost its depth.”

Those close to Francis said he did not come to Argentina because he had other priorities. His nephew Jose Bergoglio said, “We must understand that the Pope’s mission goes beyond Argentine vanity.”

Journalist Alicia Barrios, a friend of Francis, said the Pope was particularly concerned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “You can imagine he doesn’t have much time for Argentina,” said Barrios. “There are countries that need it more.”

In “El Pastor” the Pope says “it is unfair to say I do not want to go” to Argentina.

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It is also implied that Francis has an eye on his hometown. In an interview this year with the Associated Press, with Alberto Fernandez in power, Francis blamed “bad management and bad policies” for Argentina’s annual inflation rate of nearly 100%, and the poverty rate of nearly 40%.

Francis is also in contact with priests in the favelas, including Father Jose “Pepe” de Paula. Di Paula said Francis is “not far away”, adding that he has a “very good image” in the favelas, where he is “liked”.

Di Paula is among several religious leaders planning an event on Saturday to commemorate the decade of Pope Francis.

Di Paula said that this memory should be “celebrated with Argentine flags, not with political flags, like the World Cup,” recalling how Argentines were united with joy after winning the soccer tournament in Qatar last year. “We went out to celebrate, we hugged anyone regardless of their religion, political party or beliefs. Now it has to be the same, a celebration in the same spirit.”

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