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. And though he conceded he could not quite claim a papal endorsement, he argued the political preferences of the pope — who as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was the very politically engaged archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013 — were not that 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 very 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 jailed 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’ own 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 Argentine 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.
Strikingly, 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 like Mr. Vera, though, Francis has been able to needle the government even in his new 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, meanwhile, 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 then-Cardinal 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,” said Raquel Aimar, a 67-year-old retiree from La Pampa province after attending Mass at Buenos Aires’ Metropolitan Cathedral on Saturday. “I don’t want to speak ill of the pope, but he [ought to be] everybody’s pope.”
Mr. Vera, for his part, 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 punch line, 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, adding, “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,” the 61-year-old store owner said, 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.”