New Political Reality in Pope’s Native Country

NEWS ANALYSIS: Argentinian journalist Jorge Rouillon assesses the triangular relationship between Pope Francis and the country’s incoming and outgoing presidents.

Nestor and Cristina Kirchner meet with Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, in 2004 in Buenos Aires.
Nestor and Cristina Kirchner meet with Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, in 2004 in Buenos Aires. (photo: GDA via AP Images)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Mauricio Macri became the new president of Argentina on Dec. 10, succeeding Cristina Fernández Kirchner, who ceased holding the political office. The relationship between the two was so tense that they did not meet face-to-face as political power was exchanged in Pope Francis’ native country.

In fact, Macri’s accession to the presidency is the most recent development in the complex triangular relationship among the trio of famous Argentinians.

Macri took the oath in Congress, then went to the Pink House, or Government House, where the provisional leader of the senate officially handed him the emblems of power, with the chief justice of Argentina at his side. Several South-American presidents and the king of Spain were in attendance.

The Pink House is in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, an iconic square that is highly symbolic for Argentina. There, the locals met when the first autonomous Argentine government was formed in May 1810. It was there that a mass of workers demanded the freedom of their arrested political leader, Col. Juan Perón, in 1945; he was elected president the following year and ruled until he was ousted by the military in 1955. And from 1977 on, the mothers of Plaza de Mayo perseveringly cried out for their “disappeared” children.

And there, in the last decade, a triangular game — of political, symbolic, economic and spiritual power — was played out by Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio (1998-2013), now Pope Francis; the couple Néstor (president 2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner (elected in 2007 and 2011); and Mauricio Macri, mayor of Buenos Aires (2007-2015).

Three landmarks face this historic plaza: the Pink House, the cathedral and chancery of the Buenos Aires Archdiocese and city hall. Although separated from each other by only 500 feet, communication among the highest occupants of the three has not been fluid recently. At times, a certain distance has been kept; and on occasion, they’ve even collided.


Néstor Kirchner

When Néstor Kirchner took office, the country was returning to stability after the grave economic and social crisis of 2001. Cardinal Bergoglio presided over the thanksgiving ceremony — Te Deum — in the Metropolitan Cathedral on May 25, 2003. In the following year’s Te Deum remarks, the cardinal criticized “those who find themselves so included that they exclude the others, so clear-sighted that they have become blind,” and he reflected on intolerance.

So Kirchner decided to no longer attend a Te Deum officiated by Cardinal Bergoglio; and in the following years, he went to similar ceremonies in different provincial cities; his wife continued that tradition when she became president. Néstor and the cardinal did not see each other again, except in 2006 at a religious ceremony for three Pallotine priests and two Pallotine seminarians killed in 1976 during the military dictatorship. The archbishop invited the president to attend on that 30th-anniversary occasion. That event, coordinated by the Community of Sant’Egidio, also honored Christians killed under communism, Nazism and other totalitarian regimes, as well as during the Spanish civil war and the Mexican Cristero War.

Néstor Kirchner let it be known at least once that he saw Cardinal Bergoglio as the leader of the opposition. “To consider me an opponent seems to me to be a manifestation of misinformation,” the cardinal told journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin in their book-long interview when Kirchner was alive. And he added that people knew “my effort and that of the whole Church to build bridges, but with dignity.”

Yet more than once signs of government sympathizers reviled the cardinal, and some declarations made by politicians or articles written by journalists close to the government did so, too.


Cristina Kirchner

In fact, when Cardinal Bergoglio became pope on March 13, 2013, President Cristina Kirchner (whose husband died of a heart attack in 2010) did not rejoice. At the tail end of a long speech, she mentioned in passing that a “Latin-American” pope had been elected, not using the adjective “Argentinian,” nor calling him by his name — and yet giving him advice.

Also at that time, government legislators refused to congratulate the new pope, and some prominent voices linked to the government — among them, Estela Carlotto, the head of the “Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo,” who, nevertheless, a month later would travel to St. Peter’s Square — accused him of being a dark figure of the Church.

But a few days later, realizing there was generalized jubilation in the country due to the election of the Argentinian pope — who as archbishop had taken the subway as merely one more passenger and had frequently visited Buenos Aires’ slums — the government and its allies changed their tune. Presidenta Kirchner, for whom .12 miles seemed too long a distance to go to visit Cardinal Bergoglio, traveled thousands of miles on several occasions to see Pope Francis, who received her pleasantly, without alluding to previous snubs or differences of opinion.

She journeyed seven times to see the Pope. Four audiences took place in Rome and three in Latin America: The latter were informal, non-exclusive meetings on occasion of papal visits to Brazil for World Youth Day 2013 and to Paraguay and Cuba this year.

Cristina was nervous at her first meeting with Francis, held five days after his election. Not so a year later, on March 17, 2014, at a private and friendly Vatican encounter, where they had lunch and talked for four hours.

On Sept. 19, 2014, Francis again received Cristina at his St. Martha residence. And on June 7, 2015, she was received by the Holy Father in the audience room of the Paul VI hall in a more formal style.

When, in July 2013, Cristina went with other heads of state to Rio’s World Youth Day, she took her party’s candidate for first deputy for the Buenos Aires province, Martín Insaurralde, with her. It was two weeks before the election primaries, and the photograph of both politicians with the Pope was reproduced on thousands of posters. Despite that marketing, Insaurralde lost. On that occasion, Pope Francis, always attentive to details of affection and courtesy, gifted Cristina with little white shoes and socks for her newborn grandson. He had similar warm gestures for the little daughter of Mauricio Macri, when Macri greeted the Pope that same year at the Vatican.



The Bergoglio-Macri relationship in Buenos Aires was probably more fluid: Macri often attended the Masses for educators that the cardinal celebrated each year in the cathedral; and more than once they were together at events with students in Plaza de Mayo. Yet there was friction, too.

Once, Macri walked past the columns of the cathedral to visit then-Archbishop Bergoglio to try to explain to him why he had not appealed a homosexual civil marriage that had been authorized by a city magistrate when there was, as yet, no national law approving it. Macri’s explanation did not satisfy the cardinal, and much less did he like the official version of that meeting made known by city hall. Archbishop Bergoglio said at the time that Macri “gravely failed in his duty as ruler.” (Since 1994, the mayor of the “autonomous” city of Buenos Aires is called the chief of government of the 3 million-strong city; a constitutional amendment made it a first-level district, together with 23 provinces. Before then, the mayor was appointed by the Argentinian president.)

In other difficult topics, such as abortion, the position of the movement that has just won the national elections — with 51% of the vote in a second round, against the candidate of the party of the Kirchners — is not clear, and it respects personal-conscience positions. An adviser of Macri, Ecuadorian pollster Jaime Durán Barba, said the day before the election that any woman who would like to have an abortion could do so and minimized the value of what the Pope says on the subject — a comment which upset many Macri sympathizers.

Macri then distanced himself from his adviser, expressed his respect for Francis and pointed out that, personally, he is pro-life. But a few years earlier, in October 2012, he said the first legal abortion would take place in the autonomous city of Buenos Aires. “She is a 32-year-old woman, in a case that has gone through all legal instances,” he declared.

Even though Mrs. Kirchner had dissuaded her legislators from supporting abortion bills that they wished to introduce, in 2012, a Supreme Court decision gave a wide interpretation to the legality of abortion. It was a decision of questionable constitutional validity. Cristina’s last health minister established a protocol for public hospitals that allows abortion in the case of rape, even if the latter is not reported by the woman to the police. In fact, it is a weak measure that can be easily taken to court because it establishes practical administrative guidelines that cannot have the force of law or go against the current law.

The runoff, held Nov. 22, gave 51% of the votes to Macri and 49% to Daniel Scioli, a moderate Peronist. When Scioli admitted electoral defeat, he twice asked God to enlighten winner Macri. The latter, a graduate of a Christian Brothers’ school, wealthy businessman and former head of the soccer club Boca Juniors, also invoked God that night, asking him to illuminate him in his presidency.

This background of transcendence continues to be present in top-tier leaders in a nation where — over and above social behavior, corruption and much irregular conduct — faith continues to have force and is present in the collective vision and in customs, such as multitudinous pilgrimages to Marian shrines, like the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján.

On Dec. 2, the bishops’ conference of Argentina, led by Santa Fe Archbishop José María Arancedo, who is very close to the Pope, issued a harsh statement about a national concern, pointing out that “drug trafficking is a national drama” and judging that its spread “is incomprehensible without the complicity of power in all its forms.” That same day, to soften the blow, the conference’s top bishops visited President Kirchner in her office “to transmit a formal greeting for the end of her mandate and anticipating a Christmas greeting.”



How has the relationship been between Macri and the Kirchners? The Kirchners at the Pink House and Macri at city hall were opponents and did not have an easy relationship. Crime and traffic delays increased in Buenos Aires under a certain ambiguity in the role of two police forces: federal and metropolitan (created by Macri). Because of the disagreements between the two jurisdictions, it took several years to build a short section of highway that now allows thousands of drivers to exit the city more rapidly.

Also, Macri — who obtained 64% of the votes of the city that he governed — was unable to build many miles of subway lines because the Kirchner government refused to provide security for international loans that Macri would have easily gotten.

Between Nov. 22 (the runoff) and Dec. 10 (assumption of office) Cristina Kirchner and Macri met only once, briefly, to deal with formal aspects of the transfer of power. She also instructed her ministers to not pass on information to their successors until Dec. 9, although that position was softened somewhat, and several ministers did meet with their counterparts earlier than that.

Ultimately, Plaza de Mayo continued being a symbol: The presidenta left the house from which she and her late husband ruled before Macri arrived.

The Peronist movement has been in power in 25 of the last 32 years of democratic government. Cambiemos (“Let Us Change”), Macri’s coalition, is attempting to govern differently. Macri named several ministers and civil servants with business and managerial backgrounds, but he does not claim to be anti-statist in education, health, airlines and so forth. He says he wants the government to be efficient and to be managed well.

On Dec. 11, Macri and his cabinet participated in an interreligious service at the cathedral. Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli asked Macri to “bow in front of the poor.” Macri began strolling before noon from the Pink House to the cathedral, together with several of his ministers, to take part in the Te Deum presided over by Cardinal Poli. He greeted supporters along the way.

During the liturgical ceremony, Cardinal Poli quoted Pope Francis and a 1966 poem by famous poet Jorge Luis Borges, which says that “nobody is the homeland, but we are all it.”

“To imitate the merciful God is to bow before the poor, looking at them from below, not from above. It is to listen to the voiceless, those who fall between the cracks of the system, God’s little privileged ones. Everything we can do for them, we do it for him, and God does not let himself be outdone in generosity,” said the cardinal.

Then Macri committed himself before God to be an instrument of concord, peace and social friendship and to fight against the afflictions of the most needy. Later on, leaders of other religions spoke.


Papal Visit Speculation

Along with the change of political direction in Argentina, international attention was expected to focus on Argentina in 2016, courtesy of a rumored papal visit. However, the Argentine Catholic news agency AICA confirms that Pope Francis will not travel to the country in 2016. Sources close to the Pope say this unofficially. And it has been officially denied that Francis would attend the Eucharistic Congress organized by the Argentine bishops for the bicentennial of the nation’s independence, in July in Tucumán.


Jorge Rouillon writes from Buenos Aires.