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As an Era Ends in Argentina, More Hate Than Love Between Pope Francis and the Kirchners

These days Pope Francis and President Fernández pose together smiling for the cameras. Things used to be very different.

by David Agren
Oct 22 2015, 5:45pm

Photo via Argentina presidential office

The last time Pope Francis met with Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the Vatican in June, press reports said they got along well. It was the fifth time the two had met since his election in 2013. Fernández left a basket of Argentine foods for the notoriously frugal Francis.

But such gestures of friendship belie a long and difficult relationship that has marked both Fernández's time in office and that of her late husband and predecessor in the presidency Nestor Kirchner. And while Fernández's preferred candidate, Daniel Scioli, is favourite to win elections in Argentina on Sunday — suggesting that the end of 12 years of Kirchnerismo might not be so definitive — some say that the fact that she is not running herself is at least partially attributable to Francis.

"She became a 'lame duck,'" after Francis' election, said Sergio Berensztein, an independent political consultant in Buenos Aires. "She later lost a [mid-term] election. Cristina's project collapsed."

Related: How Crazy Are Argentina President's Hints of a US Plot to Remove Her?

The clashes that took place when today's Pope was just Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio also provide a glimpse of the political acumen that would accompany him from working-class Buenos Aires to his current position as perhaps the preeminent political figure in Latin America today.

The discord began with the archbishop of Buenos Aires often taking issue with President Nestor Kirchner's way of conducting politics. He considered it divisive, and argued that the government's subsidies for seniors, students and single mothers didn't address poverty properly.

But their relationship became even worse when Bergoglio played an improbable role in curtailing Kirchner's reported plans for re-election beyond the two terms permitted in the Argentine constitution.

In 2006, a governor in far-flung Misiones province on the Paraguayan border put perpetual re-election to a plebiscite, with Kirchner observers assuming the president was interested in replicating the idea on the national level.  

Then Bergoglio stepped in. He was so opposed to the idea that he convinced a Spanish-born bishop on the brink of retirement to lead a broad coalition to oppose the re-election plans in Misiones. Their victory dealt a major blow to Kirchner's possibilities of doing something similar once he had a second term in the bag.

"Kirchner was popular at this time, he had lots of money and he had bought all of the media, but Bergoglio didn't want (Kirchner) to perpetuate himself in power," Berensztein said. "Kirchner never forgave this and he promised revenge."

Revenge never arrived. Kirchner stepped aside for Fernandez in 2007 despite high approval ratings, replacing the idea of perpetual reelection with a plan for the couple to alternate the presidency between them. But he died in 2010.

"The devil gets to everyone, those of us who use pants and those who wear robes," Kirchner had said in 2006, while branding Bergoglio "Leader of the spiritual opposition."

Related: Pope Francis Meets Fidel Castro and Delivers Mass in Havana's Revolution Square

Bergoglio clashed with President Fernandez over similar issues to those that had made his relationship with her husband so difficult. She accused him of being in cahoots with the country's former dictatorship – a charge since shown to have been fabricated.

Their relationship was so tense they met only three times and never one-on-one during the six years their terms in Argentina overlapped, despite their offices being across the Plaza de Mayo from each other in central Buenos Aires.

The cardinal did, however, meet with opponents of her plans to raise taxes on soy farmers, a key source of state income in Argentina. He also spoke out against an initiative approving same-sex marriage — though some of Bergoglio's collaborators say the issue was never close to his heart.

"He didn't want to do this. But the majority of bishops wanted to, they voted, he lost so he had to go with the majority," said Juan Navarro, a lawyer working with the Argentine bishops' conference that Bergoglio presided. "It wasn't central for him. Some bishops are in this [moral issues] fight. Not him."

Some observers attribute the constant disputes with the Kirchners more to style than substance. 

Bergoglio's austerity afforded him many opportunities to criticize their claims to be champions of the poor. He rode public transit, refused social invites and walked the streets of the shanties known as villas miseria to which he paid special attention.

According to José María Poirier, publisher of the Catholic magazine Criterio, who conversed with Bergoglio many times over the years, his unspoken message to the Kirchners was: "I have my best priests living with the poor. Your ministers live in Puerto Madero" (a well-to-do Buenos Aires barrio).

The clashes were beginning to seem eternal by the time Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned in February 2013.  When, even more unexpectedly, Bergoglio was elected Pope the following month at the age of 76, Fernández didn't seem to know how to react. 

After a long silence the president tweeted a rather cold-sounding statement welcoming his election. In Congress, lawmakers from her party refused to interrupt an homage to recently deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to recognize the election of an Argentine pope. State television showed children's programing rather than switch to a feed from the Vatican.

Related: Argentina's Economy is Tanking

But after poor performance in the 2013 midterm elections, Fernández changed tack towards her compatriot. The rapprochement began and gathered momentum as the months passed; Fernández's basket of delicacies in the Vatican was a far cry from the days when Argentina's intelligence service reportedly parked a van outside Bergoglio's apartment to listen in on conversations. Even so, Francis has reportedly postponed traveling to Argentina until after a new president is installed, to avoid perceptions that he is meddling in political matters.

"You don't get to be Pope without being smart," Berensztein said.

Related: Who Killed Alberto Nisman? - In Search of Truth in Argentina

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero

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