December 11, 2017

Another View

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is Pope Francis ‘bigger than Jesus?’

In Buenos Aires, Bergoglio pursued a conservative agenda but in the Vatican he appears as a progressive pontiff.
By Nicolás Tereschuk
Guest columnist

The pontiff is an Argentine obsessed with power and politics willing to make more political moves

At least in Argentina, Pope Francis seems to be, like the young John Lennon thought of The Beatles, “more popular than Jesus.” His picture is almost everywhere and Vatican news are now an everyday issue for the media. Most polls say Argentines love the pope.

But what about local politics? Is he a real player in the daily mud of power in Argentina? As Joseph Stalin said, “how many divisions” has he really got? My take is that Francis really has some and big ones. But will he use them in full?

As a bishop in Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio pursued a conservative agenda critical of the “leftist” turn made by Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. But known for his “Peronist-style” leadership the priest’s strategy cannot be understood only in terms of the “right or left” spectrum. The question a man like Bergoglio asks himself is more like “how do I get to lead this organization?”, and not “how do I impose my own views in full to this organization?” In other words, with an institution without a real left for so many years — the last dictatorship and John Paul II views did the work — the biggest threat to Bergoglio was on the far right — an elitist conservative right. Behaving like quite a fierce challenger of the “red” Kirchners allowed Bergoglio to lead the Argentine Church and become papabile.

Now as Peter’s successor, the pendulum of power has swayed again for Bergoglio. To my own surprise — not everybody’s I must admit— it moved to the left. He does not seem that worried now about the conservative agenda he pushed in Buenos Aires, and his words sound more Latin American, younger, more progressive. Again, this should not be taken into account without noting the main fact. Bergoglio is now at the top of the organization he’s belonged to his entire life. He can neutralize his internal enemies best with this “liberal” shift than by being more conservative. It is also important to keep in mind that his former fellow cardinals gave him a task: get the Church out of a financial and political crisis, and clean its image as a first step to prepare it for the next two thousand years to come.

Now how does Pope Francis use his “political weapons? I imagine him more in a “cold war” mode than in a conventional war. His divisions, his nuclear (political) weapons are clearly displayed. He just chooses not to use them.

It is a well-known fact that the pope chose to back and help President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in her last two years in office. But imagine what could have happened if he had done the opposite:

• He could have chosen to travel to Argentina not in 2016, as he will, but earlier, leading to infinite speculations on whether he would back any presidential candidate.

• He could have chosen issues for the Argentine bishops to take into account that could have been direct messages to the government. Instead, the Church has defined as a clear priority the drug trafficking problem in Argentina, an issue where the ruling party has responsibility, but also an opposition Peronist like Cordoba Governor José Manuel De la Sota or his colleague in Santa Fe, the Socialist Governor Antonio Bonfatti.

• He could have met with Fernández de Kirchner for a short time instead of for two hours and a half, more than with any other head of state.

• He could have, as La Nación newspaper wrote, taken into his hands the collective wage bargaining issue, speaking directly with businessmen and trade union leaders. Instead, he asked Labour Minister Carlos Tomada to take good care of employment levels in Argentina in what he described as a “warm” meeting.

Whether this is a “cold war” style or what Harvard’s Joseph Nye calls “the soft power of attraction and persuasion,” the thing is that the pope’s gestures at least are not getting the Casa Rosada into trouble.

Francis shifted from being a critic of the government to peacefully coexisting with it. Surprisingly he has done very little, as far as it is known, to help politicians who were quite close to him like PRO’s Gabriela Michetti or the Coalición Cívica leader Elisa Carrió.

Even more surprising for some has been his notorious decision not to meet with the last Buenos Aires province midterm elections winner, Sergio Massa. If this decision is taken as far as next year’s election day it would sound more like a “hard power” measure, more in the “stick and carrot” fashion.

The pope’s recent meeting with Penal Code reform coordinator Roberto Carlés and his words of “worry” about a “punitivist turn” in Latin America sounded like a quite clear warning against Massa’s latest moves. The photo of the pope with Eugenio Zaffaroni’s friend published on Twitter seemed to carry an invisible caption: “I could use my stick if I wanted to, be careful.”

Francis is not Bergoglio, but he is still an Argentine obsessed with power and politics. And more political moves are likely to come.

* Nicolás Tereschuk is editor of the blog

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