While Jorge Mario Bergoglio served a higher authority as a Catholic shepherd in this cosmopolitan capital, he was also tested by more earthly powers: Argentine governments.
With the historic rise of an Argentine to the throne of St. Peter, this nation has erupted in celebration and debate, with one of its own becoming the first Latin American pope. The story of his relationship with his home government, some here say, underscores his willingness to butt heads with secular leaders whose politics conflict with the Roman Catholic Church.
In recent years, his clashes with the husband-and-wife tag team who have led this nation of 40 million created a rift between the Casa Rosada — Argentina’s White House — and the church as Bergoglio challenged the moral authority of elected leaders. Now, as he enters the crisis-plagued halls of Vatican City, his years in Argentina show that when he sees fit, Pope Francis can be a combative leader unafraid to challenge entrenched authority.
What is less clear, however, is his record during Argentina’s 1976-83 “Dirty War,” when a right-wing junta unleashed a reign of fear on this country that reached into the ranks of Bergoglio’s clerics. Some here have suggested that Bergoglio may have stood aside as the military government hunted down those it viewed as subversives, with published accounts suggesting he allowed the arrest of two left-leaning priests who were drugged and taken by helicopter to the junta’s most notorious prison in 1976.
This is the side of the new pope “that he doesn’t talk about,” said Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine journalist and author of “The Silence,” a book chronicling complacency — and worse — during the Dirty War.
Yet Pope Francis, who has strongly denied those allegations, also has defenders who say that he not only resisted the military but also actively helped those seeking sanctuary.
“There were bishops who were complicit in the dictatorship,” Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Argentine human rights activist, told the BBC’s Spanish-language service on Thursday. “But not Bergoglio.”
Taking on the Kirchners
Whatever his role in that chapter of Argentine history, his political role in a country polarized between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government and a beleaguered opposition became a central theme here a day after Bergoglio was named pope. Bergoglio, observers say, has not been shy about energetically taking on the president or her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
“It was never a good relation,” said Oscar Aguad, a deputy in Argentina’s congress from the opposition Radical party. “There were scraps between Bergoglio and the Kirchner governments, to the point where Nestor Kirchner even said that Bergoglio was the head of the opposition.”
Tensions between Bergoglio and the Kirchners increased during the 2000s as the couple began to guide Argentina out of an economic collapse. The Kirchners rode a wave of popularity, which critics say they used to intervene in the economy and adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to the opposition and the press. Eventually, they tussled with the Roman Catholic Church.
Observers in Argentina said Bergoglio did not act in opposition to the Kirchners’ stated goal of reducing poverty; in fact, Bergoglio emerged during the peak of the Argentine economic crisis of 2000 as a fierce critic of globalization. Rather, he was simply not shy about exposing what some critics of the government call its mendacity in reporting economic data. The church waded into this thicket not with a direct attack but by issuing its own poverty figures showing that the number of poor people was much higher than the Kirchners asserted.
“When Bergoglio talked of extreme poverty, or of the kids who are among the army of drug addicts, the government felt it was under attack because they’re in charge of anti-narcotics efforts, social programs and health care,” said Oscar Raúl Aguad, a lawmaker who opposed the Kirchners’ programs.
Bergoglio also took to using his high-profile sermons on May 25, Argentina’s Revolution Day, to deliver critiques of the Peronist leaders, some of which were carefully worded but nonetheless angered the nation’s most influential power couple.
“Power is born of confidence, not with manipulation, intimidation or with arrogance,” Bergoglio said in 2006.
Carlos Fara, a political analyst and pollster, said part of the tension stemmed from the fact that Bergoglio hailed from a more moderate form of Peronism — the uniquely Argentine brand of nationalist politics founded by Juan Peron — than the Kirchners, who leaned toward the left of the party’s spectrum. That also included an increasingly secular agenda.