Commentary: Pope Francis could impact politics in Latin America

The Miami HeraldMarch 14, 2013 

OPPENHEIMER ANDRES MCT

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

AL DIAZ

One of the biggest questions about Pope Francis is whether he will be a politically activist pontiff who — much as he has done in Argentina — will be a thorn in the side of leftist-populist governments throughout Latin America. Some say he will.

During his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and head of Argentina’s Conference of Bishops, the new pope, 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had an often tense relationship with the governments of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner. The former president once accused Bergoglio, a Jesuit, of being “a real spokesman for the opposition.”

After his election Wednesday as the first pope from Latin America, and one of few non-Europeans, many Church watchers are asking themselves whether Francis will have the same political impact on Latin America as late Pope John Paul II — Polish-born Karol Wojtyla — had in his native Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

“Francis may become a critic of governments such as those in Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia, in the same way that John Paul II became a critic of Communism in Eastern Europe,” says Daniel Alvarez, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University.

“The new pope could definitely have a political impact if he visits these countries, and speaks his mind,” Alvarez added.

Rosendo Fraga, a well-known political analyst in Argentina, told me that Francis’ election “is definitely bad news for the Argentine government. His homilies, as recently as two weeks ago, were very critical of economic and social conditions, and of corruption in Argentina.”

While supporters of Argentina’s populist government have depicted Bergoglio as a political right-winger who they charge did not actively defend victims of his country’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship — a charge his supporters vehemently deny — Bergoglio is a political moderate and theological conservative.

Elisa “Lilita” Carrio, an opposition congresswoman who is close to the new pope, told me that Francis “is a very open-minded man” who cannot be defined as a conservative. Bergoglio takes city buses like any ordinary person, has washed the feet of AIDS victims, and “could be defined as a Jesuit who God turned into a Franciscan,” she said, referring to the new pope’s humbleness.

Politically, Francis follows his recent predecessors’ tradition of criticizing social inequality and rampant capitalism. But he has little patience with governments that allow gay marriages or abortions, give away contraceptives, or preach social hatred.

In 2010, Bergoglio led the movement against Fernández’s bill to allow gay marriage. “It’s an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he wrote in a letter before Congress approved the bill.

More recently, he spoke out against the country’s political polarization, which critics blame on Fernández’s inflammatory speeches that sometimes sound like those of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

And the new pope recently spoke about the “painful emigrations and the lack of future” that many young Argentines are suffering from, a not-so-veiled criticism of Argentina’s political and economic conditions, which the Fernández government claims are better than in most industrialized countries.

Will Francis take these kinds of messages with him when he travels throughout Latin America, like John Paul II did in Eastern Europe?

My opinion: Francis may not have the same political impact on Latin America as John Paul II had on Eastern Europe, for the simple reason that he is becoming the leader of the Church at a much later age. At 76, the Argentine pope may have less energy — and more internal problems to tackle within the Church — than the Polish pope, who was elected pontiff at age 58.

Even if he does not become a political activist but travels to Latin America with the message of national reconciliation he preached in Argentina — calling the bluff of populist leaders who create a climate of political polarization to present themselves as saviors of the fatherland and stay in power indefinitely — it would be a great step forward.

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