Making nice? Argentina's Kirchner and Pope Francis meet in Rome

Beneath the cordial meeting today between new Pope Francis and President Kirchner lies a rocky and strained relationship that stretches back to 2004.

Osservatore Romano/Reuters
Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner shakes hands with newly elected Pope Francis during a private meeting at the Vatican Monday.

After lunch and a short meeting today in Vatican City, newly elected Pope Francis exchanged gifts with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

But beneath the cordial facade lies a rocky and strained relationship that stretches back to 2004, soon after Néstor Kirchner, Ms. Kirchner’s predecessor and late husband, assumed the presidency.

In a speech on Wednesday night, just after the pope's election was announced, Ms. Kirchner’s band of young supporters whistled in protest when she mentioned the pope's name. They represent the left-wing within Kirchnerism, and repudiate his alleged involvement in the human rights abuses of the Dirty War while serving as a high-ranking Jesuit.

But there are also tensions between Pope Francis – formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio – and other sectors of Kirchner’s political movement. He was a critic of Mr. Kirchner's rule and is believed to be aligned with the opposition here. He also opposed social policies like a 2010 law championed by Ms. Kirchner's leftist administration that legalized same-sex marriage.

Pope Francis has been heralded for improving the Argentine Roman Catholic Church's links with the downtrodden, and he has said that as pope he wants "a church for the poor." But in 2009, when he criticized the level of poverty in this South American country, he failed to recognize the steps Kirchnerism has made to curb poverty – such as heavy spending on social welfare and a universal child benefit plan – something believed to have angered Ms. Kirchner.

Despite their tenuous past, with the wave of national pride and triumphalism that have surrounded Pope Francis’s appointment, Ms. Kirchner may seek to reestablish ties with the church ahead of midterm elections in October.

“If relations remain broken with Pope Francis, it will be unpopular,” says Leandro Bullor, an analyst at the University of Buenos Aires. “His words will influence society here and politicians will respond to that.”


According to Pope Francis’s biographer, Sergio Rubin, Mr. Kirchner felt the Argentine Catholic Church “never recognized what he did to rescue the country from one of its worst crises,” referring to Argentina's economic collapse of 2001.

Meanwhile, the church, Mr. Ruben said, “never liked [Mr. Kirchner's] confrontational style.”
In 2005, Mr. Kirchner did not attend the tedeum, an annual ceremony headed by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires – then Bergoglio – to celebrate the anniversary of Argentina's first government in 1810. Ms. Kirchner has also shunned the addresses.
Soon after, Mr. Kirchner was reported as describing Bergoglio as the “spiritual head of the political opposition.”
“Bergoglio is close to Elisa Carrió, Gabriela Michetti, and Rabbi Sergio Bergman,” says Mr. Bullor. All three are fierce opponents of Kirchnerism.

Advocate for dialogue

Bergoglio’s relationship with Ms. Kirchner allegedly took a downturn in 2008 during mass strikes by farmers against a government bill to increase grain export taxes. He is said to have held meetings with leaders of the agricultural sector during the crisis.
He also met with former Vice President Julio Cobos, who later betrayed Ms. Kirchner by rejecting the measure with his deciding vote in the Senate.
But, says Francesca Ambrogetti, Pope Francis's cobiographer, he wasn’t taking sides: He is simply an advocate of dialogue. “His message was always one of reconciliation, of talking. We will see that during his papacy,” Ms. Ambrogetti says.

The Kirchners have put Argentina at the vanguard of progressive social reforms, another contentious realm for their relationship with the newly appointed pope. After legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010, a gender identity law was passed last year that allows people to change their sex without prior approval from a judge or doctor.
They are moves that go against the traditional line of the Catholic Church, which has been greatly weakened here since Argentina's return to democracy in 1983. “Under Kirchnersim, institutional structures have changed and the church has lost ground,” says Bullor.
 A week before the same-sex marriage bill was passed, Bergoglio criticized it as an “attempt to confuse and trick God’s children.”
Ms. Kirchner branded his attitude “medieval.”

'Argentine and Peronist'

One of Ms. Kirchner’s closest aides, Interior Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno, has already declared Pope Francis “Argentine and Peronist.” (Kirchner’s party is the Peronist party). That phrase is also repeated on posters that were plastered around Buenos Aires after he was elected last week.
Relations have been poor between the Kirchners and Pope Francis, but lunch today could signal the start of an improvement – at least for political ends.

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