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Pope Francis the Politician

BUENOS AIRES – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – not an Italian, not a European, but a Latin American from Argentina – has now been chosen as the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. What, if anything, can Latin America expect from Pope Francis I?

For starters, it seems clear that Francis will try to assert political influence in the region, rather in the manner that Pope John Paul II used his authority in his native Poland and Central Europe in the decade leading up to the fall of communism. A former Jesuit, Bergoglio was raised in a religious order – founded in the sixteenth century to oppose the Protestant Reformation – that is known for its power inside the church and its desire for wider political influence. So it is no surprise that Bergoglio has always considered politics, even from a religious point of view, as central to his work.

For example, he has been very vocal in voicing discontent with the rule of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. He was active in helping to create a coalition of opposition parties to balance the overwhelming power of Kirchnerism, which has steadily been gaining power over Argentina’s parliament, judiciary, and independent media.

Indeed, Néstor Kirchner once accused Bergoglio of being the head of the opposition coalition, and refused to attend a traditional mass – a Te Deum – because he was afraid that he would be the subject of the then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s sermon. He memorably declared that the church belongs to everyone, and that the devil sometime wears a cassock.

Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández, was clearly unhappy with the papal conclave’s choice. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, she shocked Argentine Catholics by joking that she would try to be a “papisa,” that is, if princesses of the church were allowed. When Bergoglio was selected, she sent a cold, formal letter of congratulations, expressing an aloofness that was entirely inappropriate for such a historic event for Argentina.

Kirchnerismo no doubt fears Francis I. Fernández’s supporters know that Bergoglio feels closer to the United States than to any other world power. This is not to say that they do not feel a similar closeness; but they presume that a good relationship with US President Barack Obama would help Bergoglio to wield even greater influence in Argentina and the wider region.

Bergoglio is decidedly conservative. He opposes civil unions for gay couples, and strongly defends the church’s prohibition of abortion and its ban on women priests. He is considered a misogynist, with views on women’s role in society identical to those propagated by the church in the Middle Ages.

At the same time, he is ascetic and sensitive to the suffering of the impoverished. He has always had very good relations with Argentina’s trade unions; indeed, he was a Peronist in his youth. He likes football and mate, a traditional non-alcoholic drink that one consumes by sharing with other people. But, lacking personal charisma, none of this may be enough to establish a strong rapport with common people.

The mere fact that Francis is Latin American is bad news for the region’s populist governments – not only Argentina, but also Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba. John Paul II was one of the decisive forces in eroding the hold of communism on Europe. If Bergoglio’s Vatican is to succeed in rolling back the populist tide that gained strength in Latin America during late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s years, he will need to establish as strong a relationship with Obama as the one that John Paul II forged with Ronald Reagan.

Still, the moment may be ripe for him to exercise such influence. The start of his papacy finds the populist governments in a vulnerable situation, hit hard by Chávez’s recent death. They all, of course, have their own identities and strengths, but they will miss the protection of Chávez’s global influence, as well as his subsidies. Moreover, they rule countries in which Catholics are an overwhelming majority. Although the degree of their religious commitment varies, they share a strong emotional attachment to the faith, which will provide Francis I with considerable political leverage.

Latin America will no doubt be one of Francis’s priorities. But first he must reestablish the Catholic Church’s moral authority, which has been badly damaged by the scandal over numerous cases of pedophilia by priests, the Church’s attempts to cover them up,and dubious financial practices, among other problems. Only if he succeeds on the “domestic” front will he be able to exercise political influence “abroad.” If he fails in this task, the high expectations that he has raised after John Paul II (who addressed reports of pedophilia by dispatching them to the archives) and Benedict XVI (who was too feeble to act) will turn against him and his church.