Poverty, Politics, and the Church in Pope Francis’s Argentina | Samuel Gregg | Catholic World Report
Argentina is trying to break with 70 years of populism, corruption, and general economic decline. But in the age of the Argentine pope, what role will the Church play in this process?
Before Jorge Bergoglio’s election as the first Latin American pope in 2013, Argentina was famous for many things: tango, its magnificent pampas, the beautiful late-nineteenth century architecture that marks much of Buenos Aires, to name just a few. Unfortunately, other things also come to mind: rampant and persistent corruption, extreme political instability, and, above all, the fact that Argentina is the twentieth century’s textbook-case of largely self-inflicted economic decline. Consider that as late as 1940, Argentina was the economic equal of Australia and Canada. Since then it’s been generally downhill.
During a recent trip to Argentina, however, I was immediately struck by the optimism that marked Argentines themselves. This contrasted with the widespread gloom visibly characterizing the country that I’d noticed on previous visits. One reason for the difference is that Argentina elected a non-Perónist to the presidency in November 2015, thus terminating 13 years of rule by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina. They belonged to the wave of Latin American leftist-populists who came to power from the late-1990s onwards and who brought political and economic disarray in their wake.
Since assuming office, Argentina’s new President, Mauricio Macri, has sought to take the country in very different directions. He ended Argentina’s backing of the Chávista regime that has all but destroyed Venezuela. Macri is also exposing deep-seated corruption, the most notorious case thus far being a former Kirchner government official caught hiding several million US dollars in a convent. This has been accompanied by an effort to detoxify public discourse of the demagogic rhetoric that’s long plagued Argentine politics. Economically, Macri has started, albeit cautiously, moving Argentina away from its closed, highly-statist economic arrangements. This has included abolishing currency and capital controls as well as eliminating some price-controls, particular export taxes, and specific subsidies.
Thus far, opinion polls suggest that a slim but wavering majority of Argentines support Macri’s reforms. As one Jesuit remarked to me, many Argentines view Macri as the nation’s last chance to reverse the trend towards permanent decline. Judging, however, from the anti-Macri posters and demonstrations throughout Buenos Aires, plenty of Argentines oppose the reforms. Perónist politicians, long accustomed to using public office to dispense favors to supporters, aren’t going quietly. Likewise, Argentina’s powerful trade unions have said they’ll resist changes to the country’s heavily-regulated labor markets which, like all such markets, effectively discourage businesses from hiring people.
Another question occupying many Argentines’ minds is the stance of another important institution in the country’s life. Is the Catholic Church going to help smooth the path away from populism? Or will it, in the name of defending the poor, encourage resistance to reform? In all such discussions, Pope Francis’s words and actions feature prominently.