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Pope Francis and the Macri problem

Argentine president Mauricio Macri (Getty)

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was not always on friendly terms with Argentina’s political leaders. On one famous occasion in 2004, he preached a sermon denouncing “dishonest and mediocre” politics with President Néstor Kirchner sitting in the congregation.

Presidents come and go, but even after his elevation to the papacy Francis has not shied away from conflict with Argentina’s rulers. That is one subtext to the Pope’s visit to Chile next week: the absence of Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri. The difficult relationship between the two leaders is well-documented, and serves as another example of Pope Francis’s place in the politics of his homeland: as an internal critic, usually at cross-purposes with the ruling party.

It is not just hostility but awkwardness which characterises the Pope’s relationship with Macri. For instance, in 2016 the president donated 16,666,000 pesos (£853,000) to the Pope’s educational foundation, Scholas Occurentes. Francis rejected it: “I don’t like the 666,” he wrote back, according to Vatican Insider.

There was another reason: Francis told Scholas Occurentes that they shouldn’t be accepting money from the Argentine government when the population had so many pressing needs. Macri’s own background may have increased the Pope’s sense that this money was being used irresponsibly: the president is the son of a millionaire, and he still spends his leisure time at exclusive parties of the wealthy.

He is also something of a showman: he likes to perform as Freddie Mercury, leading to a near-death experience at his second wedding in 2010, when he swallowed his fake moustache and was only saved form choking by the intervention of the Buenos Aires health minister.

There is a ready-made leftist critique of Macri as a president for the rich. Macri has “a neo-liberal, pro-business approach,” says an Argentine observer. “He has encouraged businesses to invest in Argentina.”

That contrasts with Néstor Kirchner, and his wife Cristina, who succeeded him as president. The Kirchners were more hostile to business and had a connection to the poor which more than verged on populism. Cristina Kirchner was “hugely popular in the slums,” my Argentine acquaintance says. “She espouses a clientelismo where she pays for days out for them to attend marches, and infamously feeds them choripans [chorizo sandwiches] to agitate in favour of her.” Archbishop Bergoglio wanted to remain close to the poor, but he saw this as a spiritual mission rather than as a way to gain political clout, and mistrusted the Kirchners’ political tactics.

In Macri’s case, it is easy to see what the Pope’s objections might be. “Some people,” Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” Perhaps Macri would not recognise himself in that description, but he is certainly a kind of free-marketeer: the Economist has enthusiastically backed him as the man to “liberalise labour laws” and “end Argentina’s isolation from the international credit markets”.

Whether Macri’s market reforms – cutting the budget deficit; removing subsidies and tariffs; dealing with foreign creditors – have worked is another matter. Macri’s supporters say he is bringing the economy into a sustainable position and that the poverty rate is falling. His critics say the poverty rate is rising. These debates are hampered by two things: first, that the Kirchner government stopped publishing poverty statistics, and second, that Argentina is treated by all sides as exemplifying their economic theories, whether free-market or socialist.

At the same time, the Pope’s reservations about Macri may be nothing personal. “I don’t have any problem with Macri,” Francis told La Nación in 2016. “He is a noble person.” The two agree about the war on drugs.

But perhaps the main reason Francis wants to stay away from Argentine politics is his fear that he would be used by the administration – whoever is in charge – to shore up their power. Francis’s attitude is strongly anti-elitist. It would make sense for him to keep the Argentine ruling class at arm’s length. Perhaps only in retirement, if that ever came, could Pope Francis return and be at peace with Argentina’s rulers.