Last Saturday, I arrived in chilly Buenos Aires. I am sure it is just a coincidence, but my arrival coincided with the collapse of the peso. A dollar goes a long way in Argentina. For $40, Americans can get a four-star hotel; for $4, they can get a tasty steak. Signs of Argentinian economic malaise abound, from shanty towns on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to hobos sleeping on dirty mattresses in its downtown. Argentines love raw dollars, offering huge deals for cash purchases.
It appears that the Peronistas are on the verge of victory. As Brazil goes right, Argentina moves back to the left, such is its addiction to its socialist traditions.
My principal purpose in visiting Buenos Aires is to learn about its not-so-favorite son, Jorge Bergoglio, who still hasn’t visited Argentina since becoming Pope Francis. During my first few days here, I asked every Catholic I met to explain that anomaly. I got some blunt and brutal answers.
“We all know he is a son of a bitch,” said a former prosecutor to me. “We are ashamed of him. He represents our worst qualities.”
His friend chipped in that Catholics consider Francis “to be a fake, a make-believe pope,” not to mention, he added, an uncultured, ill-mannered flake.
The former prosecutor oozed contempt for Francis: “He knows nothing — not morals, not theology, not history. Nothing. Only power interests him.”
The description of Pope Francis as a power-mad ideologue is very widespread, I am finding. I spoke at length with Antonio Caponnetto, who is the Argentine author of several books on Pope Francis. “At seminary, his classmates called him ‘Machiavelli,’ ” he noted.
Caponnetto gives two reasons for why the pope has avoided his home country: one, at least half the country hates him, and two, Francis dislikes the supposedly “conservative,” pro-capitalist Macri regime. The latter reason is absurd: Macri is hardly conservative, as Argentine conservatives are the first to say.
On Wednesday morning, I visited with Santiago Estrada, Argentina’s former ambassador to the Holy See. He has been close to Bergoglio for decades, but he allowed that Bergoglio “hates businessmen.” He dislikes Macri, he said, not because Macri is a pillar of conservatism but because Macri is simply not as anti-business “as the pope.” Estrada was loath to criticize his friend, but he conceded that the pope’s promotion of molesting bishops has been “inexplicable.”
The pope’s predecessors visited their home countries. Even the timid Pope Benedict XVI braved his German critics and returned home.
Is it really possible Pope Francis could boycott Argentina for the rest of his tenure?
Probably not. For one thing, say engaged Catholics, if the hardcore leftists return to power, “he will come back.” Estrada thinks he “definitely will come back next year” if Macri loses, but that he will call it a “pastoral visit.”
“Francis has been working behind the scenes” to help Macri’s opponent, an Argentine political operative said to me. “He wants Macri to lose.”
Conservatives fear the prospect of a Peronista victory. One, who has a political blog, said to me, “I will leave the country. It won’t be safe for us.”
I got a small taste of that on Tuesday as I passed the office for one of Argentina’s left-wing parties. No sooner had I taken out my camera to take some pictures of it than a couple of Peronista wannabe thugs sprinted out of the office to question me. What, they demanded, are you doing? I ignored their gibbering, while another member of my party tried to appease them with a cleverly composed piece of faux flattery.
One eye-rolling conservative Catholic told me that the Peronism of Francisworld is so strong that some acolytes of the pope are talking about canonizing Evita.