Andres Oppenheimer

Pope Francis losing support in Argentina


Pope Francis is very popular around the world, but there are growing signs that his popularity is dwindling in his own country, Argentina. And there are good reasons for it.

When former archbishop of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio was chosen pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, there were massive celebrations in Argentina. He was the first Latin American pope, and a respected priest in Argentina, where he was known to be at odds with the corrupt populist government of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Once in the Vatican, Francis’ frequent calls to Argentine priests, journalists and childhood friends — often to chat about local events, or to comment about the Sunday games of San Lorenzo, his favorite soccer club — often made their way to the front pages of Argentine newspapers. He was the most popular figure in Argentina, surpassing even the country’s soccer superstars.

But lately, growing numbers of Argentines — especially those supporting Macri — are having second thoughts about their pope.

Between 2013 and 2015, Francis welcomed former President Fernandez several times in the Vatican, often spending long lunches with her and appearing with a broad smile next to her in official pictures. According to several other Argentines who visited with him during those years, his message to his countrymen was, “Cuiden a Cristina.” (Take care of Cristina.)

At the time, many interpreted that as a papal call on Argentines not to break democratic rule, and to allow Fernandez to finish her term despite her government’s rampant corruption. Others speculated that the pope was homesick, and loved to spend time with any Argentine visitor, regardless of their political colors.

Then, as the November 2015 presidential elections approached, Francis gave much more time and exposure to Fernandez’s candidate, Daniel Scioli. After center-right opposition leader Mauricio Macri’s election victory in November, the new president got congratulatory calls from leaders around the world, except from Francis.

On Feb. 22, when Macri made his first trip to Rome as president to visit the pope, Francis gave him a brief 22-minute audience at the Vatican’s library, a far cry from the leisurely one-hour lunches with former president Fernandez at his residence, or his long meetings with the presidents of Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador. What’s worse, the pope looked grim at his meeting with Macri, and didn’t even smile once when the two posed for pictures.

In May, Francis welcomed Hebe de Bonafini, the radical leftist leader of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo self-proclaimed human rights group. She had publicly celebrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and is one of Macri’s fiercest critics. Francis and Bonafini met for an hour and a half, according to press reports.

This month, the pope’s already tense ties with Macri worsened when Argentine newspapers disclosed that Scholas Occurrentes, a pope-supported charity in Argentina, had turned down a $1.2 million Macri government donation. The Italian daily La Stampa published a letter reportedly sent by Francis to Scholas Occurrentes’ leaders asking them not to accept the government donation, warning that it could lead to a “slippery slope” of corruption.

While the pope remains popular in Argentina, many journalists and Macri supporters are beginning to resent Francis’ constant meddling in internal politics.

“This is very disappointing to many Argentines,” the daily La Nacion columnist Jorge Fernandez Diaz said in a video, referring to the pope’s reported order to the charity. Fernandez Diaz added that Macri’s opponents are hoping that Francis will become Argentina’s “opposition leader.”

A June 2 poll by the daily Clarin showed that 44 percent of Argentines consider the pope’s ties with Macri to be “distant,” while 36 percent consider them “normal” and only 3.5 percent “very close.” The same poll shows that 75 percent of Argentines have a positive opinion of Francis, about the world average, down from more than 90 percent two years ago.

My opinion: I have been among those who have applauded the Pope enthusiastically in the past. Like many, I was charmed by his austerity, his sense of humor, his work to improve inter-faith relations and his tolerance for other ways of life.

But lately, I’m starting to wonder. His cheap shots at Macri — who is trying to lift Argentina from bankruptcy and international isolation, and deserves a chance to succeed — are hurting Argentina. That’s morally wrong, and politically despicable.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español