11/07/2013 | When Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 17, he took Argentina to a global front-page standing the country had not seen in its hectic history before. For once, Argentina would not be associated with political turmoil, economic chaos or — in the best of cases — soccer victory.
But what remained to be seen was how the pope would — if at all — (seek to) influence the local, often navel-gazing agenda. It soon became clear that the single best-known Argentine national on the planet (next to Lionel Messi) was eager to have a greater say in the content and the tone of the headlines back home.
So far he is succeeding.
The pope-inspired agenda has splashed every once in a while in Argentina’s polarized political and media scene — more often than not against the interests of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This week, the country’s best-selling newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, ran banner headline lead stories on an Argentine Catholic Church statement in defence of “the separation of powers,” just as the administration was battling — and losing — a fight over court reform. The news analysis website Diario sobre Diarios said the two papers, which are critical of the government, had decided to give “a joint sermon” for the third time since Bergoglio became Francis.
Pope Francis has come to symbolize the exact opposite of what the critics of the Fernández de Kirchner administration single out as her government’s main sins. It is, they say, corruption versus honesty, arrogance versus humility, wealth versus austerity, hypocrisy versus ethics, power abuses versus openness. Anybody willing to further antagonize Francis and Cristina could care to cite the pope’s first encyclical Lumen Fidei published yesterday: “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands.”
These tidbits of contrast appear in every corner of the press. A Clarín section called “The Traffic Light” (El Semáforo), which carries special symbolical interest for editorial analysts, recently gave a red light to ruling party congressional candidate Liliana Mazure for some revelations of alleged corruption against her, a yellow light to presidential chief of Staff Oscar Parrilli for a ruling party defeat in his home province of Neuquén and a green light to the pope for letting the courts make progress on alleged financial corruption within the Vatican.
The government is struggling to make sense of the riddle. The confusion showed all too clearly in a bizarre letter addressed by the president to the pope this week. The middle-of-the-road Bergoglio approach of meeting with any Argentine figure who cares to ask for a meeting (this week it was Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli, who has just been politically hurt by a meager collection of candidacies for his people in ruling party slates), speaking soft words, peppering the formality of his job with colloquial language and leading an austere life as “the bishop of Rome,” have built a solid political grey many here are trying to emulate. His early gesture of calling his downtown Buenos Aires newsvendor shortly after his election as pope to cancel his La Nación subscription was less an indication that he was quitting Argentina’s narrow agenda but that he would work to widen it.
Those who wish to see Francis as the purveyor of change in the country’s political tone are attaching other phenomena to the string of events. One is the counterbalancing role of the Supreme Court and most especially that of Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti (the court is gearing toward issuing a sensitive ruling on the 2009 Media Act, the nervous system of the five-year war between the government and Grupo Clarín. The other is the irruption of Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, who is also trying to preach a constructive opposition line.
All three pope, Court and Ma-ssa have largely relied on political communication to advance their agenda goals. Lorenzetti has promoted access to court information through a Supreme Court web site (www.cij.gob.ar) that publishes complete rulings and Massa is the latest Argentine example of image-based, telegenic politics à la Mexico’s Peña Nieto. The pope has revolutionized Holy See communication because “what he used to do when he was dressed in black, he does now in white,” according to Argentine priest José Medina, a former collaborator who recently wrote the book El Papa de todos (Everybody’s Pope) about Bergoglio’s prospect as leader of the Catholics. “This is who he is, and what you see is what you get,” said Greg Burke, Senior Communications Adviser at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
Back home, the Fernández de Kirchner government will make its every effort to stem these grey sprouts and force them into a polarized system of political debate. The president’s “Which side are you on?” line during a campaign kick-off speech last weekend indicate to that. The midterm elections first show down on primaries day August 11 will begin to show whether the public is tired of stark contrasts or not.
Marcelo J. García coordina el Departamento de Comunicación de SIDbaires.