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David Agren
David AgrenApril 05, 2024
Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei share a laugh after the Mass for the canonization St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 11, 2024. She is the first female saint from Argentina. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei share a laugh after the Mass for the canonization St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 11, 2024. She is the first female saint from Argentina. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The two men embraced like they were the best of friends. Argentine president Javier Milei threw his arms around fellow countryman Pope Francis during a February encounter at the Vatican after the canonization of Mama Antula, Argentina’s first female saint.

Mr. Milei and Pope Francis met formally the next day for a bilateral meeting. The men spoke about the social and economic crisis in Argentina and Milei’s economic plan to address it. Their discussion continued for 70 minutes—a longer period of time than Pope Francis spent with Mr. Milei’s four predecessors on their first trips to the Vatican, according to Argentine media.

“Our pope is the most important Argentine in history,” Mr. Milei enthused afterward, high praise considering the president’s previous assessment of the pope as “the imbecile in Rome.”

Argentina’s bishops, meanwhile, met Mr. Milei for the first time this month, three months after his inauguration on Dec. 10. The bishops’ conference’s executive commission “expressed their concern for the economic situation,” especially the “the vulnerable sectors suffering principally from a lack of food and medicines,” said a short statement released by the conference on March 12.

The media optics from the two meetings could not have been clearer: Mr. Milei’s exaggerated excitement in embracing Pope Francis and lofty accolades afterward contrasted against the boilerplate photos of bishops seated with public officials and perfunctory social media statements that followed Mr. Milei’s meeting with Argentina’s bishops.

The disparate encounters illustrated perceptions among church observers that Pope Francis has been managing church-state relations well since Mr. Milei’s election, while the church hierarchy in Argentina has kept a cautious and skeptical distance from the country’s new leader.

Pope Francis “has given very positive signs for rebuilding a relationship that was broken before even being born,” said Fernando Domínguez Sardou, a political science professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. “Relations [with the Milei presidency] were completely broken. Now they’re not.”

Observers say the pope once again showed his political acumen and talent for taming hostile politicians who have portrayed him—since before he was elected pontiff—as a political enemy or opposition figure.

“The pope is a political animal—much more of a political animal than Mr. Milei,” said the Rev. Roberto Ferrari, a priest in suburban Buenos Aires. “He has keen political instincts for whom he can dialogue with.”

Father Ferrari, who is part of the group Priests for the Option for the Poor, believes that Pope Francis hopes to guide the president as Mr. Milei attempts to restore Argentina’s ailing economy, to convince Mr. Milei “in his unique way and with proper treatment…of certain things [like] paying more attention to people, especially the poor.”

The rapprochement started shortly after Mr. Milei swept to power in the Nov. 19 runoff election, vanquishing Sergio Massa—economy minister in the incumbent Peronist coalition government and, according to church observers, an implacable enemy of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in the mid-2000s.

Mr. Milei received a congratulatory phone call from the pope after the election. The conversation only lasted eight minutes, but it set a positive tone for their relationship. Church observers say it sent a message to Argentine Catholics to cooperate with the president and work toward social peace. It also told them that Pope Francis would handle the relationship with Mr. Milei rather than the episcopal conference.

“That gesture forced Mr. Milei to change his critical position toward the pope,” said Mariano De Vedia, the religion writer at La Nación, an influential daily newspaper published in Buenos Aires. “Mr. Milei felt compelled to turn the page and do a pirouette to rekindle the relationship.”

For Mr. Milei, the willingness to restore his relationship with the pope reflects a rare pragmatism, too. Catholic priests—especially priests working in the shantytowns surrounding Buenos Aires—have been considered key figures for maintaining social peace in times of crisis, according to church observers.

“The [president] is going to need the church to contain” social discontent, “especially among the popular classes,” Mr. De Vedia said.

But the relationship between Mr. Milei and Argentine church officials appears strained. The bishops have said little since the election. They congratulated Mr. Milei then with a terse 59-word statement.

In early February, Argentine bishops objected to a government overhaul of the process for supplying soup kitchens. Audits were carried out as the Milei administration said it wanted to eliminate intermediaries, whom it alleged were pocketing money meant for the poor.

The Ministry of Human Capital, a new government branch created after the Milei administration collapsed a number of former ministries into one, subsequently announced it had reached agreements with Cáritas Argentina and other organizations to continue government support of their soup kitchens. But Cáritas officials said the “new” agreement was simply the renewal of an existing arrangement, downplaying what appeared to be an effort by Milei officials to demonstrate improving relations with the church, according to Mr. De Vedia.

Despite missteps with the local church, Mr. Milei has remained popular with the public. A March survey from Opina Argentina found that he was supported by 52 percent of Argentines, slightly lower than the 55 percent of the vote he won in the runoff. Analysts say his support runs across all social classes.

“He has a honeymoon,” said Nicolás Saldias, senior analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research consultancy. “Milei didn’t lie to the population. He said exactly what he was going to do…‘If you’re going to elect me, I’m not promising you anything but pain.’”

And the pain of Mr. Milei’s policies is hitting the middle class hardest, according to a religious woman who works in a Buenos Aires area shantytown.

Government services have been slightly increased for the poor or at least stayed the same, “but not for the middle class,” according to Florencia Buruchaga, a Passionist sister. “Taxes have been increased, costs have increased, but salaries remain the same.” She said that a family of four requires 600,000 pesos monthly ($705) to avoid falling into poverty, but many earn barely a third of that.

Still, she predicts people will remain patient with the new president for the foreseeable future.

“I think the word that best defines [his administration] is a revolution,” Sister Buruchaga said. “There is a certain desire among the people to put into practice everything he said in the campaign, with a certain fear of failing again. But, deep down, I believe there are big hopes.”

Mr. Milei campaigned as a radical libertarian, promising to take a chainsaw to state spending and bureaucracies and to unseat a privileged political class that he branded “the caste.” He has promoted economic “shock therapy” for a country suffering triple-digit inflation, a plunging currency and rising poverty. “There’s no money [in state coffers],” he said in his inaugural address—a refrain he has repeated often.

Mr. Milei’s political ascension has triggered enormous interest abroad, as much for his vituperative speaking style, unruly appearance and various eccentricities—like his extreme affection for his “four-legged children,” five cloned English Mastiffs—as for his impassioned defense of libertarian ideas and support for unlikely initiatives. During his campaign, he floated various ideas like dollarizing the Argentine economy, closing the central bank and legalizing a market for selling human organs.

He passionately defended Western capitalism at the World Economic Forum during his first international trip in January, telling an audience of corporate executives and world leaders: “The Western world is in danger. … And it is in danger because those who are supposed to have to defend the values of the West are co-opted by a vision of the world that inexorably leads to socialism, and thereby to poverty.”

Mr. Milei followed the W.E.F. appearance with an address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February—and shared an enthusiastic hug with former President Donald Trump.

“Make Argentina Great Again,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Milei.

“Long live freedom, damn it!” The Argentine president countered, repeating the catchphrase that has ended his speeches.

International fans of Mr. Milei have eagerly shared news from Argentina, celebrating the country’s budget surplus in January—the first time in a dozen years—and his decision to end the use of gender-inclusive language in government communications. Mr. Milei also put an end to rent control, leading to a 60 percent increase in the number of properties available, according to private estimates.

The inflation rate fell in Argentina in February to 13.2 percent—a drop of seven percentage points—though the yearly average surged to 276 percent.

Mr. Milei’s La Libertad Avanza party has found some common ground with social conservatives too. Six lawmakers introduced a bill to overturn the 2020 decriminalization of abortion but withdrew it the next day after Mr. Milei’s spokesman said it “was not part of the president’s agenda,” even though the president has voiced pro-life sympathies.

Other stories raise questions about the impact of his administrative and economic reforms, however. Poverty rates surged to 57.4 percent in January, the highest level in 20 years, according to the Social Debt Observatory at the Pontifical University of Argentina. And the 1,800 soup kitchens operated by Catholic organizations are seeing increased demand, auxiliary bishop Gustavo Carrera of Buenos Aires told Radio Con Vos.

Mr. Milei’s domestic agenda also appears imperiled. He almost immediately issued hundreds of decrees to liberalize the economy and sent an expansive omnibus bill to Argentina’s Congress to privatize state companies. Congress sent the omnibus bill back to committee in early February, however.

The Senate voted against his decrees on March 14. They remain in effect as long as the lower house does not follow suit, but Mr. Milei’s party holds barely more than 15 percent of the seats in the lower house and an even lower percentage in the Senate. And he has failed to negotiate with opposition parties or the country’s governors, who heavily influence lawmakers from their provinces.

Mr. Milei responded to the latest setback in Congress with typical hyperbole and bombast. He either reposted or “liked” a series of comments on X that derided lawmakers as “traitors to the homeland,” “criminals” and “The caste vs. the people,” according to the newspaper La Nación.

“The majority of politicians can’t step into the street because if the people recognized them, they’d skin them alive,” he later told Radio Mitre.

“‘If you don’t support me, you’re my enemy.’ That’s the strategy,” Mr. Domínguez said, adding that Mr. Milei had been threatening to withhold federal disbursement from state governors. But the threats have proved empty, Mr. Domínguez explained, because as Mr. Milei often insists, “There’s no money.”

Mr. Milei previously spoke of Pope Francis with the same contempt he shows his political adversaries, accusing the pope of preaching communism and calling him a “filthy leftist.” His agenda, meanwhile, appeared antithetical to that of Pope Francis and many in the Argentine church—especially his use of an epithet to describe the “social justice” promoted by priests working with the poor in the country’s 5,000 shantytowns and poorer barrios.

But for church observers, the pope’s reconciliation with Mr. Milei shows the Holy Father preferring to turn the page, practicing forgiveness and prioritizing pragmatism as Argentina suffers its deepest economic crisis since 2001. That year, after the country defaulted on its debts, the currency collapsed and five presidents were installed and ejected from office in less than two weeks.

Pope Francis “doesn’t want to see the fallout from the extreme tensions of 2001 repeated,” Mr. De Vedia said. “I think that [Pope Francis] is very clear about that and it explains why he’s acting this way.”

The improved relationship between the two leaders holds out the prospect of a possible papal trip to Argentina. Pope Francis has not returned to Argentina since his election in 2013—a distance maintained, church observers say, by his desire not to show favoritism during a time of deep political division in Argentina—but he has raised the possibility of a trip to his homeland later this year.

“The most important signal” of a truly improved relationship with Mr. Milei, Mr. De Vedia said, “depends on whether the pope’s visit is completed.”

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