Picture credits: Grzegorz Galazka/Archivio Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images, LUIS ROBAYO/Getty

When the populist meets the Pope

Javier Milei and Pope Francis represent very different and often hostile elements of Argentinian cultural life

Artillery Row

Inside the Pope’s private chambers at the Vatican, there’s a holy rule of sorts. Anyone who sits with the Pontiff knows there are never to be leaks of who says what. Famously — or infamously perhaps — a Royal correspondent from a British tabloid suggested back in the 1970s that Queen Elizabeth used a visit to Pope Paul the Sixth to ask for his permission to allow the then single Prince Charles to marry a princess from Luxembourg, one Marie-Astrid, she being a Catholic. Much as the Queen’s advisers denied it, the indefatigable Fleet Street hack insisted: “the Pope’s private quarters are just that. Private! Just him and Her Majesty. You can’t deny it.”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Pope Francis, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Jesuit padre from lower middle-class Flores, Buenos Aires, meets Argentina’s new President Javier Gerardo Milei, aka El Loco, from Palermo, Buenos Aires, a wealthy, chic hotspot. These two could hardly be more improbable chums, and their sparring contest could have rare consequences for a country in the midst of a crisis that could be heading to a no-holds barred fight over who leads, and who speaks for a people they both love.

This Pope, who delights in letting us know that he still follows his favourite football team back home (San Lorenzo), makes little secret of his political affiliation there. Since becoming Pontiff in 2013, he has welcomed with open arms leaders of the leftist Peronist movement, which has run the country since he was a young man finding his vocation in the 1950s. Erstwhile President Cristina Kirchner, a leader charged with multi-million dollar corruption, went time and again to see him. In contrast Francis has, quite publicly, cold-shouldered the centre-right opposition when they travel to the Vatican in search of a Papal blessing — a blessing with deep political implications when you think that Argentina is predominantly Catholic, with a people deeply proud of having the first Latino in the Pontiff’s global role.

Now comes Javier Milei, the self-styled “anarcho-capitalist”, the man who wielded a chainsaw on the campaign trail to make his point about Peronism’s legacy. Milei, right-wing economist, came from nowhere to win decisive power in a dramatic election last November. Along the way he lambasted the Pope time and again. He called Francis, variably, “an imbecile,” “a Communist,” “a friend to assassins-cum-Presidents.” He has toned down the rhetoric since assuming office, but insists he is no longer a Catholic, that he “feels Jewish”, attends a Jewish temple, and is going to the Vatican after a visit to Israel where he promised absolute support for the war against Hamas. He then introduced his favourite Rabbi from Buenos Aires as Argentina’s Ambassador, his special envoy, to Jerusalem.

The two leaders can certainly come together to celebrate the Pope’s canonisation of Mama Antula, an Argentine nun from the 18th century credited with the miraculous healing of a fellow nun, a religious icon who founded Daughters of the Divine Saviour, a movement dedicated to organising spiritual retreats, in a Jesuit order that has always been the home of Pope Francis. That is the official cue for their first meeting.

Milei has been at pains to stress that as President he understands the need to show statesmanship. “Whether it’s the Pope, or the relationship his predecessors had with China, which bothers him greatly, he’s entitled to his own views,” says one of his advisers. “But as president he understands he has to represent the nation, and Argentines deeply respect Pope Francis, just as Argentina does much business with China.”

Any such visit has the potential, politically, to trigger the very kind of opposition on the streets that Milei wants to prevent

The fact is that Milei has good reason to be worried about the way he handles this extraordinary moment in those private chambers of the Pope’s residence, and the way he is seen to be handled. Pope Francis, in poor health of late, recently announced that he will break with tradition and be buried in the Rome Parish of St Mary Major, not inside the Vatican along with other Pontiffs — a sign if ever there was of a man pondering mortality. Then Francis declared that he wants to go back home this year to Argentina: a Papal visit to say goodbye to his beloved patria. Any such visit has the potential, politically, to trigger the very kind of opposition on the streets that Milei wants to prevent.

Currently Milei, as detailed in a long essay in these pages recently, faces a monumental battle in the country’s congress to pass his mega-change package that cuts dramatically into government spending and welfare programmes, privatises state assets, and redefines labour law, making it much easier for employers to hire and fire. Argentina’s powerful trade unions, a bulwark of the Peronist movement, have staged national strikes and violent demonstrations in protest. 

Milei has scaled back the reforms, cutting his original mega-reform bill in half, but is making some progress on building a coalition inside Congress to address an economic crisis that heralds annual inflation in 2024 of a staggering 250 per cent. Time is of the essence. In the words of the country’s leading commentator Joaquin Sola: “the days are coming when his Presidency is on the line.”

Those who know this Pope insist that the scars he carries from being a young Jesuit leader dealing with Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s make him uniquely aware of the need to put on his Papal hat when dealing with Milei, and so bury his personal view of the wholesale reforms Milei is proposing.

Still, this visit to the Vatican, and mending fences with the Pope, seems key to what comes next: weeks of haggling with the Pope’s allies and friends back home over what Milei can legislate and change. “The Pope’s voice will be heard in how he responds to our President, and we trust he recognises the will of the people in voting for us,” says that Milei adviser.

Yet whatever happens, and whatever the fall-out from this most private of conversations, old friends of Padre Jorge and El Loco Milei do agree on one take-away. The Argentine Pope, who lectured the US Congress on the failings of capitalism, shall finally sit with the Argentine President who called him a communist imbecile. Those friends predict few, if any smiles. Still, when two Argentine males meet, they insist we can be certain they will agree on: how much they love the country of Messi, Mate and Malbec, and that the World Cup belongs in Argentina.

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