WaPo: Juan & Evita & Jorge


You can’t understand Pope Francis without Juan Perón — and Evita

By Nick Miroff August 1 at 5:15 PM 

BUENOS AIRES — A few years ago, when he was not yet Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, visited the convent where he attended kindergarten in the city’s Flores neighborhood. The nuns gathered around.

“Sister Rosa,” he asked one of his first teachers, “what was I like?”

“A little demon,” she bellowed. The nuns burst out laughing.

“Jorge was a restless boy, always running around,” said Sister Martha Rabino, 74, the mother superior, who was present that day. “The sisters say he wouldn’t sit still.”

The restless boy from Flores is today a restless pope. In the two years since he was named pontiff, Francis, 78, has brought a distinctive rebellious streak to the seat of Saint Peter. Papal observers predicted that he would shake up the Vatican hierarchy. Few expected him to dive into global politics with this much evangelical fervor.

With Francis preparing to address Congress and the United Nations during his first papal visit to the United States, from Sept. 22 to 27, his moral and political convictions will be on display as never before.

In recent months, the pope’s indictment of unfettered capitalism as “the devil’s dung” and his calls for sweeping cultural and lifestyle changes to reduce global warming have fueled a perception among some conservatives that Francis is a leftist, with Marxist views dressed up in white vestments.

Here in Argentina, where Francis had a reputation as a conservative, those who have known him for decades find such characterizations risible, throwing their hands in the air, as if told the Brazilians were better at soccer or Chile had better wine.

“Absurd,” said Julio Barbaro, a former Argentine congressman who studied at the San Miguel Jesuit college with Francis in the 1960s.

The pope, Barbaro said, is a “Peronist” whose views don’t fit into the left-right boxes of the U.S. political divide.

Gen. Juan Perón ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955, and again briefly in the 1970s, and Peronism has endured as a dominant force in the country’s political life. It attempts to bridge class divides through the combination of a strong, authoritative leader, a highly centralized and generous social welfare state, and heavy doses of quasi-religious nationalist sentiment. Even after her death in 1952, Perón’s wife Evita was a figure of adoration among the country’s working poor.

Peronism’s appeal for many postwar Argentines, including the young Francis, was its rejection of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism. “It was a way to help the poor that doesn’t believe in class struggle,” Barbaro said. “It believes in capitalism but with limits.”

Perón was a classic Latin American strongman, too, stifling dissent and styling himself as the embodiment of Argentine national pride; the Peronism of Francis’s childhood did not exalt individual freedom or free markets. But his “third-way” policies and personal touch endeared him to working-class Argentines who were suspicious of wealthy elites yet wary of international leftism at the same time.

Roman Catholicism and Peronism had much in common, and the young Francis was steeped in both….

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