Argentina: Pope Francis Hosts Macri in Brief, Cold Meeting

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VATICAN CITY, Vatican – The politically and socially-invested native of Argentina, Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, welcomed newly-inaugurated President Mauricio Macri to the Vatican where the two held a brief and uneasy meeting.

On March 13, 2013, Archbishop Bergoglio became Papa Francesco, or Pope Francis in English and Papa Francisco in his native Spanish, as the first Latin American pope.

Since then, he has used his popularity and influence in his home country as well as the region in order to bring to light certain civic, social and political issues near and dear to him indirectly.

As Francis remains intrinsically linked to Argentina, a timeline of relations between the Pope and his native country began shortly after he assumed the pontifical role.

Previously, there was much tension between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, (2007-2015) Macri’s predecessor, and Francis. As little as a few of years ago, the two clashed on the issues of gay marriage and abortion while he served as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, but they mended fences when Francis invited Fernández de Kirchner to the vatican shortly after he became the pope.

The friendship grew in October of 2013 when Pope Francis wrote to Fernández de Kirchner after she underwent surgery to remove a subdural hematoma. Lending his support and prayers, he said, “Cristina, in these particularly difficult times, I wish to make myself present through my prayer for you, your health and for your full recovery.”

Several more meetings were held between the two, at the Vatican and at international events where their paths crossed.

On December 10, 2015, however, after Fernández de Kirchner was constitutionally barred from running again, Macri, of the conservative PRO party, took office on that day. Francis did not bother to call Macri and congratulate him, and Macri essentially invited himself to the Vatican for a meeting.

In tow were Juliana Awada, Macri’s wife, and Juan Manuel Urtubey, the Governor of Salta Province and a politician that belongs to Fernández de Kirchner’s center-left Front for Victory (FpV) party but one who was quite critical of his party’s head. Rosana Bertone, another FpV Governor (Tierra del Fuego) who shares similarities with Urtubey, was also present as were several others to complete the delegation.

Knowing Francis’ long association with the Peronists, of which the FpV is the left-leaning wing, Macri sought to soften the meeting by bringing Urtubey.

Macri’s efforts, however, did not bear fruit as the meeting with Pope Francis lasted only 22 minutes with the latter sporting a serious and cold look on his face for much of the encounter.

The ever-jovial Francis, known for his ability to make small talk and joke with visiting dignitaries of all ethnicities, races and religions. He speaks with them about religion, culture, politics and sports, but with Macri, the pontiff remained distant and stone-faced.

Pope Francis offered Macri a “good morning, Mr. President” and Macri casually responded by asking “Francisco, how is it going?” The two men sat a table for a very brief chat and then Macri and his wife gave Francisco a traditional poncho made in the northwestern Argentine Province of Catamarca and other small gifts.

After taking photographs, in which Francis remained stone-faced, they then walked into the private room in the Apostolic Palace. The two men emerged just 22 minutes later.

Upon exiting, Macri turned and faced the press in front of whom he voluntarily held a conference and divulged details.

Macri said that Pope Francis asked him to “have patience” as the head of state and urged him to “face narcotrafficking and corruption, the two biggest problems in Argentina.” Macri insisted that he and the pope agreed on several issue across the broad agenda and that most of all, “Francis emphasized unity.”

In his usual boastful style, Macri explained: “I am very happy with our meeting. It was a meeting of two old acquaintances in roles that were unimaginable just years ago: he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and I was the Mayor, and now he’s Pope Francis and I am the representative of all Argentines.”

Macri said that Francis told him that his “schedule does not allow for a visit to Argentina in 2016” but that he would “visit his birth nation as soon as possible.”

The Vatican’s press office, on the other hand, called the meeting a “cordial” one which touched upon “issues of mutual interest.” The topics included “comprehensive and integrative development, respect for human rights, the fight against poverty and corruption, justice, peace and social reconciliation.”

For his part, Urtubey said that he “does not think that Pope Francis meddles in domestic politics,” referring to Milagro Sala, an indigenous social leader in the northwestern Province of Jujuy.

Sala, who was closely aligned with Fernández de Kirchner, heads the Tupac Amaru Neighborhood Association, an public ousing construction and maintenance organization that wields a significant amount of power in Jujuy and operates with a high budget as they have built thousands of homes (and several factories, schools and a hospital) for the needy in the impoverished region. Seeing the success in Jujuy, the association spread to several other cities and regions in Argentina.

This earned her enemies on the other side of the political aisle and she repeatedly clashed with Gerardo Morales, a Senator for Jujuy. Morales then became Governor of Jujuy on the same day that Macri assumed the presidency and shortly thereafter accused Sala of fraud and illicit enrichment. He forced the breakup of the association and in response, Sala held a public protest in the Plaza Belgrano, Jujuy’s main square, for a month until Morales ordered her arrested for “public disorder.”

Since early January, Sala has remained imprisoned and many across Argentina, the region and the world have decried her detention and have said that she is a political prisoners. They have also called upon Macri to issue an executive order for her release. In fact, Macri was greeted by nearly 50 protesters shouting “Freedom for Milagro” in front of the Hotel de Russie, his residence for his short stay in central Rome.

Pope Francis, known for his social justice background and support for those who work in that field today, sent Sala a personalized rosary and his best wishes, but Urtubey said that this clearly pointed gesture “should not be given political significance.”

In addition, Urtubey, along with practically everyone that accompanied Macri on his trip to the Vatican, downplayed the very short time that Macri and Francis spent speaking alone.

Knowing that the two had a very short meeting, Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra still downplayed the importance of the length but was compelled to say that “the meeting took less because there was a lack of need for introductions and translations as with other leaders.”

Francis has, however, held many meetings with Fernández de Kirchner and many other Spanish-speaking figures that lasted much, much longer. It also seems highly unlikely that a discussion involving deep themes like poverty, corruption, human rights, development and national unity would resolve in just over 20 minutes.

Macri and other politicians readily criticized Fernández de Kirchner of using Pope Francis as political collateral during her time in office, but Macri himself now seemingly has no problem doing the same. The only difference, however, is that pictures and videotape do not lie as Francis clearly did not enjoy Macri’s visit, something that will not fall well with many of Macri’s conservative followers.

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