The Ersatz Populist

Among the many crimes of the Argentine military dictatorship, one continues to reverberate in the present; after leftist activists were tortured to death or thrown out of airplanes alive, their babies were systematically kidnapped and given to military officers to raise as their own. The new Argentine pope, a Jesuit priest at the time of the dictatorship, has been accused of covering up the theft of babies. Whether this accusation has any basis or not, writes Pagina 12‘s Horacio Verbitsky, the broader truth about Jorge Bergoglio is that he is not the “third-world pope” that the northern press would like to see; he is on the side of power and not on the side of the poor, despite his occasionally populist language.

From the hundreds of calls and emails I received, I have chosen one: “I can’t believe it. I’m so angry I don’t know what to do. He got what he wanted. I can still see Orlando in the dining room, years ago now, saying: ‘He wants to be pope’. He’s the right person to cover up the corruption. He’s an expert at it. My telephone won’t stop ringing. Fito called me crying.”

The email is signed by Graciela Yorio, the sister of the priest Orlando Yorio, who pressed charges against Bergoglio for being responsible for his kidnapping and the five months of torture he suffered in 1976. The disconsolate ‘Fito’ on the phone was Adolfo Yorio, Orlando’s brother. Both have dedicated many years of their lives to pursuing the accusations by Orlando, a theologian and priest who died in 2000 imagining the nightmare that became a reality yesterday.

Orlando Yorio didn’t survive to hear Bergoglio testify at the Fifth Federal Oral Court. There, Bergoglio said he found out about the theft of babies after the end of the dictatorship. But the court, which held the trial on the systematic theft of babies from prisoners and the ‘disappeared’, received documents indicating that as early as 1979 Bergoglio knew all too well what was going and was even asked to intervene in at least one case, that of Pedro Arrupe. After listening to the relatives of Elena de la Cuadra — kidnapped in 1977 while five months pregnant — Bergoglio sent a letter to Mario Picchi, a bishop in La Plata, asking him to intervene with the military dictatorship. Picchi found out Elena had given birth and the baby had been given to another family.

“She’s with a good family and there’s no going back,” the de la Cuadras were told.

When giving written testimony regarding the (clandestine military prison) ESMA and for the kidnapping of Yorio as well as another Jesuit-Francsico Jalics-Bergoglio said the church archives had no documents on prisoners or the ‘disappeared’. But his successor as head of the church in Argentina, Jose Arancedo, sent a judge copies of documents which I published in this newspaper about meetings between (military president Jorge) Videla and three bishops. They discussed whether or not to admit that ‘disappeared’ prisoners had been killed, because Videla wanted to protect those who killed them. In his first book ‘The Church and Dictatorship’, Emilio Mignone mentions Bergoglio as the epitome of the ‘pastors who led their sheep to the slaughter without defending them or rescuing them.’

I’m not sure Bergoglio has been chosen to cover up the corruption in the Catholic Church that rendered Joseph Ratzinger powerless. The internal struggles of the Church follow an inscrutable logic. The darkest realities can be chalked up to the Holy Spirit, whether they are the financial dealings of a Vatican Bank that fell short of international standards because it doesn’t fulfill laws to control money laundering, or the cases of pedophilia in almost all the world’s countries, which Ratzinger covered up and asked forgiveness for.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if Bergoglio went on a moral crusade to expose the holy skeletons in the closet. But I’m certain the new bishop of Rome will be an ersatz bishop, a substitute of lesser quality-like the diluted flour poor mothers give their children to cheat their hunger. Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian liberation theologian who was officially silenced by Ratzinger, had hoped the Franciscan Sean O’Malley would be elected.

“[O’Malley] is a person very connected to the poor who has worked a long time in Latin America and the Caribbean, always amongst the poor. He’s a symbol of a different kind of pope, a pope with a new tradition,” Boff said.

However, the pope’s throne won’t be occupied by a true Franciscan, but by a Jesuit who will call himself Francis, like poor little Francis of Assisi. An Argentine friend who lives Berlin wrote to me, amazed that the Germans, who don’t know Bergoglio’s history, think the new pope is a Third World pope. There is so much confusion.

His biography is that of a conservative populist, like Pope Pius XII and Pope Juan Paul II: inflexible on questions of doctrine but open to the world, and most of all to the poor. He will give his first mass in the streets of Rome and talk about the people being exploited and prostituted by the powerful, by those who close their hearts to Christ. His journalist friends will talk about how he took public transportation. When the faithful listen to his homilies recited with the gestures of an actor and in which biblical parables and the people’s plain speech mix, there will be those who dream of the much yearned for renovation of the church. In his three terms as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he did that and much more. But at the same time, against the first government in many years that actually adopted policies favorable to the poor, Bergoglio tried to unify the opposition. He has accused them of being inflammatory and confrontational because the government had to face down the ‘powerful’ of Bergoglio’s discourse.

Now he can do it on a much larger scale, which doesn’t mean he will forget about Argentina. If Pacelli received financing from U.S. intelligence groups to buttress Christian democracy and impede a communist victory in the first post war elections, and if Wojtyla was the first battering ram to open a hole in the European wall, the Argentine pope can do the same for Latin American.

He has a past as an activist. He hasn’t forgotten his populist discourse, with which he might even adopt historical causes like the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. These things might allow him to dispute the orientation of the process, to address the exploiters and to preach docility to the exploited.

Horacio Verbitsky