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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pope and Argentine president appear to find some common ground

A grocery store, where the daily prices are written on a chalkboard, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 22, 2024. Argentina’s inflation rate is among the highest in the world. (Sarah Pabst/The New York Times)

By Elisabetta Povoledo

President Javier Milei of Argentina, who before taking office ridiculed Pope Francis as an “imbecile” and accused him of violating the Ten Commandments, met with the pontiff Monday for an hourlong conversation that the Vatican described as “cordial.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the two leaders had spoken at a private meeting about their shared will to further strengthen relations and had addressed the Milei government’s program to counter the economic crisis in Argentina, where the annual inflation rate is at 211%.

On social media, Milei’s office posted a photograph of the pope with the president and the president’s sister, Karina Milei, one of his closest advisers.

The discussions, which came a day after Milei attended a Mass for the canonization of Argentina’s first female saint, also addressed international issues, “especially ongoing conflicts and the commitment to peace among nations,” the Vatican said.

The goodwill was not a given. Both men were born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and though the pope is a national hero to many in the country, where a majority of people identify as Roman Catholic, Milei, who says he is an “anarcho-capitalist” and who ran under the banner of a far-right libertarian party, has repeatedly denigrated Francis.

In the years preceding his election in November, Milei often attacked the pope, who in his writings and speeches has repeatedly spoken out against free market economies for generating income inequalities that affect the most vulnerable.

In 2020, Milei called Francis “the representative of the Evil One on Earth” because of the pope’s defense of “social justice.” Two years later, Milei said that Francis “always stands on the side of evil” because the pope supported taxation.

Francis appeared to be unperturbed, brushing off the criticism as electoral hyperbole. Milei’s comments were made “in jest,” the pope said in an interview in December with a Mexican broadcaster.

“You have to distinguish a lot between what a politician says in the election campaign and what he actually does afterward,” Francis said, adding, “because then comes the moment of concreteness, of decisions.”

Francis has often downplayed criticism, even the most vitriolic — part of a strategy of keeping political doors open, even with leaders who hold views that he rejects.

It has not always worked in his favor. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the pope was initially criticized for his stance on Moscow; he eventually called out the aggressor only after months had passed.

Milei’s tone toward the pope softened after he was elected president late last year, when Francis called him after his victory. Milei’s office said in a statement at the time that the pope had contacted Milei to “congratulate him and to express his wishes for the unity and progress for our country.”

On Sunday, Milei attended a Mass for the canonization of María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, an 18th-century woman who gave up her wealth to care for the poor. She also kept alive the work of the Jesuits, the order that Francis belongs to, after it was expelled from Argentina.

Francis praised her Sunday as a “model of apostolic fervor and audacity for us,” and he urged his listeners to overcome prejudice and fear and be close to the poor. “How many suffering men and women do we meet on the sidewalk of our cities,” he said.

After the ceremony, Francis was taken in a wheelchair to greet the Argentine president. The two men exchanged a few words before Milei bent over and gave Francis a hug.

It had been widely speculated by Vatican experts that the two leaders would speak of a possible papal trip to Argentina during their meeting, but the Vatican did not confirm any talks on that topic. Francis has made 44 trips outside Italy since becoming pope nearly 11 years ago, but he has never returned home. In January, Milei issued a formal invitation.

In an interview Friday with Vatican News, an official Vatican outlet, Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva of Buenos Aires said that the Argentine people were waiting for Francis “and want to meet with their pastor.”

The archbishop also spoke about the current economic situation in Argentina. In the two months since Milei took office, inflation has soared and the value of the national currency has plummeted, prompting protests and strikes. Despite the economic chaos, Milei’s approval rating has remained high.

“On the one hand, we cannot remain indifferent because for us, the poverty indexes and the indigence indexes are telling us about concrete faces, about concrete brothers and sisters who are having a very bad time,” the archbishop said.

“They are not numbers but concrete faces, and, as I always say, the political, business and religious leaders, we all have a little responsibility in having reached this situation,” he added.

Milei arrived in Italy from Israel, where he had promised to move his nation’s embassy to Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv. The decision was praised by the Israeli government and criticized by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group with which Israel is at war in the Gaza Strip.

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