Poverty, priests and politics: why Peronism is back in Argentina

Poverty, priests and politics: why Peronism is back in Argentina

As ‘slum priests’ try to fill the gap left by the state, the populist movement is on the rise again

At first sight, the diminutive chapel in Barrio Eva Perón is not an obvious place of worship. If it weren’t for the gaudy murals declaring “hunger is a crime” and depicting Pope Francis I and Argentina’s secular saint Evita, it would be indistinguishable from the incomplete concrete houses and unpaved streets that make up this ramshackle shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the capital city.

The local priest, Father Francisco Olveira, better known here as Padre Paco, admits that his impoverished congregation is “somewhat lapsed” and “does not have to go to mass on Sundays”. Paco, who has worked in the slums of Buenos Aires since he was ordained 30 years ago, is more preoccupied by ensuring the inhabitants of the barrio’s 168 illegally occupied homes have enough food.

“Last week it was chaos here because our soup kitchen was overrun by people from a neighbouring community. How do you tell someone you don’t have any food left? You can’t be stingy with food,” he explains.

We are sharing a calabash gourd of mate infusion, a caffeinated South American drink, outside his own austere house in Eva Perón. Paco, 54, tells me his job is to alleviate “a very dramatic situation” in Argentina, which is suffering another of the economic emergencies that have erupted regularly over the past half-century.

After a currency crisis last year led to a $57bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the country has been hit by recession and rocketing inflation. As voters prepare to go to the polls this month, the outlook is bleak.

When President Mauricio Macri, heir to one of the country’s largest fortunes, came to power in late 2015, he vowed to eradicate the oppressive poverty that draws “slum priests” like Padre Paco to the villas miseria (misery towns). Instead, the number below the poverty line has swelled by four million under Macri — more than a third of Argentina’s population of 44 million now live in the kind of poverty seen in Barrio Eva Perón.

The state’s failure to attend to the needs of its sprawling slums has placed growing importance on the activities of priests such as Paco. Although a disparate group, all are disciples of Jorge Bergoglio, who, before becoming Pope Francis in 2013, earned a reputation as the “slum bishop” of Buenos Aires.

They are inspired by the liberation theology that became popular in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, which Paco summarises thus: “If [the poor] are being crucified, then there must also be crucifiers, so we must fight against them so that they stop.”

On the walls of his home, alongside a photograph of a smiling Che Guevara and other leftwing icons, Padre Paco shows me a framed letter from Pope Francis, sent to him in April 2013, which praises his “courage”, adding in mischievous brackets: “Well, sometimes you are too bold . . . but that’s good too.”

The outspoken Paco continues to be “bold”. Last year he was expelled from his previous parish for arguing that abortion is a public-health issue as opposed to a religious one. He has also claimed it would be a sin for Christians to vote for the “neoliberal” Macri. “What I fight for are rights,” he tells me. “We are filling a void, but we don’t want handouts, we want justice.”


“There is a fantasy that Argentina is a rich country,” says Rodrigo Zarazaga, a priest and political scientist, as he gestures out of his window in the ornate Colegio del Salvador Jesuit school in downtown Buenos Aires, towards the belle-époque mansions around Callao Avenue. “But in reality, it isn’t so rich.”

In the early 1900s, Argentina was considered to be one of the wealthiest nations in the world, thanks to bountiful natural resources, but a relentless cycle of boom and bust has led to a century of decline. Only the Democratic Republic of Congo has suffered as many years in recession since 1960. Economic volatility is intertwined with political volatility, with Argentina lurching from leftist populists to military dictatorships and back.

With each crisis, poverty inches ever higher. Argentina has failed to resolve the tension between the need to accumulate capital and the intense demand to redistribute it, says Zarazaga. “You don’t have to go to a slum to understand why Macri will lose,” he says. “See there below? Those two shops on the corner closed down in the last few days. The two beside them are about to follow.”

He is not alone in his prediction. After a crushing defeat for Macri in August’s primaries, most Argentines expect a win for the opposition Peronists, who first came to power in 1946 under the populist general Juan Perón and, as the country’s dominant political force, have overseen much of Argentina’s deterioration during the past half-century.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Villa 31, which, situated around train tracks just a stone’s throw from the city’s most elegant neighbourhoods, is one of the most emblematic slums in Buenos Aires.

Macri’s government invested huge sums here in an attempt to integrate the slum into the rest of central Buenos Aires — even forming plans to divert a major highway that slices right through it. But still residents voted overwhelmingly for the opposition in the primaries.

A Peronist coalition led by Alberto Fernández won here by a 47-point margin, compared with its 16-point lead nationwide. “It is not that they are ungrateful. It is a message,” believes Father Guillermo Torre, the Catholic priest known locally as Padre Willy.

The priest was sent by archbishop Jorge Bergoglio to take on the parish in 1999. Since then he has seen its population swell from 12,000 to 45,000 — including many immigrants from Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. Other slums have seen similarly vertiginous rates of growth in recent decades, placing ever greater pressure on priests.

“Today, we couldn’t be worse off,” he says glumly from his parish’s simple chapel, where the walls are decorated with posters of the Pope addressing rapturous multitudes. “The economy has destroyed everything. Many people need jobs, and there just aren’t any. They are asking for help to feed themselves. The cost of living means they just can’t get by.”

Typically jovial, Padre Willy struggles to hide his contempt for Macri and the impact he believes his administration’s policies have had on the poor. Inflation and unemployment have outweighed attempts at support, which has included increasing the handouts implemented by the previous populist government. But the state has for decades failed to provide even basic services and infrastructure to the often-ignored slums.

“The church ends up doing what the state should be doing,” says Liliana Barreto, a community member who is helping Padre Willy by preparing pizzas for a gathering of young mothers. The church’s approach, she says, has made it more effective at providing relief for the poor than a state where clientelism has become deeply ingrained.

Too often, help only comes with strings attached, she says. Those that benefit are required to show up to political rallies, or vote in the “right” way. “They take advantage of the needs of the people . . . They say: I will help you, but only if you are there when I need you.”

The Catholic Church has been a presence in the city’s slums since the 1960s. But after Bergoglio became archbishop in 1998, he increased the numbers of priests living in parishes that had been no-go even for some emergency services (there are now about 40). He too visited these areas to support the priests’ work, saying: “Every life is worth the effort.”

The priests can only do so much. With jobs ever scarcer amid Argentina’s deepening recession, one of the most serious threats is drugs. It is a problem that has grown alarmingly this century and is of increasing concern to the church, whose priests are at the front line of the struggle.

Pope Francis has expressed concerns of a “Mexicanisation” of Argentina, a reference to the bloody drug war that is tearing apart the social fabric of Mexico. “Once you get into the business, there is no way out,” explains Padre Willy bleakly. “You either end up in a prison cell or a cemetery.”

As he did the rounds of his parish on a sunny spring afternoon, this threat was all too evident. As the priest was forced to pull over his clapped-out car to allow a three-wheeled motorbike to pass, it soon became obvious that the cargo had been stolen from some construction workers, who were yelling and shaking their fists at the other end of the street as a wide-eyed man whizzed by with his loot.

Padre Willy immediately recognised the biker as a drug addict who occasionally seeks haven in his rehabilitation centre. “He’ll just sell it for some paco,” he sighed, referring to the crude form of cocaine that has become a “scourge” of the poor areas of Buenos Aires.

Barreto told me that her brother had been luckier. After he became addicted to paco, she sent him to the countryside, away from all temptation. “He is better now, but luckily he has family that can help him. There are many living on the streets by themselves that don’t,” she says.

The social work and sacrifices of the slum priests are widely praised, though some baulk at overtly political interference — such as when Padre José María “Pepe” di Paola, one of the closest to Pope Francis, last year accused the IMF of being pro-abortion (although abortion remains illegal in Argentina in almost all cases).

Carmen Ortega says that as a single mother she would be at a loss without the support that comes from Padre Willy. “I don’t know what to say. I get help here, but not from anywhere else.”


There is an old joke in Argentina, that you can leave the country for a couple of weeks and come back to find that everything has changed. But if you leave for a couple of decades, when you return nothing will have changed. That goes for the enduring popularity of Peronism in the Buenos Aires slums.

For some, the inexorable advance of poverty in Argentina has been caused by what a close adviser to Alberto Fernández described as three failed cycles of “neoliberalism” — the 1976-83 military dictatorship, the period in the 1990s under Carlos Menem that culminated in Argentina’s ruinous financial collapse of 2001, and now Macri’s presidency.

By contrast, he says, most Peronists do not govern for the rich. Averse to the kind of austerity programme implemented by Macri, Peronist policies are instead aimed at protecting the working classes.

But Loris Zanatta, an expert in Latin American populism and Catholicism at the University of Bologna, suggests a more disquieting reason. He defines Peronism, which lifted its social doctrine from the Catholic Church, as a kind of “Jesuit populism”.

At the core of Latin American populism, he says (also seen in the rhetoric of other leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez), is an idea that “the poor are the custodians of a pure identity, not corrupted by economic interests, money, egoism or individuality”.

Zanatta argues that, “In a culture that sanctifies poverty, it is very hard to eliminate it.” He contends that the poor deliver such a decisive electoral advantage for Peronism that the party has become a “factory” of poverty. If the poor are more likely to vote for Peronism because of its redistributionist policies, then it suits the party to ensure that the majority remain poor, and dependent on the state. “Peronism lives off the poor,” he says.


The most recent Peronist  government was accused of “us-and-them” politics that have deepened the rift in Argentine society. Shortly after winning her second term as president in 2011, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner told ecstatic supporters, “Vamos por todo” — meaning “Let’s go for everything”. This sent chills down the spines of the opposition and investors, who saw it as a clear threat to private property and the state itself.

Among the critics of the 12-year period when Fernández and her husband Néstor Kirchner ruled was the Buenos Aires “slum bishop” Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who railed against not just poverty but corruption.

The FT revealed recently, however, that the Pope had played a significant role in paving the party’s path back to power by encouraging a reconciliation last year between the more moderate Alberto Fernández and the radical but more popular former president Fernández de Kirchner, who had fallen out a decade ago. She will — unexpectedly — run as his vice-president.

    In a culture that sanctifies poverty, it is very hard to eliminate it. Peronism lives off the poor  /   Loris Zanatta, University of Bologna

“Francis follows what happens in Argentina by the minute. He follows Argentina almost too closely,” says a well-connected Jesuit priest. “Like John Paul II with Poland and his war against communism, it’s the same with Francis and capitalism.

“He can’t lose in his home territory,” he adds, clarifying that although the Pope “is not an outright anti-capitalist”, the kind of “neoliberal” capitalism that Macri is accused of by critics is clearly not to his taste.

Eduardo Valdes, Argentina’s ambassador to the Vatican until 2015, agrees that the Pope’s thinking “has much more in common with Cristina [Fernández] than the neoliberals”. But he insists that “the Pope is much more than just a Peronist”.

The political divide will be difficult to bridge. Macri’s opponents say that he has failed to unite Argentines, despite a campaign pledge to do so. As he tries to appeal to as many voters as possible, Alberto Fernández has sought a more centrist course than Peronist predecessors.

Some behind the scenes in his camp even fantasise that the Pope — who many believe will visit the country next year — could help put an end to the “grieta”, as Argentina’s social divide is known. They point to his contribution to the peace process in Colombia and the thawing of US-Cuba relations. Zanatta scoffs at this idea: “The Pope is the grieta,” he says.

Sociologists have long argued that Argentina’s “bipolar” society is doomed to drastic swings of fortune. Exposed to such vicissitudes, poor Argentines have little choice but to get on with their lives as best they can.

“As the state is absent, people have learnt to deal with their own problems,” says Padre Willy, who admits that even with the full force of the Pope behind them, slum priests can only achieve so much. “I hope that things will be better with a new government. It is necessary. The church and the state need to work together. What we contribute is just a drop of water in the ocean.”


Argentina: more than a century of boom and bust

1890     *Baring crisis. First of eight debt defaults

1913      *Becomes the world’s 10th-wealthiest state per head

1930        *First of six military coups in the 20th century

1946-55  *Juan Perón is first elected president. Eventually overthrown in a military coup

1973-74  * Perón returns from exile to win a third term as president but dies the following year

1976        *A military junta, backed by the US, takes power. Human-rights activists estimate that in the ensuing ‘dirty war’, thousands of people were ‘disappeared’

1982        *Conflict with the UK over the disputed Falkland Islands

1983        *Election of President Raúl Alfonsín marks the return to democracy

1989    *Amid hyperinflation, Carlos Menem is elected president, ushering in a decade of economic reforms

2001-02   *Financial crisis leads to the biggest sovereign debt default in history and civil unrest

2003-05   *Néstor Kirchner is elected president and pays off IMF debt

2007         * Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández (above), is elected president

2014         *Second debt default of 21st century

2015-16   * Mauricio Macri is elected president and ends default

2017         *Amid optimism, Macri’s government issues a 100-year bond

2018         *IMF provides $57bn bailout following currency crisis

2019         * Alberto Fernández, running with Cristina Fernández, is favourite to become president in October elections

Benedict Mander is the FT’s Buenos Aires correspondent


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