Whatever the wider reasoning of cardinals in Rome for the elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis I, it's an appointment of vital significance for Latin America, the world's largest Catholic-populated region.
In particular, the conclave's selection of Bergoglio raises two key questions: one about his past 'pastoral' identity, and a second about how his political identity might now be felt across Latin America.
The first relates to his alleged involvement with the Argentinian junta during its 'dirty war' against leftist dissidents, most notably, for Bergoglio, his alleged complicity in the regime's 1976 abduction of two leftist Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, both, as noted at the Guardian:
"seized by navy troops in the slums of Buenos Aires and held and tortured for five months at the ESMA camp, a navy base in the capital where 5,000 people were murdered by the military junta."
The second issue concerns Bergoglio's populist conservatism and how his elevation may be read as an effort to stem the rise of leftist social movements, much of it closely linked to liberation theology, across Latin America.
In a revealing interview, Horicio Verbitsky, the Argentinian journalist, head of human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies and author of El Silencio - charting Bergoglio's associations with the junta between 1976-83 - has spoken to Democracy Now about both issues.
Before outlining the claims of the book, Verbitsky offers his primary view of the new pope:
"The main thing to understand about Francis I is that he’s a conservative populist, in the same style that John Paul II was. He’s a man of strong conservative positions in doctrine questions, but with a touch for popular taste. He preaches in rail stations, in the streets. He goes to the quarters, the poor quarters of the city to pray. He doesn’t wait the people going into the church; he goes for them. But his message is absolutely conservative."
Verbitsky goes on to discuss the documents he found in the course of his research, incriminating Bergoglio in the surrendering of the two Jesuit priests to the military:
"The first document is a note in which Bergoglio asked the ministry to [renew] the passport of one of these two Jesuits that, after his releasing, was living in Germany, asking that the passport was renewed without necessity of this priest coming back to Argentina. The second document is a note from the officer that received the petition recommending to his superior, the minister, the refusal of the renewal of the passport. And the third document is a note from the same officer telling that these priests have links with subversion—that was the name that the military gave to all the people involved in opposition to the government, political or armed opposition to the military—and that he was jailed in the mechanics school of the navy, and saying that this information was provided to the officer by Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial superior of the Jesuit company. This means, to my understanding, a double standard. He asked the passport given to the priest in a formal note with his signature, but under the table he said the opposite and repeated the accusations that produced the kidnapping of these priests."
Despite strong denials from Bergoglio and new dismissals by the Vatican, both priests,Verbitsky claims, confirmed their accounts of torture and collusion to him, Orlando Yorio, who died in 2000, adding that Bergoglio was party to his interrogation, and Francisco Jalics, still in a German monastery, now reconciled and reticent about pursuing any further case against Bergoglio.
News of Bergoglio's election has sparked much recrimination from many of the families of those tortured and disappeared. Others rationalise Bergoglio's position during the period as 'pragmatic engagement' of the regime rather than outright collaboration. Yet they also concede that he made no courageous effort to defend the priests or voice strong opposition to dictator Jose Rafael Videla. It's a rancour that also affects Bergoglio's relations with Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who has appeared keen to assist those still in pursuit of those linked to the junta.
Whatever efforts made by the Vatican and general media to dismiss or excuse Bergoglia's guilt or involvement, such complicity is unlikely to be erased or forgotten, a shadow over his papacy which prompts further suggestions of his appointment as an establishment populist.
Democracy Now presenter Juan Gonzalez goes on, in this regard, to ask Ernesto Seman, an academic historian and former reporter in Argentina, about contextual similarities between the elevation of John Paul II and Francis I:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about that, precisely, and the parallels, it seems to me, in terms of the cardinals selecting John Paul II, when he was elevated to pope, he coming out of Poland, where there was a Solidarity movement and in opposition to the previous government, that, in essence, his elevation helped to fortify that movement. I’m wondering whether there’s some parallel now with the changes in Latin America now to the elevation of a very conservative cardinal from that region, might help to bolster forces that are opposed to continuing this enormous change that’s occurring in Latin America.
ERNESTO SEMÁN: You might say so. The problem that you have there is to what extent that’s going to make the gap between the church and the Catholic followers even deeper. In the case of Argentina and some of the social issues that happened over the last decade, you see that in a country that 75 percent of people consider themselves Catholic, has been a strong support to some of the social decisions made by the Kirchner administration that Bergoglio opposed. The last and most important one was the same marriage law—that is, matrimonio igualitario in Argentina, egalitarian marriage.
Bergoglio's opposition to Kirchner on doctrinal issues is not, of course, atypical of wider feelings among the church's cardinals. Like most, he is rigidly opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and homosexual relationships - though has, apparently, advocated greater tolerance for the latter.
But the cardinals' choice of Bergoglio also appears to favour the promotion of a politically-moderated social conservatism, particularly for Latin America, in opposition to liberation theology and its associate social movements. Internal to this is the Vatican's negation of Latin American priests working in the same brave, community spirit as Oscar Romero, Bishop of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 by a CIA-backed death squad.
In these regards, it's telling how much political and media praise Bergoglio has enjoyed in the days of his papal ascendancy compared with the widespread castigation of Hugo Chavez following his death. While Bergoglio approves a kind of 'spiritual' social justice tied to charitable awareness, Chavez championed revolutionary social justice underpinned by decisive economic transformation.
Reflecting popular celebration in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio's appointment would appear to confirm a continuity of his affable persona, the much-noted 'common man'. Yet, on both doctrinal and social positions, none of that appears to include any kind of radical agenda. And it's the latter which, in particular rejection of anything Bolivarian, is certain to endear him to Washington and the wider Western elite.
His arrival, for Latin America, even the 'Catholic world' at large, may provide some soothing objections to the harshest neoliberalism while still holding to a conservative market-determinism. As with the Obamafication of politics and social hopes in the US, one might see this as a certain Francisification of social expectations in Latin America. Like 'brand Obama's' pacification of a poor, notably black, underclass, none of Bergoglio's pastoral pacifying of social discontent, again in contrast to that proclaimed by Chavez, will be unwelcome by Wall Street, the IMF or their corporate-vested associates.
As Democracy Now further enquire of the pope's personality and political persuasions:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you have any expectations that, now that he’s been elevated to pope, that he may have some change in his perspectives on some of these issues? Or do you expect him to maintain the same populist conservatism that you say have marked his rise through the church hierarchy?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: I do believe that he is a man—he is the man he is, and he will not change. His first days as a pope show perfectly this attitude of humility. He refused the limousine and took the bus. He asked the people to pray for him, instead of praying him for them. These kind of gestures would be common in his tenure as a pope. And it’s possible that he would be revered by the masses because of this different attitude that seems more democratic and less monarchical than that of the former Benedicto XVI.But in doctrinary questions, he would be tied to conservative [ideas], and this is the thing that I wait. And I believe that he can play, concerning Latin America and the populist governments of the region, the same role that Pope John Paul played against East Europe during the first years of his tenure.
AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky, do you think that Cardinal Bergoglio would have become Pope Francis if he hadn’t played the role he did during the dirty wars, if he had sided with these two Jesuit priests, who were speaking up for the poor at the time and who were great proponents of liberation theology?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was against liberation theology. He was a man, during his tenure in the Jesuit company—the publication of the Jesuit company are full of articles, of pieces, against liberation theology. Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor.
Assaulted by the vast issues of Vatican corruption, paedophilia and other sex scandals, the Catholic hierarchy may now be trusting in the new sweep and renewing force of this incoming pope.
And yet, despite all the celebratory theatre and promoted profile of the political 'outsider', Pope Francis also carries with him this dark, past baggage of insider complicity in regime terror.
It also remains to be seen whether Bergoglio's seeming humility and ease among the marginalised might translate into any more meaningful agenda for social reform.
Perhaps 'repentance', if not confession, of an identity past might be offered up in more evangelical opposition to the unholy junta of Washington and Wall Street.
Yet, for those across Latin America and elsewhere struggling to escape the ravages of neoliberalism and working in liberationist hope of a Chavez-style participatory democracy, there's still little to be inspired by in Bergoglio's words or actions.
Verbitsky's last line here is worth holding to: "Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor."