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'News from the South': Bergoglio, Chavez and the sound of silence

The media depictions of the death of the "vocal" Chavez and the rise of the "quiet" Bergoglio are telling.

Last Modified: 19 Mar 2013 11:58
Lisa Ubelaker Andrade

Lisa Ubelaker Andrade is a scholar of Latin American and US international history. She is currently a PhD Candidate at Yale University.
Jennifer Adair

Jennifer Adair is a historian of Latin America currently writing a book on the Argentine transition to democracy in the 1980s. She is a visiting assistant professor of history and politics at Bates College in Lewsiton, Maine.
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Unlike his contemporaries like El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero or Argentina's Jorge Novak, it is alleged that Bergoglio condoned or even supported the violence that saw many Argentinians killed or disappeared [AP]

Over the past two weeks, daily consumers of English-language media have seen Latin America blazoned across more front pages than at any other time in recent memory. And the images of the region couldn't be more different.

First came news of the death of Hugo Chavez. The vocal and bombastic critic of the United States was painted into a pantheon of Latin American "strongmen", from Juan Peron in Argentina to Manuel Noriega in Panama, who, in their own time, were distilled by the media into examples of quintessential Latin American authoritarians, boastfully battling empire and doling out amenities.

Then appeared Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the very model of redemptive and contemplative religious austerity. The first news of the election of Pope Francis, the Jesuit from Argentina, was heralded as a nod to reform. Observers described him as a humble man who prefers the popular pastime of football and a seat on the bus over the silks and pomp of the gilded Vatican. In these media renditions, Bergoglio (despite his immediate Italian ancestry) is presented as the "third world pope", who serves as an official acknowledgement of the importance of Latin American Catholicism and a turn toward humility with roots in the New World.

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And yet these two images, refracted in the cameras and pens of the northern hemisphere, say more about their audiences' imaginations of Latin America than they do about the subjects in question. Both men have been rendered into easily digestible archetypes, protagonists in an ongoing theatre of Latin American politics. Readers are presented with a quiet champion of the poor just as the authoritarian villain exits the stage.

Yet, the initial reports of Bergoglio quickly gave way to a more complicated story of his relationship to Argentina's "dirty war". The Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky has, over the course of several decades, documented what he has called Bergoglio's "double standard", noting how Bergoglio petitioned for aid to progressive Jesuit priests, while at the same time acting as an informant for the military, which disappeared, tortured and killed Argentine citizens during the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-1983. Supporters of the Pope portray him as a moral man whose complicity is proof of his efforts to work "from the inside" to help the more progressive Jesuits working under him. Verbitsky's work shows the contrary. He, along with several of Argentina's leading human rights organisations, have consistently maintained that Bergoglio is a church leader whose social conservativism not only made him a silent observer to power, but also an accomplice with ambiguous ties and concealed participation in the disappearance of several individuals. Bergoglio's silence has endured long after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. After becoming Bishop and then Cardinal, Bergoglio did little to formally distance the Argentine Church from the convicted torturers and the agents of state terror among its ranks. These entanglements have reporters pulled into a question of "did he or didn't he?" "How do we judge the willingness to be complicit?" "How do we draw a verdict on such ambiguity?"

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The questions, however, are misleading. It is Bergoglio's historic silence that is most at issue now. It is his silence that has enabled him to rise to power in an institution that values compliance. Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is today the leader of an institution that has yet to address its condoned violence in Latin America, from the conquest of the Americas through the Cold War.

The institutional history of the Catholic Church in Latin America is complicated by a commitment to social service on the one hand, and restriction of civil rights on the other; of the official blessing of regimes of state terror and silence surrounding its sanctioned sins. The fact that the first "Pope of the Americas" has been heralded as a sign of a new direction of social consciousness for the Church, risks minimising this history of terror. At the same time, it also veils the history of a vocal and brave minority of priests, from El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero to Argentina's own Jorge Novak, who did take concrete actions to expose and stop the Church's blessing of violence, and who used their ministries to fulfill the promise of the Church's social mission. Bergoglio does not belong among these members of the clergy.

Unfortunately, Bergoglio's selection highlights an important indicator of the future - not of quiet reform, but of entrenched conservativism. It confirms a strategy of silence dangerously extending to the Church's reluctance to identify and expel pedophiles and torturers from its ranks (while vociferously sounding the alarm when states like Argentina grant gay couples the right to marry, a historic precedent for the region).

Latin America's presence in the mainstream English-language news will have a short life, but it beckons a sustained conversation. The fact that these past two weeks saw the passing of Chavez and the rise of Pope Francis is the result of chance. The contrasts in depictions between the death of the "vocal" Chavez and the rise of the "quiet" Bergoglio, however, should help us move beyond caricatures of Latin America, toward a recognition of the strategic and profoundly problematic silences that have conditioned the emergence of the "first American pope". It requires facing that silence with the vocalised truth about the history of the upper echelons of the Church during Latin America's "dirty wars", as well the region's new legacies of reform.

Lisa Ubelaker Andrade is a scholar of Latin American and US international history. She is currently a PhD Candidate at Yale University.

Jennifer Adair is a historian of Latin America currently writing a book on the Argentine transition to democracy in the 1980s. She is a visiting assistant professor of history and politics at Bates College in Lewsiton, Maine.
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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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