Don’t Cry for Me Argentina: Pope Francis and Economic Populism

The notion of a Latin American "Third Way" between capitalism and socialism is utopian sentimental nonsense.

Evita and Juan Perón at the Plaza de Mayo, 1951.

By Samuel Gregg Published on July 13, 2015

Since the late Hugo Chávez rose to power in Venezuela in 1999, much of Latin America has been firmly under the thumb of leftist-populist governments. Characterized by caudillo-like leaders, demagogic rhetoric, the deliberate mobilization of groups against each other (the poor against the wealthy, indigenes against the paler-skinned), the blaming of foreigners for the continent’s problems, the elimination of independent judiciaries, the nationalization of large segments of the economy, and efforts to destroy a free press, all these regimes have inflicted enormous economic harm on Latin America. Contrary to the protestations of Hollywood celebrities, Venezuela is simply the most advanced down the path of out-of-control inflation, price-controls, shortages of basic necessities (such as toilet paper), the systematic use of violence against regime critics, and complete contempt for rule of law.

The attitude of Latin American populist leaders to one institution they haven’t been able to dominate — the Catholic Church — varies. On the one hand, they’re regularly at odds with many Catholic bishops. In January 2015, a pastoral letter issued by Venezuela’s Catholic bishops courageously described their government’s policies as “totalitarian and centralist.” The regime, the bishops added, seeks control “over all aspects of the lives of the citizens and public and private institutions. It also threatens freedom and the rights of persons and associations and has led to oppression and ruin in every country where it has been tried.”

The government’s reaction to this critique was the usual demagoguery. Nonetheless the same populist leaders regularly invoke Christian symbols to legitimize their ideologies. Bolivian President Evo Morales’ presentation of what’s now called “the communist crucifix” to Pope Francis  is one such example. Whatever the motives of the deceased priest who designed the cross, the fact that the hammer-and-sickle symbolizes philosophical materialism, police-states, and the mass imprisonment, torture and murder of millions of people counts for nothing in the rather provincial world of Latin American leftist-populism.

The Anonymous Influence of Mammon

This brings me to some of Pope Francis’ statements during his Bolivia visit. Francis is no stranger to populist movements. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had to deal with the Kirchners in Argentina and did not enjoy good relations with a Perónist government that severely injured a nation that’s already the 20th century’s byword for economic self-immolation. That said, some expressions used by Pope Francis in Bolivia last week at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements not only echoed particular themes emphasized by Latin American populists but also shared some of their misdiagnosis of the region’s problems.

To be sure, anyone who’s spent time in Latin America knows that most of these nations suffer deep economic problems. But while the pope’s address noted that state welfare isn’t a solution to these challenges, its analysis of the region’s difficulties left much to be desired.

In the first place, Francis discussed the injustice inflicted by “a system,” by which he seems to mean economic globalization. This “system,” he argued, has resulted in “an economy of exclusion” that denies millions the blessings of prosperity. Francis then specifically attacked “corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties” as part of an “anonymous influence of mammon” and “new colonialism.”

Some of this rhetoric is hard to distinguish from that used by Latin American populists, ranging from Argentina’s long-deceased Juan Perón to Bolivia’s Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Leaving that aside, one wonders whether Pope Francis and his advisors have ever studied the respective merits of free trade versus protectionism. My suspicion is they haven’t, since tariffs and subsidies are precisely what allow already-wealthy countries to limit developing countries’ access to global markets. By definition, it’s protectionism that is an economy of exclusion — not free trade.

Likewise while the historical record of multinational corporations in developing nations isn’t lily-white, they have bought desperately-needed investment and jobs to Latin America. Francis lamented that new forms of colonialism often reduce developing nations to being “mere providers of raw material and cheap labor.” Yet if developing countries stopped capitalizing on what’s often their comparative advantage in the global economy — i.e., their lower labor costs and vast natural resources — it’s hard to see how they could generate enough wealth to lift millions out of poverty.

Moreover, whoever might be the “loan agencies” the pope has in mind, developing nations need infusions of foreign capital if they want to diminish poverty.

Incoherent and Inattentive to Evidence

Incidentally, Francis’s address contained not a word about the contributions of populist Latin American regimes to the region’s problems. Here his remarks reflected a common Latin American blind-spot: a reluctance to concede that many of Latin America’s difficulties are self-inflicted, and often by governments elected by a majority of voters.

When asked about the pope’s address, the Holy See’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi SJ, described it as part of a “dialogue.” Meaningful dialogue, however, involves an exchange of views in the pursuit of truth. Alas, there’s no evidence that Francis is listening, for example, to Christians who respect his authority as Peter’s Successor, who don’t think he’s a socialist, who share his commitment to reducing economic exclusion, but who respectfully suggest that some of his economic commentary is incoherent and inattentive to evidence. The pope’s avoidance of other views on these issues is odd, since he acknowledges that faithful Catholics can disagree about how to address contemporary economic challenges.

In his address, Francis told his listeners to take the initiative in finding ways to transcend their economic poverty. That’s good advice. The macro-effect of all such efforts, however, will be limited without fundamental changes to institutions and attitudes throughout Latin America: i.e., the type of cultural transformation that Latin American populists will surely resist. It would, after all, mean an end to their power. But it also implies that Latin Americans must abandon illusions about a Latin American economic “third way” — something which, given the region’s economic track-record, should have been dismissed long ago for what it is: utopian sentimental nonsense.

As one perceptive Argentine priest-professor told me in Buenos Aires earlier this year, “We just want to be a normal country!” And normality means Latin Americans saying no to not just the Kirchners, Correas and Morales of the region but also their destructive ideas. That’s a message which Latin Americans — but, perhaps, also Pope Francis — need to hear.

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