Significant events in Latin America, including the selection of a Catholic Pope from Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), and the death of the charismatic and controversial president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, raise the image of the hemisphere in global politics and alert us to profiles in power beyond the partisan divide at home.

There is no evidence that Bergoglio ever had a conversation with Chávez, but one imagines if they had conversed, it would have been lively. At first glance, the personas of these two men have little in common: one is soft spoken and self-effacing, the other defiant and provocative. Yet, both sought leadership roles, weathered election by their respective constituencies and stand in for the uneasy pattern of how power plays out in the region.

One of these men, born to dirt-floor poverty, ascended to power and once there elevated the plight of the poor. He vocally championed the disenfranchised majority long exploited by a system of corruption and patronage that squandered resource wealth and upheld inequality. And he put this theory into action by reorganizing and redistributing not just resource wealth but access to social and political rights. Sound like the Hugo Chávez you know?

The other man, by contrast, submitted to the rule of hierarchy, watched from afar as fierce struggles over social justice inflamed his natal land. He offered calm words to soothe the populace and derail attempts to collectively organize resistance to a system of oppression that was literally killing dissenters. So, why are Americans eager to embrace Pope Francis and equally enthusiastic to dismiss Chávez?

News of these men in the US media has been ubiquitous but also frivolous. Focus on footwear, ceremony and perception dominate larger connections and observations that could provide complex factors to weigh and consider. Both men have led complicated lives and understanding that complexity means considering the past context of faraway places. In synthesizing some of the debates on both men, I hope to make clear that opinion is no substitute for knowledge and punditry must not replace compassion for other nations and cultures.


The selection of the first pope from outside of Europe and from the region of the world with the highest concentration of Catholics is certainly worthy of attention and ripe for contextualizing. Argentina is the most European of Latin America’s republics, having absorbed over four million European immigrants (mostly from Italy and Spain) in the critical late-nineteenth century years. At times, almost a third of the population was foreign born. Pope Francis is the product of such immigration (as his Italian surname suggests), born to a recent immigrant father and a mother born of northern Italian parents. A pope born and raised in Latin America is a distinction for the church. Yet, it’s hardly a radical break in the sense that his heritage remains expansively European in the most neo-European society of South America. Just when does an immigrant become “from” somewhere new?

The European sensibilities that accompanied the immigrants infused Argentine society, suggesting it was different from Brazil, with its large population of African peoples due to the slave trade, or Mexico’s heavily indigenous and mestizo citizenry.Scholars differ on the exact dates of the Dirty War. While 1976 was the most brutal year, repression began earlier. Paul Lewis traces the origins of the Dirty War to the 1930s and ’40s. Until the 1970s, many political theorists believed that Argentina was on a trajectory toward modern, democratic and capitalist ascension. Instead, the government veered off toward the most brutal right-wing military dictatorship in the region and engaged in the Dirty War (1973-1983), which turned ordinary citizens into enemies of the state. This dictatorship and war involved a calculated attempt to reform society from the top down. To make these reforms in the name of re-establishing “order,” more than 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and killed including students, activists, opposition politicians and even Jesuit priests. Associated most notoriously with the authoritarian General Jorge Videla, the so-called “process” maintained explicit support from the U.S., made clear about a decade ago with the release of documents confirming that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported the junta’s tactics.

There are striking parallels between the ascension of Bergoglio to ecclesiastical power and the rise of General Videla and the dictatorship. Since many reports have claimed Pope Francis is a man of the people (who rides the subway!) or a defender of the poor, one might think that he was on the side of the priests objecting to the kidnapping and murder of citizens protesting brutal military repression. Instead, as investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky has demonstrated both in print and in court since 2005, there are serious questions about Jesuit leader Bergoglio’s human rights record (although Verbitsky’s own role in the military regime is also suspicious). In fact, Bergoglio’s actions during the dictatorship have been seriously questioned (and in rarer cases defended) on three fronts:

  1. Bergoglio’s knowledge of and possible complicity in the removal of babies from political prisoners,
  2. the disappearance of Bergoglio’s colleague and friend, Esther Balestrino de Careaga and
  3. Bergoglio’s role in the 1976 detention and torture of two Jesuit priests in training—Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics—for their work among the poor (see the Counterpunch link for expansive discussion of these incidents complete with translated transcripts of testimony).

The last issue is central to understanding Bergoglio’s leadership since it highlights the contradiction of a Pope who has painstakingly angled for a reputation as a man of the poor yet turned away from the tradition of social justice forged in the contested social space of Latin America, namely Liberation Theology. The unwillingness of Bergoglio (or others) to seek justice and truth for the victims after the dictatorship casts a troubling shadow over arguments he stands for and with the poor and repressed. Indeed, the Church in Argentina generally aligned itself more strategically with the “order” brought by repression than with “liberation” promised by those speaking out against human rights violations.

Pope Francis is only the latest example of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in a Church that simultaneously claims the mantle of defending the poor and standing for hierarchy. Centuries ago, missions protected indigenous peoples from slave traders or defended natives from harsh treatment by the Spanish while simultaneously amassing great wealth. In the 1950s and 1960s, a set of ideas largely formulated by young priests working in marginalized and impoverished communities sought to reformulate the Church’s approach to the poor. These priests did not just condemn oppression and injustice; they called on their flocks and the Church itself to act to liberate suffering in the world by ending oppression and injustice. This became known as Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology’s main challenge came through the notion of systemic sin. Individual sin is a well-known component of Catholic doctrine but Liberation Theology introduced the notion that sometimes individuals are so inextricably mired in structures of oppression that the only just course is to work against the systemic sins that cause poverty and oppression. Such a “preferential option for the poor” called for a new path toward building more equitable, inclusive and humane societies that followed the teachings of Jesus. Given the revolutionary context of the 1960s in the region, such ideas became immediately (and often inaccurately) linked to similar ideas about inequality and oppression articulated by Marxist revolutionaries. Yet, this notion of working within the Church to change structures of oppression sparked not only a revival in faith, but a burst of activity in the Church.

Given the popular focus on Pope Francis as a defender of the poor, you might suspect he comes from this tradition. That is not the case.

Another important first for Pope Francis is that he is a Jesuit and the Jesuits have a long and complicated history within the Church and also within Latin American history. Few recognize that the Jesuits were widely regarded for settling the most remote outposts of the Spanish, Portuguese and French empires largely through frontier missions (including Tucson and Detroit). They also extended into southern frontiers in the Argentine steppes, or Patagonia. Jesuits were, on the one hand, associated with education and intellectual pursuits and on the other with growing economic power centered in many mission territories. But, due to changing church politics and fears of the wealth and power the Jesuits were developing, a papal decree 1767 suppressed the order.

At its heart, the suppression of the Jesuits was a political move over trade disputes and economic power. It resulted in near-complete eviction—all Jesuits were forcibly recalled and removed from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies and took refuge in non-Catholic locations. This resulted in not only removing Jesuits from their flocks, but also auctioning off their possessions—from mission buildings to violins. It also seared a deep wound—a fissure perhaps only beginning to heal with the selection of the first Jesuit pope.


Unlike Bergoglio, Chávez’s personality kept him in the news and created a character in the U.S. media—one overwhelmingly negative. Chávez lacked the intellectual polish or the pedigreed mannerisms of most world leaders. This uncouth style—really a manifestation of his humble beginnings and hard-fought ascension as much as a political persona—never failed to get him attention. Whether calling George W. Bush the devil in front of the U.N. General Assembly or blaming the CIA for causing the cancers suffered by six recent presidents of the region, Chávez knew how to make headlines. His longstanding affiliation with Fidel Castro and more recent flirtations with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alone were enough to get many Americans to dismiss him outright. But his friendship with notorious bullies belied the fact he felt (and perhaps was) bullied himself by not just the Venezuelan oligarchy but also the CIA. Dismissal of Chavez without contextualizing his achievements reveals the opinions of, as one reporter put it, “critics that haven’t even seen the movie.”

Despite several actual movies about Chavez, the significant plots of his presidency remain mysterious to most people in the U.S. In particular, Chavez governed for the poor and was continually elected by the majority. He came into power through elections and stayed there through elections (despite claims otherwise by the New Yorker), ones Jimmy Carter called the best he had monitored. Chávez certainly gave notoriously long speeches on state-owned media channels, but 70 percent of the media field is private in Venezuela. His social base was broad and heterodox—trade unions, peasant organizations, feminists, environmental coalitions, neighborhood councils. The flourishing of these coalitions in the decades under Chávez speaks to the power he gave to ordinary citizens to participate in democracy, both on the ground and in the polling booth. In fact, several scholars have found that the rise of these social movements and their room to flourish points to Venezuela as the most democratic country in the hemisphere with peaceful methods of conflict resolution and mutual support between citizen alliances and federal bureaucracy. At a time when representatives in Washington seem deeply disconnected from citizen desires, such a system of participatory action points to a redefinition of liberty, freedom and social power.

Acceptance by the Venezuelan electorate isn’t all Chávez accomplished. He made strategic—and radical, in a progressive sense—choices about how a government should distribute and redistribute its resources. The results were vast improvements in the social landscape and economic equality, unlike those that occurred elsewhere. During his time in office, a lengthy 14 years, he cut the poverty rate in half. This is not an internal metric. The U.N. regularly measures inequality by the Gini coefficient, a measure of the distribution of wealth. In this measure, 0 refers to complete equality, 1 is complete inequality: Venezuela’s Gini fell from .498 to .397 between 1999 and 2011.The Gini for the US is .49, but rather than get more equal, it has trended the opposite direction, increasing from .45 under Reagan. His government also stalled inflation and kept salaries rising while increasing real per capita GDP. He had oil reserves and skyrocketing oil prices to help him, but the critical piece is that Chávez and his government made it a governmental priority to use that oil wealth to reduce poverty, to fund education and to provide healthcare.

Chávez’s governance certainly had flaws, but it is clear that what preceded him had more. There was no international outcry in the mid-1990s about an entrenched oligarchy enriching itself with natural resources that could have been used as public goods. Perhaps the timing of his failed coup attempt in 1992 forever falsely labeled him as a remnant of a crumbling Cold War. Perhaps his challenges to power and oil wealth speak too closely to debates in the U.S. over taxation and spending. All that Chávez has been accused of (corruption, dominating unions, stacking the judiciary, etc.) existed well before he came to power. Competition for power took place in a narrow contest between two elite political parties (sound familiar?) and these interests were reluctant to give up their privileges. It took Chávez nearly five years to gain control of oil revenues, but notably, once he did, he refused to extinguish his opposition. Instead, he allowed chaos and competition for the oil money, a luxury most other nations in the region could scarcely afford.

Chávez’s bravado also masked another important change for the region, largely unreported outside of it. He stitched together a collaborative and cooperative set of agreements, meetings and politicians in the Latin American region, invoking the wistful dreams of the charismatic independence revolutionary, Simón Bolívar. His international agenda included a strong relationship with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a much more sympathetic figure in the U.S. press. In contrast to Chávez, Lula looked calm and rational but together they succeeded in making hemispheric relations more, well, hemispheric. Together, they derailed a 2005 trade agreement that sought to lock in a deeply unfair trade advantage for the U.S. and pushed for debt relief among the poorest countries in the region.


Many reference Pope Francis as the “Pope of the 99 percent” but his past tells a somewhat different story. His association with hierarchy and ambivalence to the movements of the poor make fewer headlines than his symbolic gestures elevating humility. Missing are similar eulogies calling Chávez the “President of the 99 percent,” despite his abolition of an entrenched oligarchy and use of oil wealth to build human capital through education and social services, all the while arguing that Latin American nations should seek natural alliances and integration. Both men provide contradictions in leadership and visions of hope for a more thorough engagement with the rights and the plights of the poor. They offer differing versions of moral authority to the world in a time of increasing austerity and vulnerability.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Ms. Wakild, Hugo Chavez was an opportunist that use the poor to enrich himself. Just like fidel Castro and Che Guevara they lied to the world and relied on useful idiots like you to spread their lie, but please don’t believe me, instead go and spend some time in Venezuela or Cuba not as a tourist or as the guest of their goverment but instead mingle with common citizen. Unless you are totally blind you will soon realize that their paradise is more like a living hell, where they lie to the world to exploit the richness of their country. I know because I was born and raised in Cuba and have numerous venezuelans friends. Some day the world will know what they really did for their people and their countries.

    • Astrid

      Panle0960…Agreed. You do not need to be concerned. We all know it. Ir seems Emily read a good book, a book review or one of those books called “Learn about Latin America and/or Spanish in 10 days.” The Americans I know who are objective, culture even “revolutionary” know the sadness of our our continent are aware of what is happening to us. For example, the outflow of oil for free and the appropriation of the oil industry by the state which should read by the Chavez family or by the broke, free-loaders Latin American countries. Perhaps Emily follows the revolution because she sadly believes there is in fact a revolution. LOLOL

      • TS

        Emily Wakild, Ph.D., has indeed read a book or two. In fact, she is one of the nation’s top Latin Americanists. Her recent book has won several major awards, including top honors for best book on Latin America. Disagree by all means, but concede that not every Venezuelan shares your perspective, and that many, perhaps most, saw Chavez at the lessor of evils. Historical perspective helps.

  • Astrid

    Dear Emily,

    I am Venezuela myself and also an American citizen. In understand you ‘lived” in Venezuela. Chavez did actually the opposite of what you claimed he did. You need more data about Chavez and the horrendous impact he caused in our lives. Given what I read from your article, you have NO IDEA about the consequences of having this man (or cartoon character?) as a “president” or as a “stand up comedian?” for 14 years and his sad political and economical legacy for us Venezuelans.

    Your article describes very well your vacations in Venezuela _even if you were there for 5 to 10 years which I doubt- and your very superficial perceptions of what my country is. it is important that you know that I am in no way neither pro-Chavez nor against Chavez or crazy pro-American or something like that. I simply know my country and concerning this topic I try to be as fair and objective as I can. Having said that, you need more data and be more responsible. Get busy!

  • John Cheves

    Chavez and his successor, Maduro have since run the economy into the ground with their disastrous socialist economic policies. The author also conveniently failed to mention how Chavez shut down the media, and how corruption has skyrocketed under his and Maduro’s socialism.

    As is always the case with socialism, the people who suffer the most are the poor, and the politically connected elites are the ones who prosper. The economy has completely collapsed, and even what was the middle class a few short years ago is now impoverished and going hungry, despite the country being awash in oil.

    Venezuela has become a case study in how socialism ravages the poor. They are now far worse off than they were before Chavez and Maduro.