Poverty, polarisation and the debt crisis topped the agenda yesterday as President Alberto Fernández met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
However, there were differing takes on the controversial issue of abortion, with mixed messages emerging from officials on either side as to whether the duo directly discussed the topic.
“They examined the country’s situation, with particular reference to problems relating to the financial crisis, the fight against poverty, corruption, drug-trafficking, social mobility and the protection of life from conception,” said an official statement from the Vatican, indicating that abortion had been on the agenda.
The government, however, said the Frente de Todos leader and the pontiff did not direcly discuss the issue of abortion. Rather, Fernández discussed the topic with Pietro Parolin, the cardinal secretary of state at the Vatican, a source at the Foreign Ministry told the Times.
Although the president has said his government will move to decriminalise abortion during his term in office, “Fernandez and the Pope had more important topics to discuss,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous, noting that for Fernández’s first meeting with the pontiff, it was better to steer clear of controversy.
Fernández and Francis, the first pope to hail from Latin America, spoke for about 45 minutes in the pontiff’s private library. The two men last met informally in August, two months before Fernández was elected Argentina’s president.
“Your Holiness, what a pleasure to see you,” said the president, as he entered the pontiff’s private library at the Holy See’s Apostolic Palace. The Pope welcomed him inside, before jokingly referring to his guest as his “altar boy.”
For the ceremonial gift exchange, the former Argentine archbishop of Buenos Aires gave Fernández a bronze sculpture that had a dove, vine, and olive tree. “This is what we want from you all, to be messengers of peace,” said the pontiff.
The president, in turn, handed the pontiff a religious bust, a book about cafés in Buenos Aires and a handmade loom made by an Argentine craft association.
The Peronist leader, who just last week concluded his first international trip as head of state, visiting Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, arrived in Rome on Thursday at around 3.45pm local time.
He is in Europe for a whistlestop tour that takes in stops in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as he seeks to court support for Argentina’s attempts to restructure its debtload.
According to the AFP news agency, the country’s debt burden currently stands at around US$335 billion, or 93 percent of GDP. Of that, US$44 billion is owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with talks on delaying repayment set to begin in earnest in two weeks time.
“The Pope will do what he can to help us with [the debt],” said Fernández in a press conference after yesterday’s meeting. “The Pope is an Argentine concerned for his country and people. Debt brought poverty to society.”
“The debt is a worry for them both,” confirmed a source at the Foreign Ministry, who mentioned that the meeting was a “face-to-face, sincere discussion.”
The source explained that, while Pope Francis is a religious figure and not a politician, he nonetheless has meaningful relationships with various heads of states, for whom he can serve as a bridge to Fernández.
Vatican experts saw the meeting as a success, saying it could only help Argentines.
“The important thing is that it has opened a genuine and direct path of sincere and cordial dialogue between President Fernández and Pope Francis in order to build peace bridges and sow seeds of concord in the Argentine people,” said Marcelo Figueroa, a columnist for L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Vatican City-state, to the Times.
“It is a beginning and like all construction and all the sowing, the arrival to the other shore and the good harvest will take time,” he added.
After passing through the Holy See, Fernández later met with Italian leaders Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Matarella. He next heads to Berlin to hold his first bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support he also needs as Argentina tries to court the affections of key stakeholders on the IMF board.
The president’s European tour also takes the Peronist leader to Madrid to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, as well as with King Felipe VI. Finally, he will head onto Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.