Argentines who want their country to be the next Venezuela see Francis as an obstacle.
Argentines celebrated last week when one of their own was chosen as the new pope. But they also suffered a loss of sorts. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a tireless advocate of the poor and outspoken critic of corruption, will no longer be on hand locally to push back against the malfeasance of the government of President Cristina Kirchner.
Argentines not aligned with the regime hope that the arrival of Francis on the world stage at least will draw attention to this issue. Heaven knows the situation is growing dire.
One might have expected a swell of pride from Argentine officialdom when the news broke that the nation has produced a man so highly esteemed around the world. Instead the Kirchner government's pit bulls in journalism—men such as Horacio Verbitsky, a former member of the guerrilla group known as the Montoneros and now an editor at the pro-government newspaper Pagina 12—immediately began a campaign to smear the new pontiff's character and reputation at home and in the international news media.
The calumny is not new. Former members of terrorist groups like Mr. Verbitsky, and their modern-day fellow travelers in the Argentine government, have used the same tactics for years to try to destroy their enemies—anyone who doesn't endorse their brand of authoritarianism. In this case they allege that as the Jesuits' provincial superior in Argentina in the late 1970s, then-Father Bergoglio had links to the military government.
This is propaganda. Mrs. Kirchner and her friends aren't yet living in the equivalent of a totalitarian state where there is no free press to counter their lies. That day may come soon. The government is now pressuring merchants, under threat of reprisals, not to buy advertising in newspapers. The only newspapers that aren't on track to be financially ruined by this intimidation are those that the government controls and finances through official advertising, like Mr. Verbitsky's Pagina 12. Argentines refer to the paper as "the official gazette" because it so reliably prints the government's line.
Intellectually honest observers with firsthand knowledge of Argentina under military rule (1976-1983) are telling a much different story than the one pushed by Mr. Verbitsky and his ilk. One of those observers is Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. Last week he told BBC Mundo that "there were bishops that were complicit with the dictatorship, but Bergoglio, no." As to the charge that the priest didn't do enough to free junta prisoners, Mr. Pérez Esquivel said: "I know personally that many bishops who asked the military government for the liberation of prisoners and priests and it was not granted."
Former Judge Alicia Oliveira, who was herself fired by the military government and forced into hiding to avoid arrest, told the Argentine newspaper Perfil last week that during those dark days she knew Father Bergoglio well and that "he helped many people get out of the country." In one case, she says there was a young man on the run who happened to look like the Jesuit. "He gave him his identification card and his [clergy attire] so that he could escape."
Ms. Oliveira also told Perfil that when she was in hiding at the home of the current minister of security, Nilda Garré, the two of them "ate with Bergoglio." As Ms. Oliveira pointed out, Ms. Garré "therefore knows all that he did."
Some people cannot forgive Francis for being anti-communist. Photo: Getty Images
Graciela Fernández Meijide, a human-rights activist and former member of the national commission on the disappearance of persons, told the Argentine press last week that "of all the testimony I received, never did I receive any testimony that Bergoglio was connected to the dictatorship."
None of this matters to those trying to turn Argentina into the next Venezuela. What embitters them is that Father Bergoglio believed that Marxism (and the related "liberation theology") was antithetical to Christianity and refused to embrace it in the 1970s. That put him in the way of those inside the Jesuit order at the time who believed in revolution. It also put him at odds with the Montoneros, who were maiming, kidnapping and killing civilians in order to terrorize the population. Many of those criminals are still around and hold fast to their revolutionary dreams.
For them, the new pope remains a meddlesome priest. In the slums where the populist Mrs. Kirchner claims to be a champion of the poor, Francis is truly beloved because he lives the gospel. From the pulpit, with the Kirchners in the pews, he famously complained of self-absorbed politicians. He didn't name names, but the shoe fit. Nestór Kirchner, the late president and Cristina's husband, responded by naming him "the head of the opposition."
As Ms. Fernández Meijide observed last week, "I have the impression that what bothers the current president is that Bergoglio would not get in line, that he denounces the continuation of extreme poverty." That's not the regime's approved narrative.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com
A version of this article appeared March 18, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope.