Catholic Priests are Warning about Argentina’s Trump. Will it Stop Him?

Samantha Schmidt/The Washington Post.
Franciscan Priest Rodolfo Viano hands a flier to shopkeeper Estela Vargas, urging her to think carefully about her vote for president.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – In his 30 years as a priest, Rodolfo Viano never imagined he’d find himself here, knocking on doors to warn neighbors about a threat to democracy.

But days before Argentina’s presidential elections, for at least the 10th time in recent months, he walked down the dirt road of this working-class neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, hoping to persuade undecided voters to “make the best decision possible.”

“We’re a group of Christians, of priests, and we’re handing out fliers for you to take into account next Sunday,” Viano, a 64-year-old Franciscan, told one young man under the blazing sun. “We’re not telling you who to vote for. But we don’t want to let ourselves get carried away by hate, by anger or enthusiasm.”

He didn’t have to say the candidate’s name for the young man to know whom he was talking about: Javier Milei, the brash libertarian economist who once described Argentine Pope Francis as “evil,” and who now promises to tear down the political establishment.

The wild-haired, charismatic 53-year-old Milei has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Like them, he has galvanized masses of voters with populist rhetoric – capitalizing on anger toward a Peronista government that has struggled to get a grip on the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades.

He has also mobilized a swell of Argentines such as Viano to take to the streets and urge people to vote against him – even if it means voting for Sergio Massa, the minister currently overseeing the floundering economy.

“Democracy is at risk. The moment justifies it,” Viano said. Since the end of Argentina’s military dictatorship 40 years ago, he said, “this is the moment when democracy has been in the greatest danger.”

Billboards in Buenos Aires flash the words “Milei no.” Several of Argentina’s most important soccer clubs, and a small army of Swifties, have spoken out against him. Coalitions of academic researchers, leading economists and victims of the country’s military dictatorship have signed statements raising alarm about a possible Milei presidency. Viral videos have circulated showing Argentines in subway cars standing up to make the case against him.

The subway monologues and door-knocking priests are part of a wave of “micro-activism” in the country’s presidential campaigns, said Argentine public opinion analyst Shila Vilker.

“People who don’t normally go out started going out onto the streets,” Viker said. “The question is what kind of impact will this have on voters.”

After similar anyone-but-this guy campaigns failed to stop Trump in the United States and Bolsonaro in Brazil, will Argentina be any different?

Just as in the United States in the 2016 presidential race, religious leaders have played an unusually active role in the campaign against Milei. One group of 40 Catholic priests released a letter saying they “are convinced it is a moral imperative to do everything within our reach to prevent that Milei becomes president.” Pope Francis himself appeared to make a subtle reference to Milei in an interview with an Argentine news outlet, criticizing what he called “messianic” solutions to a crisis.

Last week, in Matanza, a Buenos Aires suburb, about two dozen priests held a Mass to pray for Francis’s return to Argentina for the first time since the start of his papacy. But the Mass also had a political overtone. Two ministers of the current government attended, greeting the different priests.

“This town has a dream of peace and freedom,” said one priest from the province of Córdoba. “But true freedom, not the selfish freedom that they want to sell us. We dream of the return of Francisco. But it is also important that each of us know how to recognize that we carry the shepherd’s staff and we have to take it out at this crucial hour in our history.”

The grass-roots anti-Milei campaign and the formal Massa campaign emphasize the idea that Milei is a threat to democracy.

Milei, like Trump, has shown a tendency to fight with the news media and to raise unsubstantiated claims about electoral fraud. In presidential debates, he cast doubt on the symbolic yet widely accepted tally of murders during the country’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, gained prominence advocating for soldiers convicted of human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

Some of the fears about Milei, though, are exaggerated, argued political analyst Lucas Romero. And the warnings may not resonate with voters worried that their salaries haven’t kept up with inflation and who have seen their savings vanish as the Argentine peso plummeted.

“They are trying to scare the public with a fear of a democratic rupture,” Romero said. “But it’s an electorate that is terrified about an economic situation that is much more urgent than democracy.”

Political analyst Federico Aurelio assessed that the swell of activism and attempts to stoke fear over a Milei presidency would do little to sway voters who are demanding a drastic change.

“It’s not that people aren’t interested in democracy,” he said. “Even if they have some doubts about Milei’s issues, his voters simply don’t believe that democracy is at stake.”

Milei has pledged to shut down the central bank and take a “chain saw” to government spending. His surprise win in the primaries in August sent shock waves through the economy, and trepidation about a Milei presidency helped deliver Massa a lead in the first round of voting last month. But now, after Milei managed to consolidate the support of the center-right establishment, the libertarian has a razor-thin lead over Massa in the polls.

“They are going to try to continue spreading fear,” he said in one of his last campaign events before the vote. It’s the poverty rate and the inflation rate, he said, that are the real “tunnel of terror.”

Many Argentines feel overwhelmed by what they see as two bad options: a continuation of Peronismo or a radical shift to the right.

As Viano walked from door to door in the neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, the priest knew that many of the families here were still undecided – even in a district known as a bastion for Peronismo, where blue pro-Massa murals were splashed across walls.

“We have to speed up our pace,” he told the woman helping him, Emma Almirón, a 76-year-old activist who was exiled to Spain during the military dictatorship.

At each door, Viano clapped over the sounds of barking dogs to get the attention of residents. Then he slipped a flier in the gate or mailbox. While the flier didn’t name Milei, it gave a subtle warning: “While democracy returned, there are false politicians who try to impose a destructive plan, putting the brakes on the common good.”

Many of those who came to the door were lifelong Peronistas who already planned to vote for Massa. But many others were undecided – or leaning toward Milei. There was the 48-year-old woman drinking maté who wanted change but was afraid of what a Milei presidency would entail. There was the 60-year-old blacksmith with a paint-splattered shirt, who hasn’t been able to find work, could hardly afford to buy meat, and argued that the Peronistas in power only end up benefiting “their own pockets.”

There was the tattooed 24-year-old smoking a cigarette who has worked for eight years as a bricklayer but has struggled to save up for a house or a car of his own – and keep up with the soaring inflation.

He plans to vote for Milei.

“He’s the only person I see that’s different from what we already have and what we already had,” Marcelo Revainera said. “I’m not convinced by a lot of what he says. But I’d rather have someone different, not the same that we’ve had for 15 years. I want a change.”