Social Activist Pits Pope Francis Against Argentina’s President

Social Activist Pits Pope Francis Against Argentina’s President © REUTERS/ Tony Gentile

13:02 11.02.2016(updated 13:17 11.02.2016) Get short URL

Pope Francis has long been known for his harsh words towards politicians; however, nobody expected a row would erupt between the pontiff and Argentina’s newly-elected conservative president.

Milagro Sala, the head of a neighborhood association who managed to obtain millions of dollars in annual funding for housing projects, has become a bone of contention between Argentina’s two most well-known leaders. Sala’s arrest on charges of fraud last month led the Pope to believe that President Mauricio Macri’s new center-right government aims to limit the activity of social activist groups in Argentina.

Local human rights advocates, syndicates and environmental associations have always operated with the proverbial blessing of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who spent years as an outspoken activist for the rights of the destitute and unemployed.

The importance of Tupac Amaru, the left-wing social movement led by 52-year-old Milagro Sala, rivals that of the government in Argentina’s northernmost province, Jujuy. Former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner supported the movement with nearly $2 million in monthly housing subsidies. However, the country’s new conservative government has allegedly taken measures to silence the activist.

The recent news prompted a public outcry as leading Argentinian churchman Bishop Jorge Lozano suggested that he could mediate a negotiation with Macri to secure her release.

“We must be careful not to slip into what Francis calls ‘subtle xenophobia’ under the noble guise of the battle against corruption,” wrote the Bishop in a recent newspaper column.

President Macri is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis on February 27 in the Vatican, and discussing Sala’s case is reportedly on their agenda.

Sala first met Jorge Bergoglio, the future pontiff, some years ago in Argentina when he visited poor areas and she assisted the working class people known as ‘decamisados’. The woman paid him a visit in 2014 in Rome, where she presented the Pope with coca leaves as a gift.

Sala and her comrades set up an organization which successfully lobbied for a budget of $50 million in Argentina’s poorest neighborhood. She was able to secure better housing for 70,000 Tupac Amaru members and has employed 5,000 workers throughout her leadership of the organization.

However, her strong-arm tactics have earned her many enemies. The center-left governor of her region considers her group and its Che Guevara-inspired ideas a threat to the civic order; two young members of the group attacked him in 2009 when he was a senator representing the region.

Tensions flared last year when Governor Morales demanded that the state cut funding to the organization, prompting its members to stage a permanent demonstration outside his office. “They wanted to throw me out of office,” Morales told the press. “They wanted to overturn the (provincial) government.”

Controversy surrounding the militant self-styled neighborhood association isn’t limited to its conflict with the local government. According to the Guardian, “allegations against it include the death of a five-year-old girl in a shootout involving Túpac Amaru members, involvement in drug-trafficking, and violent attacks against a judge, a newspaper and police stations.”

On 16 January, Sala was arrested and the vigil in Jujuy was eventually moved to Buenos Aires, where Sala supporters have built tents in front of windows of Macri’s presidential office.

Supported by Amnesty International which claimed that Sala “is being criminalized for peacefully exercising her rights to freedom of expression and protest,” Argentina’s human rights activists demand for Sala’s immediate release.

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