Tag Archives: argentina

Argentina’s ‘stolen babies’ seek truth, face ghosts

Pedro Sandoval stopped celebrating Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even his own birthday after he found out the truth: The mom and dad he knew growing up had stolen him from his biological parents, who were kidnapped, tortured and never heard from again during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

“I’m still jealous of friends who can hug or get into arguments with their parents,” said Sandoval, 38, alluding to the biological parents he never met. “But I’m also thankful that I could at least hug my grandfather and grandmother.”

Four decades after the ruling military junta launched a systematic plan to steal babies born to political prisoners, Argentina’s search for truth is increasingly focused on the 500 or so newborns whisked away and raised by surrogate families. Several hundred have yet to be accounted for.

This spring a visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced, on the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the junta to power, that Washington would open up a trove of U.S. intelligence files from Argentina’s Dirty War era, when an estimated 30,000 people were killed or forcibly “disappeared” by the regime. It may take a few years for the documents to be released, but the news gave families hope for word on the fate of other stolen babies.

For the children who have already been found, coming to grips with the past is a painful process.

Sandoval, known then as Alejandro Rei, never suspected anything was amiss growing up in a middle-class household on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But in 2004, Victor Rei, a former border patrol officer and the man that Sandoval called his father, became the target of an investigation and his life turned upside down.

Sandoval said he felt both fury and crushing guilt after a childhood he describes as full of wonderful memories. And yet like others, he was torn over where his loyalties lay: At one point during the investigation Sandoval tried unsuccessfully to protect Rei by tainting DNA samples used to identify the older man.

“I made some mistakes,” he said. “It was part of a defense mechanism.”

Ultimately DNA matched Sandoval to Pedro Sandoval and Liliana Fontana, who were kidnapped by security forces in July 1977 when Liliana was two months pregnant. She gave birth to Pedro in captivity, and four months later he was taken away. His birth parents were never seen again.

“It’s still tough and bizarre,” Sandoval said. “But I found it beautiful that at least for four months I was in her arms.”

He has since severed ties with the people who raised him and has become close to relatives of his biological parents. His wife is expecting their first baby.

To date, 119 cases of stolen children have been resolved. Each discovery makes for banner headlines and prompts both personal and national soul-searching.

“These cases are moving because they are unique, painful and about suffering and trauma that doesn’t stop,” said Claudia Salatino, a psychologist who has treated some of the victims.

Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, 38, was Guillermo Gomez for decades before he was contacted by his biological sister and the Grandmothers of the Playa de Mayo, a human rights group that formed in 1977 to search for the disappeared. They showed him a family picture; Perez was shocked by his resemblance to the man who would later be confirmed as his real father.

“It took me 21 years to find my grandson and 15 years to win his love,” said Rosa de Roisinblit, 96, who is vice president of the Grandmothers.

“It was such a difficult process,” Perez said, sitting next to her.

Today both are plaintiffs in a trial that began last month against the former head of Argentina’s air force for the 1978 abduction and disappearance of activists Patricia Roisinblit and Jose Manuel Perez Rojo. Patricia gave birth to Perez at the Naval Mechanics School, where thousands of leftist dissidents were jailed and tortured during the Dirty War.

Francisco Gomez, the man who raised Perez, served time for stealing Perez when he was an infant and is now accused in the same trial involving the ex-air force chief, who is charged in the kidnapping of Perez’s parents.

Perez said he visited Gomez in prison in 2003, and Gomez angrily blamed him for his confinement.

“When I get out,” Perez recalled Gomez saying, “I’m going to put a bullet in your forehead, in your two grandmothers and in your sister.”

During the dictatorship, the Grandmothers marched weekly at Buenos Aires’ main square to demand the return of their loved ones. Since Argentina’s return to democracy, they have lobbied the government to create a DNA database and dedicate judicial resources to the search.

“They’re the closest to real heroes,” Perez said. “They fought against a dictatorship risking their own lives. … And that’s how I see my grandmother, as a hero.”

 

Argentina capital is bookstore capital of the world

All across Argentina’s capital, lodged between the steakhouses, ice cream shops and pizzerias, is an abundance of something that is becoming scarce in many nations: bookstores.

From hole-in-the-wall joints with used copies of works by Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to elegant buildings with the latest children’s books in several languages, Buenos Aires is filled with locales that pay homage to print.

The city of Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than any other major city in the world, according to a recent study by the World Cities Cultural Forum, an organization that works to promote culture. With a population of 2.8 million people within the city limits, there are 25 bookstores for every 100,000 people, putting Buenos Aires far above other world cities like London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York. The closest is Hong Kong, which has 22 bookstores per 100,000 people.

“Books represent us like the tango,” said Juan Pablo Marciani, manager of El Ateneo Gran Splendid, an immense bookstore in the affluent Recoleta neighborhood where 7,000 people visit each week. “We have a culture very rooted in print.”

Behind the high number of bookstores, 734 by last count, is a combination of culture and economics.

Culture boomed along with the economy in the early part of the 20th century, and even if the economic path grew rocky, ordinary Argentines embraced and stuck to the habit of reading. To this day, many across the region call the Argentine capital the “Paris of Latin America” thanks to its architecture, wide streets and general interest in the arts, music and literature.

During the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, many top writers and editors fled to Argentina, further cementing the country as a literary capital and powerhouse for printing.

In 2014, there were 28,010 titles in circulation and 129 million books were printed in the country, according to the Argentine Book Chamber, making it one of the most prolific book printers in Latin America.

Many stores carry rare books that are hundreds of years old. At Libreria Alberto Casares, bookworms can gaze at a collection that includes a French translation of Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega from 1650 and Gregorian chants on papyrus dating back to 1722.

In buses and subways, in parks and cafes and even in malls, it’s common to see people flipping pages of whodunits, histories and poetry, or most recently, new books about the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a case that has rocked the country since he was found shot dead in his bathroom Jan. 18.

“I was born with paper books and I’ll die with paper books,” said Aida Cardozo, 65, who was recently reading “Las Huellas del Rencor,” or “Traces of Resentment,” philosopher Santiago Kovadloff’s work on changes in Argentine society over the last 13 years.

“Computers are for responding to emails and using Facebook, but not to read a novel,” she said.

Books also receive help when it comes to staving off the digital deluge. There are no sales taxes on books, notable in a country where most products get 21 percent slapped on top of the sticker price. And heavy import taxes on books, and electronics such as e-readers, help keep the local printing industry strong. While Argentines are increasingly glued to their mobile devices, customers who want to use foreign retailers like Amazon have to pay a 35 percent surcharge on their peso-denominated credit cards.

The use of e-readers like the Kindle is still relatively low. Less than 10 percent of the 1.2 million people who attended the city’s annual book fair last year said they used electronic devices to read books, according to a fair survey.

Ignacio Iraola, the Southern Cone editorial director for publishing house Grupo Planeta, said the economic factors make printed books an attractive business for bookstores and make books a popular gift in tight economic times.

“A book costs 200 pesos ($23) compared to 400 pesos $46 for a shirt,” said Iraola. “And the perceived value of a book is much higher.”

South American wines are ‘muy bueno’

There was a time when wines originating from South America were just cheap commodities, often scarcely palatable. Back then, if your friend served you a South American wine, either he or she had fallen on hard times or it was time to find a new friend.

History gives us a rationale for such plonk. Spanish monks who helped colonize the continent brought with them clippings of vitis vinifera, which they planted and cultivated largely for use as altar wines, an enterprise less concerned with capitalizing on the character of the grapes. The 19th century saw an influx of French varietals, but the vintners’ expertise remained rudimentary, with an emphasis on quantity over quality.

That all started to change in the 1980s. Expertise developed and new winemaking techniques like stainless steel vats and oak barrel aging were introduced. More wine was exported and more of it was worth exporting. As time passed, the reputations of South American wines, particularly those from Argentina and Chile, steadily improved.

At the end of the 20th century, an influx of French immigrants into Chile and investments by French and American winemakers turned the trend into a seismic shift. Chile and Argentina’s oenological advances are now the wine world’s best-kept secret. 

Better wines from the two countries have become mainstays on local restaurant wine menus and in bottle shops thanks to the higher quality and continued lower prices of the product. Today, if a friend serves you South American wine, he or she may still be cost-conscious, but also on the cutting edge of an emerging movement. And that’s someone you may want to get to know better.

Here are some suggestions to consider next time it’s your turn to pour:

ARGENTINA

Like neighboring Chile, Argentina’s wine industry dates back to the 16th century and is strongly influenced by Spain. Argentina at one time was the world’s fifth largest wine producer, but 90 percent of its output was consumed locally because the quality was too low to export.

In the 1990s, Argentina’s financial needs encouraged an increase in the export market, which boosted the quality of the country’s wines. South American economics, including the 2002 devaluation of the Argentine peso, also have helped keep prices low, making the country’s wines an excellent value.

Argentina’s best-known winemakers hail from the Mendoza province. Consider Antucura, which grows its grapes in the region’s Uco Valley. Head winemaker Herve Chagneau’s 2014 Antucura Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) is characterized by bright fruit and soft tannins, both of which make the wine more approachable. Aged three months in French oak, the wine delivers red fruit, spices and licorice notes to the nose and the palate.

More distinctive, perhaps, is Chagneau’s Cherie Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé ($15). Expect the bubbles to deliver floral aromas of yeast, toast and candied fruits, all of which reappear on the palate. Sparkling rosés come and go, but one is worth trying.

Mendoza also is home to Bodega Luigi Bosca, established in 1901 and Argentina’s oldest family-owned winery. The winery’s Finca La Linda brands offer both a red and a white of intriguing taste and sound characteristics.

The Finca La Linda Torrontés ($12) draws on Argentina’s white specialty grape, similar to muscat in its characteristics. The wine has floral aromas, reminiscent of lavender and rosehips, and delivers a slightly sweet taste of peach and orange peel. Its balanced acidity makes it suitable either for sipping or supping.

The Finca La Linda Bonarda ($12) may be a little more interesting. Unrelated to the three types of bonarda grapes grown in Italy, the Argentinian bonarda is in fact genetically identical to France’s douce noir and California’s charbono. The Finca La Linda version pours a ruby red, with aromas of red fruit and figs. The rounded, full-bodied wine arrives velvety on the palate, with ripe tannins providing backbone to the wine’s lingering finish.

Luigi Bosca cranks it up a notch with their 2012 Pinot Noir ($21). Vinted from grapes grown in Bosca’s east-facing El Paraiso vineyard in Lujan de Cuyo-Maipo, the wine pours ruby-red, with aromas of strawberries, chocolates and red fruit. The wine is full-bodied and fresh, vigorous in its approach and elegant in its finish.

Casarena, another Mendoza vineyard, weighs in with a truly notable wine, the 2011 Single Vineyard Jamilla Malbec ($38). The rocky limestone soil of the Argelo and Perdriel vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo give the wine a pronounced minerality, which nicely tempers its floral and fruit tendencies. Expect flavors as diverse as blackberry, licorice, bitter chocolate and even crushed rock, with a good acidity to strengthen the wine and temper the palate. This one is a keeper.

CHILE

Although its trajectory closely followed that of Argentina, Chilean wines gained a foothold in the United States slightly ahead of its neighbor. Chile is now the fifth largest exporter of wines in the world and the ninth largest producer. The climate of the narrow, mountainous country, which runs roughly half the length of South America’s Pacific coast, has been called a cross between California and France, which makes it prime winegrowing country.

The Casablanca Valley, in Chile’s Aconcagua region, is one of the country’s best known wine-producing areas, and Casas del Bosque winemaker Grant Phelps is doing some good things with locally produced grapes.

Phelps’ 2013 Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc ($17) draws on two different clones of the grape grown on nine-year-old vines in a hillside vineyard planted in red clay mixed with granite. The soil suitably stresses the vines, resulting in a wine with a nose of grapefruit and smoke tempered by a hint of salted sea air. A palate of guava, kiwi and other tropical fruits is tempered by a zesty acidity that adds to the wine’s structure and strength.

A similar brightness follows in the 2014 Reserva Rose ($13). Produced from deep red syrah grapes, the wine boasts a nose of key lime, grapefruit and other fruits, again tempered with a little salinity. Expect flavors of citrus and ginger, with a mineral backbone and sufficient acidity to give it character. 

The syrah reappears at full strength with the 2012 Gran Reserva Syrah ($19). The deep red wine wines arrives with aromas of strawberry and spice, delivering a palate of plum, fig and black olive flavors, with chocolate and spice on the back palate for a richly textured finish. A strong oak backbone and well-integrated tannins make this an exceptional wine.

One cannot talk about Chilean wines without at least mentioning Concha y Toro. The historic winery’s Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere ($23) is just one of the reasons why. The deep red wine arrives with aromas of ripe black fruit and spicy black pepper. Flavors of blackberry, chocolate and oak-induced vanilla fill the palate for rich, luxurious mouthful.

This wine is the perfect place to end this South American wine tour, but it may be an even better place to start a journey of your own.

CBS News releases video referenced in O’Reilly dispute

CBS News this week released video from four stories it aired about the Falklands War in 1982, all part of a dispute involving Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly and his subsequent statements about covering the war.

None of the stories mentions O’Reilly, then a young CBS reporter, or makes any specific reference to a CBS crew member being hurt.

The television time travel was prompted by a Mother Jones article last week calling into question O’Reilly’s claims he reported in a “war zone” or “combat zone” during the brief conflict between Britain and Argentina. Few reporters made it to the front of the war, some 1,000 miles from the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires.

O’Reilly has said that he covered an anti-government demonstration in Buenos Aires that turned violent and that a photographer he was working with was knocked to the ground and was bleeding. Describing the events two years ago, O’Reilly said he “dragged off” the photographer from danger.

Former CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg, who also was covering the event, characterized O’Reilly’s account as “dishonest” and “completely nutty” during a Huffington Post interview. Engberg said none of the camera operators working the night in question remembers any colleague being injured. The camera person who was said to be hurt has not spoken publicly about the matter.

During one of the CBS reports, then-anchor Dan Rather said that several television crew members were knocked to the ground and that North American television crews were “jostled.”

An Engberg report, also released by CBS, said police fired guns with tear gas and plastic bullets. He said in the report it was unknown how many people were hurt but at least some were seriously injured.

An Associated Press account of the demonstration said that police officers charged a group of about 50 journalists, beating some and trampling others.

“Two news photographers were reported injured by rubber bullets fired by police,” said the June 16, 1982, account by AP writer Douglas Grant Mine.

The release of the videos, while providing more detail about the situation O’Reilly faced 33 years ago, did not resolve the issue of whether his retellings of the experience have been completely factual. 

O’Reilly, on his program Monday night, showed portions of the CBS video and said it proved the event was no “walk in the park.” He interviewed Don Browne, a former NBC News Miami bureau chief who supervised the network’s Falklands coverage, who also described the situation. No mention was made in O’Reilly’s report about any CBS News personnel being hurt.

The Mother Jones piece was printed shortly after NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for misrepresenting his experiences in the Iraq War. O’Reilly, long the most popular prime-time figure in cable news, has called the piece a political hit job.

“I want to stop this now,” O’Reilly said. “I hope we can stop it, I really do.”

Argentina and Germany have a rich history in World Cup

Diego Maradona was reportedly so struck by stage fright that he called for his mother’s help as Argentina players sat in silence in their changing room before the 1986 World Cup final against West Germany.

But it was Maradona who provided the moment of brilliance that decided the game and gave Argentina its second title before 114,800 fans at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City. Four years later, Maradona was in tears as the Germans lifted the title in Rome’s Olympic stadium.

Argentina and Germany have a long and emotional World Cup rivalry involving some of the best players to grace the game. When they face each other again on Sunday in Rio De Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, it will be the third World Cup final between the teams – something no other two nations have accomplished.

The 1986 and 1990 finals are still two of the most talked about games in football history.

In 1986, Maradona was at the summit of his career and scored all four of Argentina’s goals in the quarterfinals and semifinals – including the “hand of God” against England. Franz Beckenbauer was in charge of Germany in his first major tournament as coach.

Germany’s camp was in disarray, and goalkeeper Uli Stein was sent home for insulting Beckenbauer. Journalists shared a hotel with the players and their nightly escapades became tabloid lore.

But the Germans plodded on and beat France 2-0 in the semifinals, even though the Michel Platini-led French team had been widely expected to face Argentina in the final.

And so, in the noon-time heat of the awe-inspiring Azteca, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Maradona led their sides out. The Germany captain was playing injured throughout the tournament and had not scored.

Jose Luis Brown’s header and Jorge Valdano’s goal on a counterattack gave Argentina a 2-0 lead and Maradona’s team appeared to be cruising. Then the Germans struck back.

Rummenigge and substitute Rudi Voeller scored from Andreas Brehme’s free kicks and suddenly it was 2-2 with eight minutes to play.

Maradona had been marked by Lothar Matthaeus, who did a good job throughout the match. But with the Germans trying to use the momentum and grab the winner, the ball took a weird bounce in midfield and Maradona sent Jorge Burruchaga racing with a deft left-foot flick. Burruchaga beat the offside trap and Argentina had the title.

Years later, Valdano told Germany’s Spiegel magazine that Maradona was so nervous before the final that he called for his mother, Tota.

“‘Tota, come and help me, I am afraid, you must help me,'” Valdano described the scene as Maradona broke the pre-match silence in the dressing room.

Four years after that game, Beckenbauer became the first man to win the World Cup as both player and coach.

Germany dominated the final, outshooting Argentina 23-1 but the South Americans held on despite having two men sent off, Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti, a first for a World Cup final.

The match was decided by a disputed penalty in the 85th minute that was converted by Brehme with a low shot inside the post. Matthaeus had been the designated penalty taker, but he did not trust his shoes and left it for Brehme.

Matthaeus began the match with a pair of shoes he got as a gift from Maradona. But the right shoe came apart during the first half and Matthaeus had to get a new pair during the break. He did not feel comfortable enough to take the penalty.

A furious Maradona broke into tears as he blamed the referee for the loss. Beckenbauer walked alone on the grass of the Olympic stadium in a reflective mood as his players celebrated. In 2010, Maradona was in charge of the Argentina team when it lost 4-0 to Germany in the quarterfinals, ending his second career as national team coach.

After the 1990 match, Beckenbauer predicted that a reunited Germany would be virtually unbeatable.

However, Germany is still waiting for its fourth title, having lost the 2002 final to Brazil. Argentina hasn’t been back on this stage until now – and again faces a familiar opponent.

Argentine president to be godmother to lesbian couple’s baby

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez has agreed to be the godmother of a lesbian couple’s baby in a Roman Catholic cathedral.

Umma Azul, who is just over 2 months old, will be baptized today in a ceremony with her two mothers. She’s the first child known to receive this church blessing in Argentina.

An Argentine law based on an old Russian tradition allows couples to ask presidents to be godparents for their seventh child.

Nancy Esteche, who runs the presidential office that arranges these baptisms, confirmed that Fernandez agreed to make an exception for this first daughter of Carina Villarroel and Soledad Ortiz, who were married last year.

Fernandez won a political battle against Pope Francis four years ago when he was Argentina’s top church leader and the country became the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage.

After he became pope last year, Francis showed more openness to gays and lesbians, famously asking, “who am I to judge?” if a gay person seeks the Lord.

Fernandez won’t participate in the ceremony itself, which is taking place in the historic cathedral in provincial Cordoba 435 miles (700 kilometers) from the capital. Naval officer Claudia Fenochio will attend in her stead, the state news agency Telam reported.

But gays were celebrating the move anyway, saying it suggests a new opening for the global church now led by their Argentine pope.

Gay couple from Sochi marries in Argentina, seeking asylum

A gay couple from Russia’s Olympic city of Sochi has gotten married in Buenos Aires and plans to seek asylum in Argentina.

Alexander Eremeev and Dmitry Zaytsev married at the civil registry in Argentina’s capital, accompanied by gay rights activists who say Argentina should provide refuge to people who are being persecuted for their sexual orientation in other countries.

The two men are preparing their case before Argentina’s National Commission for Refugees, saying that now that they are married, they would face attacks and police persecution back home in Sochi.

Political asylum cases involving Russian gays and lesbians have increased sharply since Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a law banning so-called gay “propaganda” from reaching minors.

The law created penalties for Russian citizens and visitors that could result in fines and imprisonment. The law also provided cover for right-wing extremists who have waged a series of assaults against gay people in Russia.

Gay couples rush to be first to wed in Uruguay

A gay couple showed up before dawn to be the first to register under Uruguay’s new “marriage equality law,” but another pair was married first on Aug. 5 after getting special permission for a rushed wedding at a hospital where one of the men is dying of cancer.

“It was very emotional,” said Luisa Salaberry, the civil registry worker who officiated at the hospital wedding.

She said that the ceremony was intimate and that the government waived the usual 10 days of bureaucracy because the patient’s cancer was so advanced.

“They had been waiting for the law to take effect so that they could get married,” said Salaberry, who did not identify the couple.

Civil Registry Director Adolfo Orellano confirmed that the hospital ceremony was Uruguay’s first same-sex wedding.

Earlier on Aug. 5, TV producer Sergio Miranda and artist Rodrigo Borda, partners for 14 years, were the first to register.

“This is an historic day for us and for the country,” Borda said. “No longer will there be first- and second-class citizens. This will be seen in many countries where this option still isn’t possible, and hopefully help people in those places live more freely.”

Uruguay is the third country in the Americas, after Canada and Argentina, to legalize gay marriage. President Jose Mujica’s government also decriminalized abortion and expects senate approval soon for a government-managed marijuana industry.

“This will help so that many people can say, `I went with my boyfriend to walk in the park,’ and not have to invent that they have a girlfriend or something like that,” Miranda said.

“There are people who constantly live a double-life,” Borda added. “That’s why we’ve made this so visible, to show that it can be done. We’re in a country that has a very open mind right now – you can see it in the people and in the street.”

Borda said U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Julissa Reynoso is a friend who has been invited to the couple’s wedding.

The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires announced an “LGBT Go” campaign, inviting people to apply for up to 60,000 pesos (about $11,000) in grants for projects that protect and strengthen gay rights in Argentina.

Pope Francis once supported civil unions

Faced with the likelihood that same-sex marriage would be legalized in Argentina in 2010, the head of the Argentina Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, wanted the church to support civil unions as ‘the lesser of two evils.”

Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis I, was rebuked over the idea by the other bishops, according to the pope’s authorized biographer. Bergoglio went on to become the public face of opposition to the marriage equality law proposed by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

In a letter asking for prayer from Argentine monasteries, Bergoglio blasted same-sex marriage “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” and called adoption by gay and lesbian couples a form of discrimination against children.

Despite opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, the law passed in July 2010 and made Argentina the first South American nation to recognize same-sex marriage.

Kirchner, who once called Bergoglio “medieval,” met privately with the new pontiff Monday at the Vatican. 

“I saw him serene, confident, at peace, calm and also busy and concerned, not just about the enormous task that will be governing the Vatican State, but also about the commitment to changing the things he knows must change,” she said at a news conference after the meeting.

Argentine gays not thrilled with new pope

While the appointment of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope has filled many in this deeply Catholic country with pride, members of the gay community in Argentina are unsurprisingly less than enthusiastic with the Vatican’s choice.

Nearly three years before Argentina became known as home to the first Latin American pope, it made history as the first country in the region to approve gay marriage – an action that then-Cardinal Bergoglio actively opposed.

The gay community in Argentina remembers Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, as the man who launched “a war of God” against the move to approve gay marriage.

“He was the visible face of the Catholic Church’s opposition to equal marriage and he approached it from a fundamentalist position, posturing that he had to wage a war of God against what he considered a plan of the devil,” said Esteban Paulon, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Before the Argentine Congress approved gay marriage in July 2010, some provinces in the country and individual judges had already begun allowing it.

With that reality and the pro-gay marriage stance of President Cristina Fernandez, the church had to decide what to do.

According to the new pope’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, Bergoglio was politically wise enough to know the church couldn’t win a straight-on fight against gay marriage, so he urged his bishops to lobby for gay civil unions instead. It wasn’t until his proposal was shot down by the bishops’ conference that he publicly declared what Paulon described as the “war of God” – and the church lost the issue altogether. 

Despite his conservatism, “Bergoglio is known for being moderate and finding a balance between reactionary and progressive sectors,” Paulon said. “When he came out strongly against gay marriage, he did it under pressure from the conservatives.”

The first Argentine same-sex couple to be married, before the national law was passed, were Alex Freyre and Jose Maria Di Bello in December 2009, in the southern city of Ushuaia, province of Tierra del Fuego. Their union was made possible by a judge who declared unconstitutional two articles of the civil code limiting marriage to that between a man and a woman, and the province’s governor, who backed the judge and issued a decree allowing gay marriage.  Shortly afterward, however, a judge declared the marriage “nonexistent.”

Freyre, executive director of the Buenos Aires AIDS Foundation, wrote on his Twitter account this week that Pope Francis “knows that gay marriage isn’t the end of the world or the species.”

“Now he can say it in Latin.”

In another Tweet, he remarked, “Maybe the fact that the Vatican has chosen a pope from a country where gay marriage is allowed is a sign that they get it?” 

Freyre went on to urge the new pope “to renovate the church so that it resumes a path of spirituality.”

Paulon also urged Pope Francis to promote true reform in the church.

“He has seen that Argentina hasn’t suffered any commotion with the gay-marriage law. … It would be difficult for him to now argue that it leads to chaos or discord. It hasn’t destroyed the family, and the anti-Christ hasn’t arrived.”

But Paulon is also realistic.

He recalls, for example, that when Bergoglio served as head of the Argentine conference of bishops for several years, he was a die-hard opponent of abortion, and argued against sex-education laws that permit free access to contraceptives and allow Argentines to determine their gender based on their self-identity instead of their biology.

In any case, analysts note, any real reform of these issues would not be up to Pope Francis alone, but would rise or fall only after an internal Vatican debate between diverse factions.

Bergoglio is a man “open to dialogue,” said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, one of Argentina’s principal human rights leaders and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Perez said he hoped the new pope would “form teams that can help him effect the changes that the church really needs.”