The last time a papal intervention worked in South America

The last time a papal intervention worked in South America

The big headline out of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s visit with Pope Francis today was Kirchner’s request that Francis intervene in Argentina’s dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

"I asked for his intervention to avoid problems that could emerge from the militarization of Great Britain in the south Atlantic," she told reporters outside the Vatican. "We want a dialogue and that’s why we asked the pope to intervene so that the dialogue is successful." 

But could papal intervention really help resolve the dispute?

Popes, for better or worse, have intervened in international conflicts for thousands of years. But should Francis intervene in the Falklands, he’d have big shoes to fill, as the most relevant example of a papal intervention in a South American territorial conflict is Pope John Paul II’s successful treaty between Chile and Argentina in 1984. The two countries were on the brink of full-out war over the Beagle Channel and other islands in the south of the continent before the late pope worked with both sides to de-escalate the crisis.

In 2011, the foreign affairs ministers of Chile and Argentina paid homage to the pope in a ceremony at Casina Pio IV in Vatican City where bilateral talks concluded with the Peace and Friendship Treaty signed by both parties in 1984. As MercoPress explained at the time:

Back in 1978 when Argentina and Chile were under military rule (a military Junta headed by Jorge Videla, and Augusto Pinochet), John Paul II impeded the launching of an imminent war over the possession of the Picton, Lenox and New islands, along the Beagle Channel, and which following the mediation were confirmed as Chilean territory.

Obviously, it helped that both countries were deeply Catholic in a way that Great Britain is most definitely not (Catholics amount to about 8 percent of the population in the U.K.). If there was any speculation about whether Britain would adopt a deferential posture toward the new pontiff, it was put to rest last week when British Prime Minister David Cameron criticized Pope Francis for his 2012 remarks that Britain "usurped" the disputed archipelago from Argentina. Per Reuters:

The year before Bergoglio said that the islands were "ours", a view which most Argentinians share.

Cameron said the people of the islands had made their view clear in a referendum last week in which they overwhelmingly voted in favor of remaining British.

Whatever the likelihood of Pope Francis getting involved in the Falklands dispute, Kirchner seems keenly aware that today’s conflict differs from the one between her country and Chile several decades ago. "There was a very difficult situation in 1978 when Argentina and Chile were almost at war and then John Paul II intervened and helped bring the two countries closer," she told the press today. "Now the situation is different because Britain and Argentina are two democratic countries with governments elected by the people. The only thing we ask is that we can sit down and negotiate."