Last week, the pope finished an eight-day tour of Latin America, where he visited, and held mass, in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. For Latin America, a region with forty per cent of the world’s Catholics, this was a significant event, as Pope Francis is from Argentina, and the first pope from the region. For the presidents of these countries, Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Horacio Cartes (Paraguay), I suspect that this was a somewhat nerve-wracking affair. Pope Francis is a high-profile figure that could both bolster their presidencies and improve the public mood, but also one who, with a critical word or phrase, could potentially undermine their legitimacy in front of virulent opposition groups.
As it turned out, the pope’s visit brought a little of everything, and although Pope Francis did largely steer clear of politics, when he did stray into the political world, it was with a somewhat mixed message.
In Ecuador, the days preceding the pope’s visit were rocked with large protests against the Correa administration, and once in Quito, the pope referred to ‘this Ecuadorean people that has gotten to its feet with dignity.’ Both the camp of president Correa and the opposition jumped on this statement as evidence of support. While in Ecuador, although the pope did call for the protection of the Amazon rain forest, parts of which have witnessed extensive mining under Rafael Correa, the visit of the pontiff largely appeared to be a boon to the president.
The pope’s visit to Bolivia was more political. He praised the reforms of the Morales administration, and apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in oppressing native peoples during the period of colonialism, an incredibly important statement in a country with large Quechuan and Aymaran populations. In a somewhat unusual move, Evo Morales, while wearing a badge of Che Guevara, presented the pope with a crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle, a replica of one belonging to Luís Espinal Camps, a left-leaning Spanish priest and liberation theologian, who was murdered in 1980 by the right-leaning anti-communist government of the time.
In Paraguay, all was not so rosy for Horacio Cartes. In front of President Cartes, a conservative businessman who had previously been in prison on charges of fraud, the pope railed against corruption, referring to it as ‘the gangrene of the people.’ He also stated that Paraguay ‘must banish the temptation to be satisfied with a purely formal democracy,’ a statement laden with meaning, given the forced removal of former left-leaning (and former bishop) Fernando Lugo in 2012 via impeachment proceedings. However, despite fervent hopes among activist groups, Pope Francis made no reference to social issues, in a highly conservative country, recently divided by the refusal to allow a ten year old that was raped to have an abortion.
This visit was illustrative. More broadly, it demonstrated the tensions between presidential diplomacy and the potential benefits, but also the potential damage, that can come with high profile visits such as this. It also reinforces the strong link between religion and politics, and notably Catholicism and politics, across Latin America. One last note – during his visit, the pope also called for South American unity, placing him in the company of both Simón Bolívar and Hugo Chávez. Make what you will of that.