The white smoke that announced the election of the Pope in the Vatican on March 13, 2013, came from a fire that was lit thousands of miles away, in Argentina. Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) became the first pontiff from Latin America and from the Jesuit order.
Bergoglio was not a typical priest in Argentina. He was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church needed to redefine its role in a world that suffered not just spiritual but also material degradation.
The doctrine of Liberation Theology, widely believed to have its origin in the Latin America of the 1950s, is described by its detractors as Christian Marxism. It was inspired by members of the Catholic clergy who believed their true mission was to better the lot of the less fortunate, if necessary by challenging the established order. Bergoglio, though not a votary of violent revolutionary methods countenanced by some of his peers, propounded much of their thesis.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he publicly apologised “for the sins committed during the years of the [military] dictatorship” in the 1970s. He was known as the “Slum Bishop” for his work in the poorer quarters. His forthright criticism of the Argentine government’s policies alienated him from former President Nestor—and even Cristina—Kirschner. President Cristina prudently recanted after Bergoglio became Pope and has had more than one respectful audience with him. His simple lifestyle and commitment to social justice continue to make international news.
The papacy today is perhaps as political an institution as it is ecclesiastical. Pope Francis has not shied away from his political role. In an 84-page exhortation in November 2013, he condemned “an economy of exclusion and inequality… widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which has taken on worldwide dimensions”. World leaders listen as he gives voice to hundreds of millions of the dispossessed.
Pope Francis’ influence on Latin America has been considerable. The Vatican was an acknowledged partner in the process that led to the dialogue and normalisation between the United States and Cuba in 2014. After an audience at the Vatican in May 2015, Cuba’s communist President Raul Castro admitted: “If the Pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church.… I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow [religious] believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step.” Pope Francis will visit Cuba in September this year.
His first overseas visit, in July 2013, was to Brazil, the largest Roman Catholic country in the world. With a nominal following of around 130 million Brazilians, the Catholic Church has been haemorrhaging followers to the hyperactive and increasingly popular evangelical churches all over the country. The visit included a tour of the violent Varghina slum of Rio de Janeiro and a mass for over three million on Copacabana beach. Underscoring the influence of the Church in Latin America, his congregation included the Presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Suriname, the Vice-Presidents of Uruguay and Panama and a host of other dignitaries. For the government of President Dilma Rousseff, the visit was double-edged. Massive demonstrations just a month earlier against corruption and misgovernance had shaken the ruling establishment. Pope Francis seemed to back the protesters when he said: “The young people in the street are the ones who want to be actors of change. Please don’t let others be actors of change.”
The Pope’s second visit to Latin America in July covered the three countries—Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay—with significant numbers of indigenous populations. He asked for “forgiveness, not only for the offences of the Church itself, but also for crimes committed against the native people during the so-called conquest of America”. In all three countries beset by poverty, he called for fundamental economic change: “Do we realise that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many labourers without rights, so many people whose dignity is not respected?”
Weeks before his visit, Pope Francis released a much-awaited Encyclical—a letter to the faithful—on June 18 entitled “Laudato Si” or “Praise be to You”. In the 184-page document, he frontally addresses the ills of modern capitalism and social exclusion and the effects of climate change on the poor, among other issues of the day. These ideas resonated strongly with his audiences during the visit. In a survey in Bolivia, where over 70 per cent of the people are identified as native Indians, 70 per cent claimed they were Catholic. Ecuador and Paraguay were not far behind. Days before the Pope arrived, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador suspended laws hiking taxes that had provoked massive demonstrations and threatened to impact the papal visit.
Pope Francis did not shy away from sensitive political issues. In Ecuador, where President Correa faces opposition to his strong policies and his attitude towards the press, the Pope exhorted him to resort to dialogue. In Paraguay, addressing an audience in which he noted the presence of Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes, he said: “In order to have a true culture in a nation, a political culture of the common good, rapid, clear trials are necessary.… I don’t know if that exists here or not.” It was a clear allusion to Paraguay’s allegedly notorious judicial system. He then denounced corruption among public officials, which he termed the “gangrene of a people”.
In Bolivia, there was speculation over whether he would touch upon the sensitive issue of Bolivia’s claim for access to the sea, lost during a war against Chile at the end of the 19th century. Chile refuses to reopen a treaty of 1904, which it says settled the territorial issue. Bolivia has appealed to the International Court of Justice where the case is being heard. President Evo Morales, who spoke of Bolivia’s “mutilation” when he received the Pope in La Paz, was not disappointed. Pope Francis in his public address referred to the sea and called for dialogue. The mere mention of the issue was considered a political victory by a euphoric Bolivia. A worried Chilean Foreign Minister claimed Chile had always sought dialogue but Bolivia was being intransigent.
There were delicate moments for the Pope, such as when Morales handed him a crucifix in the shape of a hammer, crossed with a sickle, the symbol of communism. This was a replica of one made by a Catholic priest who had been tortured in Bolivia decades ago. While he did not chew the traditional coca leaf, as per Bolivian habit, he did sip tea mixed with the leaf, which helps with altitude sickness.
Pope Francis and his convictions are a powerful force in a world struggling with the complexities of economic growth and sustainable development. They also have the potential to make a difference to the politics of Latin America. This region, schizophrenic about its past and menaced by 21st century threats of terrorism and climate change, is consumed by ideological debates over legalisation of drugs, abortion, gay rights, divorce and other ethical conundrums. His consistent faith and willingness to challenge ruling establishments convey hope to a region that understands his language.
Deepak Bhojwani has served as India’s ambassador in Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.