VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is poised to give us a geography lesson on small nations and their social challenges during his July 6-12 visit to three of South America’s least-known Catholic countries, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
It’s a long-awaited homecoming for the Holy Father.
He has not visited Spanish-speaking Latin America since February 2013, when he flew from Buenos Aires to Rome for the papal conclave, expecting to be gone 20 days (although he went back to the continent to attend World Youth Day in Portuguese-speaking Brazil two years ago).
As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was a prominent leader of the Latin-American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) — and especially strong as an advocate for Catholic unity across national borders.
This papal visit to his flock of the same language promised to offer the universal Church an especially vibrant picture of our Holy Father, his vision and how the Holy Spirit moves him. The three countries selected provide a glimpse of positive models of socio-economic development balancing growth with justice. They are also themes that contribute to Francis’ vision of stewardship of the Earth, which he writes about in his recently published encyclical, Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home).
Joy and Reason
Massive, jubilant crowds were expected to greet the Pope, whose official agenda included five public Masses, likely to bring millions of faithful to Christ’s table and display the popular devotions characteristic to each locale’s cultural tradition.
The trip’s schedule also included the Holy Father’s signature elements, his excursions to the peripheries: entering a notoriously dangerous Bolivian prison run by the criminals themselves and visiting a densely populated flood zone, Banado Norte, on the banks of the Rio Paraguay, impoverished but known for great solidarity.
The itinerary allowed for Pope Francis’ quintessential pastoral moments: in Bolivia, a meeting of members of movements that are mainly dedicated to marginalized workers and communities, such as garbage collectors, slum dwellers and peasants, as well as a visit to an elderly home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Quito, Ecuador, and, a few days later, a visit to console very sick children at a top pediatric hospital in Asunción, Paraguay.
“I want to be a witness of this joy of the Gospel and bring to you the tenderness and caress of God, our Father, especially to your children most in need, to the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, to those who are victims of this throwaway culture,” said Pope Francis in a video message to the “three sister nations,” released June 26.
The Society of Jesus received special attention on the Jesuit Pope’s agenda, as did civic groups.
As we’ve increasingly understood, Pope Francis is deeply engaged in socio-economic questions. Each of the countries on his itinerary is successfully confronting the same key development question: how to spur the economy to create jobs, while protecting vulnerable people and the environment. Each nation is experiencing economic growth.
Interestingly, each country also shares this characteristic: They are led by Catholic men trying to integrate faith and public office in distinct ways — and committed to positive working relationships between the state and the Catholic Church.
Ecuador’s Independent Leader
Ecuador President Rafael Correa, 52, is an economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois; he has held office since 2007. He is credited with reducing inequality between rich and poor and maintaining average annual economic growth of 4% since taking office.
Correa is considered a populist in American foreign-policy circles; tension between the two countries has surfaced regularly.
The president expelled all 20 U.S. Department of Defense employees last year and asked USAID to close operations before that. He audaciously stood up to international creditors in late 2008, defaulting on loan payments he called “immoral,” and managed to restructure debt in a way that wound up benefiting domestic health and education programs.
He has also garnered U.S. dissatisfaction for sheltering, since June 2012, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, in the embassy of Ecuador in London — where Assange still lives. The Ecuadorian government even explored the possibility of offering former CIA operative Edward Snowden asylum, at Snowden’s request, if he could get out of Moscow.
As the president explained in an interview with Al Jazeera, Assange and Snowden helped reveal “the American elite trying to control the world.”
But like many other Latin-American politicians, Correa is not easily categorized in typical left-right terms, as understood in the U.S.
For example, to reduce a high teen-pregnancy rate, he named a pro-life activist to head government intervention efforts in order to assure advocacy for abstinence.
The country’s constitution protects life from conception. When a legislator from Correa’s party tried to liberalize abortion law (only allowed to preserve the life of a mother and when a mentally disabled woman has been raped), he declared, “Anything that challenges life from the moment of conception is quite simply treason,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Correa has expressed his faith in many ways over the years.
He took a year off from the Catholic University in Guayaquil to work with Salesians ministering to indigenous people in the Andes. He taught math and the catechism, and he learned to speak the native language, Quechuan. He went to the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, for a master’s degree, where he met his wife, Anne. Together with their three children, the family attends Mass each Sunday.
Images of Correa and Pope Francis together at the Vatican suggest mutual affection. The president visited in April to participate in a climate-change forum co-sponsored by the Catholic Church and the United Nations.
Correa explained his strategy to bring clean energy to his country with hydroelectric plants, wind farms and electric vehicles. But environmental issues are one source of tension between the government and the local Church: Correa has opted for oil drilling and mining ventures in the Amazon not supported by some clergy.
Jesuits in the Andes Mountain region are especially concerned about resource extraction that disturbs indigenous communities — an issue the Holy Father was sure to hear more about while on the ground.
Bolivia’s Indigenous President
Like Correa, with whom he is allied, Bolivian President Evo Morales, 55, is a popular leader at home who is far less popular in Washington.
He rose to power opposing the Washington-led war on drugs in Latin America, helping organize peasant farmers (campesinos) growing coca leaves, which have medicinal and ritual use in the Andes but are also the main ingredient in cocaine.
Morales was first elected in 2006, the first indigenous person to hold the nation’s highest office. About 42% of Bolivia’s 10.6 million people identify as indigenous. His political party is the Movement for Socialism. One of his first acts as president was to reduce his salary and the salaries of government ministers by 57%, to $1,875 per month.
Despite advocating typically socialist solutions, such as tremendously increased taxes on the dominant natural-gas industry, while criticizing neo-liberal policies of the North and refusing aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Morales’ government was savvy enough to produce almost immediate positive results. The country had no fiscal deficit at the end of his first year in office — for the first time in 30 years.
From the start, Morales was antagonistic toward the United States: He ordered the U.S. ambassador to leave the country in 2008 for “undermining democracy” through USAID programs and then kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Bolivia and the U.S. partially restored diplomatic relations four years ago.
Bolivia has maintained a solid economy under Morales, with 5.8% real GDP growth in 2014 and 6.5% in 2013. He has decreased illiteracy as well as poverty, which helps explain his ongoing popularity and re-election to a third term last year.
His policies benefited from high commodity costs and a windfall from the sale of gas to Argentina and Brazil, but it was a key, ethical choice that his administration invested in education, health care and social programs with the money it made.
Evo Morales is an unusual character in his personal life, too: He never married, but he has two children by different women. While he self-identifies as Catholic, his official biography lists the indigenous Andean religion among his faith traditions.
His relations with the Catholic hierarchy were tense in his first two terms (mainly because his party changed the national constitution and displaced Catholicism’s special status in 2009), but with the election of Pope Francis, these relations have improved.
Morales was front and center at the Vatican last October, representing marginalized workers at a World Meeting of Popular Movements, co-sponsored by the Vatican and the United Nations.
It was at this event that Morales suggested Pope Francis visit Bolivia and attend a related gathering in Santa Cruz on July 9. For the Pope to have accepted the invitation to the event must mean a lot to Morales personally, while it also allows the Holy Father a continental reach regarding the value of marginalized workers.
New Guy in Paraguay
Demonstrating that Pope Francis does not have a political bias, the Holy Father’s visit to Paraguay highlights the ideas of a socially conservative Catholic leader, President Horacio Cartes, 58, a wealthy businessman elected to office in April 2013.
Cartes was not at all involved in politics until 2008, when he joined the revived Colorado Party to counter the ideas of an increasingly left-wing orientation in Latin-American politics, he said.
From 1954 to 1989, Paraguay was ruled by a dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. Following a coup, Stroessner escaped to Brazil, where he lived until his death in 2006. Upon his death, a Paraguayan Catholic bishop said, “The world is a happier place for the death of the bloody dictator. Justice was not served here; I hope God metes it out.”
But the post-Stroessner period was marked by instability and divisiveness.
When Cartes took office (limited to one five-year term by law), it was just the second time in the country’s 202 years of independence that power was transferred to an opposing side peacefully. Cartes was the first elected successor to President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, who was impeached by parliament in 2012 in a highly controversial ouster unrelated to wrongdoing. (Lugo, who served as bishop of San Pedro, a very poor diocese, from 1994-2005, requested laicization from the Vatican to run for office, which was denied because, the Vatican said, bishops can’t be laicized — although his request was granted after he was elected.) Lugo now serves in the Paraguayan senate.
At his swearing-in ceremony, President Cartes explained, “I’m not in politics to make a career of it or to become wealthier. I’m in politics to serve my people, make the future better for new generations and build up our identity as a free, independent and sovereign people.”
In two years, Cartes has made many positive improvements — with average annual GDP growth of 8.7% since he took office. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Paraguay to salute the country’s progress in combating poverty, inequality and drug smuggling.
Although it is a land-locked country dependent on agriculture, it has improved performance by increasing exports, especially of soybeans. As a result, inflation has dropped.
Although they do not have a long relationship, video of Cartes’ 2013 meeting with the Pope demonstrates Cartes’ dedication as a Catholic and that his two daughters had already met the Holy Father at World Youth Day.
Pope Francis’ decision to visit these three countries in particular demonstrates how serious he is to offer his moral authority to alternate programs of economic governance, regardless of their political orientation, as long as they act in solidarity with all people and respect the Church as a valuable social and spiritual interlocutor.