ROSARIO, Argentina – A legendary left-wing Latin American politician who was a Catholic, and who once blocked the legalization of abortion, recalled his encounters with two popes shortly before he died Sunday.
“Speaking with John Paul II, he told me at a certain moment – I was mayor of Montevideo, with the Socialist Party – with his tone of voice, in Spanish: ‘A ruler, before being from the left or from the right, must be deeply human.’ That helped me to vindicate humanism as a fundamental form of urbanization in our humanity, said former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez.
Vázquez was mayor of Montevideo between 1990 and 1994.
He then recalled a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican in 2016, during his second term as president of Uruguay. Vázquez said in the interview that it had been “priceless. What a man Francis! What integrity! What will! I dared to ask him a question: how do you conceive God? And he, very quickly, replied: ‘Ah, no. I only go as far as Jesus,” he said, laughing.
Vázquez died of lung cancer early Sunday morning at the age of 80. His last public appearance had been seven days before, on Nov. 29, in a TV special called “El Legado,” translated as The Legacy.
In the program, Vázquez spoke about his origins, his career as an oncologist, and his political years. He also reflected on the death of his wife, last year, and his struggle with disease. He was the first left-wing president in Uruguay’s history after winning the 2004 elections as a candidate for the Frente Amplio party.
Devastated by the deaths of his mother, sister and father, the former Uruguayan president back in 2003 had said that he no longer believed in God. Yet noting that during life’s final stage many “reconcile” with God, 29-year-old journalist Ignacio González asked Vázquez about his relationship with God and religion at this stage of his life.
“Sometimes I think there is God, sometimes I think there is no God,” a visibly emotional Vázquez said. “That we are a little window that opens to life and we go out on stage. But many times, I want, I wish, that there was a God. But I can only go that far.”
Despite his struggles to maintain his faith in God, as a medical doctor and politician Vázquez was a reference of the pro-life movement in Latin America, particularly after vetoing the legalization of abortion during the final months of his first presidency, back in 2008.
In the text with which he communicated his decision to veto a law legalizing abortion, the then president recalled that science has clearly shown that life begins from conception; that in countries where abortion is legal the practice is naturalized and increased; that the criterion to protect a human life cannot be its usefulness or the affection it awakens in others “but the value that results from its very existence;” that abortion is not a medical act and; finally, that the law was contrary to constitutional principles and international commitments assumed by Uruguay.
As neighboring Argentina debates- again- a bill to make abortion “legal, safe and free” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that killed over 40,000 people and left more than half the population living in poverty, the presidential veto was widely shared across social media platforms by those campaigning for the defense of both the life of the mother and the child in Pope Francis’ country.
Vázquez made the choice to veto the parliament’s decision- presented by his own party- after making it abundantly clear during the discussions that he was against the practice on medical and humanistic grounds, with his faith never entering the debate.
Years later, under the presidency of José Mujica, the Uruguayan left-wing coalition succeeded in promulgating the law that remained firm.
Back in 2016, when he was again president, the home where he lived was in the eye of the storm for, some argued, challenging the separation between Church and State, inscribed in Uruguay’s Constitution since the early 1900s. To this day it’s unclear who made the call- Vázquez or his wife, Maria Auxiliadora Delgado- but they joined a call made by Cardinal Daniel Sturla of Montevideo, to put Christ back at the center of the Christmas season.
The campaign included several steps, the most public one being putting a flag with a Nativity set on the home front- by a window or on the door- which the Vázquez did. Sturla was in the Vatican on Nov. of that year, and Pope Francis reportedly supported the campaign, agreeing to having his picture taken with the “balconera,” as the flag was called.
Hoy una feliz audiencia con el Papa y le conté de nuestro programa “Navidad con Jesús” y accedió a una foto con nuestra balconera pic.twitter.com/0pzKiigQqv
— Daniel Sturla (@DanielSturla) November 24, 2016
In an interview she gave to a Salesian bulletin back in 2016- one of the few interviews Delgado ever gave- Vázquez late wife acknowledged that they never moved to the official residence of the Uruguayan presidency because they wanted their grandchildren to “go to their grandparents’ home, not that of the president.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma