It was always in the stars that this week’s encounter between Pope Francis and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, more or less the successor to Hugo Chavez as Latin America’s most notorious anti-Western populist, would be interesting. Their get-together Wednesday in La Paz, the Bolivian capital, certainly delivered.
Thursday morning I was awakened by an urgent phone call from a Chilean journalist seeking reaction to perceptions that the Bolivian government won a diplomatic and PR breakthrough because the pontiff called for dialogue on a border dispute between the two nations.
Picking up on some Catholic grumbling, he also wanted to know why the pontiff allowed Morales to present him with an image of the crucified Christ featuring the Communist hammer and sickle. Morales also gave the pope a book detailing Bolivian outrage over Chile’s closure of its access to the sea after a 19th century war.
Two observations are in order.
First, it’s hard to blame either of these episodes on the pope or the Vatican in terms of potentially damaging spin.
In terms of the border dispute, Francis didn’t take sides. Instead, he called for dialogue “in order to avoid conflicts between sister peoples … Instead of raising walls, we need to be building bridges.”
It’s hard to imagine a comment less partisan than that. Granted, Bolivia may claim a win because Chile’s long-standing position is that there’s nothing to talk about, but one can’t expect a pope to favor anything other than dialogue facing a conflict situation.
In terms of the gifts, the Vatican cannot control what another head of state gives the pope.
Had the Bolivians done the courtesy of consulting Vatican officials beforehand about what the pope might like, it’s difficult to imagine a Communist Christ would have been high on the wish list.
(In fairness, it should be noted that the cross was actually a replica of one that belonged to the Rev. Luis Espinal, a Spanish missionary killed in Bolivia by paramilitary forces in 1980. Francis stopped to pray at the spot where Espinal’s body was found on the way in from the airport.)
More fundamentally, this is not the Vatican’s first rodeo in terms of regimes of various sorts attempting to exploit a papal visit.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited Chile, then under military rule led by strongman Augusto Pinochet, posing for a photo with Pinochet on the balcony of Santiago’s Moneda Palace. Some saw that image as a sort of papal benediction for the Pinochet regime.
Within a year, however, Pinochet permitted – and lost – a popular referendum on his rule, and Chile was on the path to democracy.
Something similar happened in 1982 when John Paul II visited Argentina, also under military rule at the time. That time too, the regime claimed a sort of legitimacy from the pope’s presence, and yet within a year it was gone.
In 1988, John Paul II visited Paraguay under strongman Alfredo Stroessner, and the same dynamic played out. The regime claimed victory, and within a year Stroessner was out of office.
In truth, the willingness to suffer some public embarrassment through clumsy efforts at short-lived propaganda coups is the price popes to have to pay in order to press regimes to reform behind the scenes.
It’s likely no accident that John Paul’s presence prompted authoritarian governments to loosen up a bit, under threat of moral condemnation and heightened international scorn. In that sense, the pontiff helped set the wheels in motion towards Latin America’s democratic wave in the 1990s.
It remains to be seen whether Francis will have the same effect upon Bolivia. For one thing, Morales is not a military dictator; he’s been democratically elected three times, and by all accounts enjoys strong popular support.
Nonetheless, there are clear problem areas between Morales and Francis, including church/state tensions and environmental concerns. Francis may well have used his private face time with the Bolivian leader to press him on those fronts, and given the pope’s vast popularity and political capital, it’s not clear betting against him would be the smart move.
In any event, I told my Chilean journalist friend to relax: You can’t connect the dots between a pope being willing to endure a few embarrassing moments with a controversial figure, and offering a blessing of that figure.
In fact, if Morales knows his recent papal history, he might be feeling a little nervous right now.