EL ALTO, Bolivia — Pope Francis landed in El Alto at the world’s fifth highest airport Wednesday, full of praise, and warnings, for Bolivia, touching on the country’s cultural diversity and the constitutional protection of the country’s natural resources.
“Bolivia is making important steps towards including broad sectors in the country’s economic, social, and political life” Francis said, adding, however, that “growth that is merely material will always run the risk of creating new divisions, of the wealth of some being built on the poverty of others.”
As soon as Francis landed, a member of the welcoming committee placed a chulpa over the pope’s neck. A chulpa is a handmade wool bag containing coca leaves which some people chew to help alleviate altitude sickness. The pope wasn’t seen chewing, but he was served an infusion made with coca on the plane.
The welcoming ceremony was short, but it included the local hymn sung by a military band and the smiling pontiff was constantly surrounded by local children, many of whom hugged him.
The pontiff described Bolivia as a land “blessed in its people,” praising its great cultural and ethnic diversity, where 36 native languages coexist with Spanish, “to create a beauty in the diversity” he said.
He offered words for the “sons and daughters of this land who for a variety of reasons have had to seek ‘another land’ to shelter them.”
Francis pointed to the Bolivian constitution, which recognizes the rights of individuals, minorities, and the natural environment, and provides for institutions to promote them. To achieve these goals, the pope said, a spirit of civic cooperation and dialogue is required.
Bolivian president Evo Morales welcomed Francis to Bolivia, saying that Bolivia welcomes Francis, “the pope of the poor,” with open arms. Morales said that the Argentinian pontiff identifies with the plight of those who have nothing, just as his “revolutionary process does.”
“In the process of change, he who betrays a poor person betrays Pope Francis,” Morales said.
As expected, Morales used his five-minute speech to throw a jab at Chile over a long-standing dispute over sea access. Welcome to a country, Morales said to Francis, that “has had its access to the sea mutilated through an invasion.”
Bolivia lost access to the sea after the War of the Pacific, 1873 to 1884, when Bolivia signed a truce that gave Chile control of the entire Bolivian coast, the province of Antofagasta, and its valuable nitrate, copper, and other mineral deposits.
Morales cut short his speech so that Pope Francis would spend less time at such a high altitude, which can be uncomfortable for those not acclimated to the climate. Francis was scheduled to stay in the country’s capital for just four hours. When he was a young priest, Jorge Mario Bergolglio visited La Paz in 1969, but according to the Rev. Enrique Jordá, a Bolivian theologian, he “didn’t feel well and had to leave immediately.”
Jordá said he believed this memory of La Paz influenced the short stay. “He said ‘I won’t come back to La Paz because I almost died,’” the priest said to a local paper.
Later on Wednesday, Francis will fly to Santa Cruz, where he’ll celebrate an open air Mass, meet the local religious community, and participate in the International Encounter of Popular Movements, representing landless peasants and other disenfranchised groups.
In his address at the airport, the first Latin American pope called for the voice of bishops to speak to society in the name of the Church, to become the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
The pontiff invited the local Catholic hierarchy to develop programs and institutions to work for the integral development of the human person, as well as for the care of those who are most vulnerable.
Francis’ decision to include the bishops in his opening speech is unusual for this pope, but it speaks loudly in a country where the Church and the national government has only one recent instance of formal dialogue: preparing for this papal visit.
Before departing La Paz, Morales and Francis exchanged gifts at the presidential palace. Francis presented Morales with an icon of Mary as well as a copy of his recent encyclical on the environment. Morales’ gifts were political in nature: a cross in the shape of a hammer and sickle, the symbol associated with communism, and a copy of a book about Bolivia’s dispute with Chile.
Before departing, Francis spoke about the “essential need to improve diplomatic relations between countries” in order to avoid conflicts and to advance frank and open dialogue about their problems.
“I’m thinking about the sea here. Dialogue, dialogue is indispensable. Instead of raising walls, we need to be building bridges,” Francis said.
Although Bolivian president Evo Morales, of indigenous origins, declares to be both Catholic and a practitioner of the ancestral polytheistic indigenous Andean cult, he’s repeatedly attacked the Church, calling it a powerful vestige of colonial-era servitude.
Morales took office in 2006, and soon after the Bible and cross were removed from the presidential palace. Even in a country where 4 of 5 citizens are Catholic, Morales replaced the Catholic rites at official state ceremonies with Andean religious rituals, venerating the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
Morales also made it mandatory for schools to teach other religions alongside Catholicism, and he tried to ban the country’s Church-run schools from requiring mandatory classes on the Catholic faith.
The Catholic hierarchy, for its part, responded by calling the ancestral cult of the Pachamama “erroneous and a deviation.”
Morales has also been critical of the Vatican.
When meeting Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Morales delivered a letter saying that the Church should not deny “a fundamental part of our nature as human beings” and calling for an end of mandatory priestly celibacy. “That way there will be fewer boys and girls whose fathers don’t recognize them,” the Aymara native said in a jab at priests.
The situation changed radically, however, when the Argentine-born Francis was elected in 2013. Gone is the violent rhetoric and threats of “making the Catholic Church disappear from Bolivia.”
A self-proclaimed “Pope Francis fan,” Morales said as recently as last week, when inaugurating a school named after the pontiff, that “the truth is he and I coincide enormously in politics, the social and the economic.”
However, according to local journalist Priscila Quiroga, flying on the papal plane, Bolivians hope Francis goes beyond Church-state relations during his 44-hour visit.
Quiroga told Crux that there are at least three other hot-button issues the pope is expected to address: political prisoners, the environment, and the dispute between Bolivia and Chile.
When visiting the infamous prison of Palmasola on Friday, which holds 2,800 prisoners and up to 1,500 family members a day, Francis may run into Zvonko Matkovic, whose been imprisoned since 2008 because of a 20-second phone call from a man accused by Bolivian security forces of organizing a coup against the Morales government. Matkovic’s lawyer says he is innocent.
Markovic’s son, Milan, wrote a letter addressed to Francis that has gone viral in Bolivia. In it, he tells the pope about his father who’s been absent from his home since he was just a year old.
In the letter, Milan tells the pope that “he’s imprisoned but he’s good, he’s done nothing wrong. I know you’re a better friend to God, so I ask you to help me to get my dad back home.”
Markovic is just one of hundreds of opposition members who were imprisoned during the last nine years of the Morales government.
Despite his pro-nature rhetoric, just like his Ecuadorian counterpart Rafael Correa, Morales recently decided upon a set of governmental measures that critics say will endanger the Amazonian rain forest, estimated to provide 30 percent of the world’s total oxygen.
Through Decree 2366, issued in May, Morales has allowed private-run companies to search for oil in the country’s 22 protected parks, part of the Amazonian rain forest. Former congressman Julio H. Valenzuela Gonzales wrote an editorial at the local paper “Los Tiempos” denouncing the decree as an “announced murderer of the biodiversity and the ecosystems protected by Evo’s constitution.”
The decision compounds outrage from environmental and indigenous activists who protested Morales’ plan to build a highway dividing the Tipnis, the largest of this protected region. Four years ago, the announcement generated protests from indigenous living in the protected region, clashing with military forces who were accused of abuse.
Quiroga, the journalist, said that the “worst of it” is that some believe the highway won’t be used to unite Bolivia to neighboring countries, but instead to provide a route for “coca planters to destroy the Tipnic.”
Although legal in Bolivia, coca, the base for cocaine, is technically limited by the national government because it ruins the soil, rendering it useless.
Francis, ever the diplomat, will undoubtedly address these sensitive topics through “moments of encounter, dialogue and the celebration of faith,” as he put it during the welcome ceremony Wednesday. “I am pleased to be here, in a country which calls itself pacifist, a country which promotes the culture of peace and the right to peace,” he said before offering a blessing.
At the conclusion of the welcoming ceremony, Francis got into the “pope mobile” for an 8-mile journey to the archbishop’s residence. En route there, he made a planned stop at the site where a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Luis Espinal, was left for dead in 1980 after being detained and tortured by Bolivia’s paramilitary squads.
“I stopped here above all to remember, to remember our brother who was killed because they [the regime] didn’t want for him to fight for Bolivia’s freedom,” Francis said.
Espinal preached the Gospel, Francis said, and that Gospel was a disturbance. “This is why he was killed.”