A Pope for the Americas: Can Francis help bring stability to Latin America?

PEACEMAKER? Pope Francis meets with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at the Vatican, June 13, 2013.

Venezuela is mired in a deadly and crippling standoff. Since early February, anti-government protests, largely student-led, have turned many of the oil-rich nation’s cities into scenes of street barricades and tear gas. More than 40 people have been killed so far.

This is the crisis Hugo Chávez left behind. The radical left-wing leader died last year after ruling Venezuela for 14 years. Chávez’s socialist revolution did empower and improve life for Venezuela’s poor. But Chavismo (the name given to the country’s socialist movement) has undermined his achievements as a result of authoritarian governance and mismanagement. Venezuela is saddled with South America’s highest inflation and homicide rates, not to mention a currency crisis and chronic shortages of basic goods like eggs and toilet paper.

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Hence the demonstrations aimed at Chávez’s elected successor, President Nicolás Maduro. He has made things worse with his security-force crackdowns and arbitrary jailing of protesters and opposition politicians, not to mention his delusional insistence that the disorder is all a plot backed by the Central Intelligence Agency to raise a coup against him. Not that the protesters have been saints. Their own, sometimes violent tactics have alienated the half of the population that still at least grudgingly supports the revolution.

Here is the bottom line for both sides: The protest movement is not likely to oust Maduro, but Maduro is not likely to get rid of the protest movement, at least as long as the country’s social and economic situations keep deteriorating. The only way out is to sit down and negotiate an end to the fracas. But who could mediate this ultra-polarized mess?

The pope.

The only good news for Venezuela since the strife began was the announcement by the Vatican in late March that it was “willing and desirous” to help broker a solution, which it is now trying to do. “I urge you not to get stuck in the conflict of the moment,” Francis wrote in April as talks got underway. While he recognized “the restlessness and pain,” he called for “reciprocal recognition and respect.”

That last part is a tall order. But Pope Francis is perhaps the only credible nonpartisan go-between that both the government and the opposition can trust at this juncture.

In the bigger picture, however, it seems time for Pope Francis to dive not only into the Caracas conflict but numerous other problems in Latin America. In his case, this should not be just an issue of diplomacy. It is a matter of duty. Francis, after all, is the first Latin American pope. And, fairly or not, he cannot escape his historic responsibility to make that mean something. Just as Pope St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, was instrumental in the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe, Pope Francis can bring his background to bear on the challenges facing Latin America.

As the Venezuela controversy points up, the development of Latin America is still weighed down by its own lingering, Cold War albatrosses. Not the least of these is the region’s epic inequality, which while improving, remains among the worst of any region in the world. It is the kind of yawning gap between rich and poor that Francis all but declared his papal priority last autumn in “The Joy of the Gospel.” What better place to focus his example and energies in that 21st-century crusade than on his home continent?

A Political Player

Francis’ rock-star popularity has already brought a New World glow to a Holy See worn down by centuries of Old World gravitas. His emphasis on the poor, on backing the underdog, is a big part of that. But so is the relative open-mindedness he has encouraged. His call for the church to stop obsessing about “small-minded rules” reflects the sort of independent thinking that has long defined the Americas. Now is the time for Pope Francis to get involved in Latin America with the same sense of purpose Pope St. John Paul II brought to the Soviet bloc.

Venezuela seems the best place to start. “The Vatican is an obvious player in Venezuela,” Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, told me recently. “It can fulfill that role better than anyone right now.” Francis has a captive Roman Catholic audience on each side of the divide, not just the mostly middle-class opposition but Maduro and the socialists as well. Perhaps even especially the Chavistas, as Venezuela’s socialists are known, for two reasons.

First, like many Latin American leaders, Chávez injected large doses of Catholic spirituality into his politics. That was especially true during the battle with the cancer that took his life, when he regularly evoked Christ’s passion and reported visions of Jesus appearing to him. Critics suggest it sprang more from Chávez’s messianic self-image and that Maduro laces his speeches with Christian rhetoric as a cynical means of deifying the late comandante and bolstering his own rule. But the last time I interviewed Chávez, in 2006, he sounded at times like the kind of liberation theologian that “The Joy of the Gospel” has made respectable again. “If you really look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ, who I think was the first socialist,” he told me, “only socialism can really create a genuine society.”

Second, the Chavistas consider the Venezuelan church a partisan arm of the opposition. When Chávez was briefly ousted by a coup in 2002, for example, Venezuelan prelates like the late Cardinal Ignacio Antonio Velasco García were practically arm-in-arm with the putsch leaders. As a result, the Chavistas might love nothing better than to bypass the Venezuelan hierarchy and work directly with what they perceive to be a more socially conscious Vatican under Francis.

But the pope has an even more effective tool for leverage: his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. The Italian diplomatic veteran, whom Francis made a cardinal this year, was the Vatican’s ambassador to Venezuela from 2009 to 2013, and he is well regarded by both the government and the opposition. Maduro even mentioned Cardinal Parolin by name when the Vatican’s intervention in the Venezuelan crisis was first broached.

The bigger question, though, is whether Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin can get the two bitterly distrustful sides to agree on any points substantive enough to end the conflict. It certainly will not be easy, but I think Francis can be most effective by reminding both parties how badly they have failed Venezuela’s poor.

Life Before Chávez

For Maduro’s opponents, one of the most frustrating things about the protests is how ineffective they have been at galvanizing poorer Venezuelans to the antigovernment side, despite the country’s acute economic hardships. But the opposition still fails to understand that while the poor may no longer be that fond of the revolution, they do not yet see an alternative they are willing to embrace. What they do recall is life before Chávez, when the elite’s lavish corruption helped keep half the nation in poverty. I saw this up close when, as a graduate student in the 1980s, I was a teacher for the Catholic education movement Fey y Alegría in one of the slums of Caracas.

Some opposition leaders—like Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski of Miranda State, who almost defeated Maduro in last year’s special presidential election—do appreciate that reality. But too many others need a reminder that Chávez came to power for a reason, and they are more likely to pay attention if that knock on the forehead comes from Pope Francis.

The pope’s involvement might make it easier to convince opposition leaders that their goal should be developing a platform that persuades the Chavista base to help them eject Maduro at the ballot box, perhaps in a recall referendum next year, instead of at the ramparts. Maybe then they would be more willing to ease out of the protests, provided Maduro makes concessions—real ones.

Maduro should start with the release of prisoners convicted in kangaroo courts, like opposition leader Leopoldo López. Just as important, he should agree to revise certain disastrous Chavista policies, especially economic ones. How can the Vatican convince someone as rigidly and narrow-mindedly ideological as Maduro to back off his vision of a Cuban Venezuela? By making him see—as Brazil and many other leftist-led Latin American countries have discovered in this century—that socialism and capitalism are compatible and that snuffing out the latter as ardently as the Chavistas are trying to do simply undercuts the former.

As an Argentine, Francis knows all too well that hyperinflation is the worst tax you can dump on the poor. He needs to remind Maduro, a former bus driver, what it is like for low-wage families to wait entire days outside grocery stores for rice or cooking oil. Or what it is like to see 50 murders per weekend in their barrios, thanks to the utter ineptitude of the Chavista police.

Jailed in Cuba

For now it is enough that Francis and the Vatican are at the Venezuelan table. Meanwhile, he has other crises in the hemisphere to address—including Communist Cuba. Take the case of 64-year-old Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since 2009, when he was arrested for bringing unlawful satellite communications equipment to the island, Mr. Gross has been serving a 15-year sentence on highly questionable espionage charges.

Mr. Gross’s imprisonment is now the biggest obstacle to thawing U.S.-Cuban relations. That also makes it an obstacle to improving relations between the United States and Latin America as a whole. This is why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, during his visit to Rome in January, was smart to seek the Vatican’s help in winning Mr. Gross’s release.

The Catholic Church’s recent and robust revival in Cuba, a half-century after Fidel Castro all but extinguished it, makes this another potentially successful project for Francis. The church, in fact, is the only non-Communist institution that current Cuban leader Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and successor, has shown trust in. Cuban bishops brokered the release of more than 100 political prisoners in 2011. Just as important, the church has served as a conduit for Raúl’s free-market-oriented economic reforms, helping to train fledgling entrepreneurs and even partnering with a Spanish university to offer Cubans M.B.A. degrees.

Alan Gross’s Washington, D.C., attorney, Scott Gilbert, told me at first he though it “highly unlikely that the Vatican in and of itself” could win the contractor’s freedom. But he now realizes that the sturdy bridges between Cuba’s Catholics and communists “could be very useful.”

The Vatican’s diplomatic guns first have to convince Raúl that the outcome he desires—a Cold War-style spy swap of Alan Gross for a handful of Cuban agents doing time in the United States—is not going to happen. They then need to help the Obama administration find a bargaining chip that is acceptable to both Washington and Havana. A prime prospect: taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. As most Cuba experts tell me, any evidence that keeps Havana on that roster today is scant if not entirely missing.

Stateless in the D.R.

The pope can also help with the plight of hundreds of thousands of Haitians caught in legal purgatory in the Dominican Republic. In September, the Dominican high court essentially stripped citizenship from anyone born in the Dominican Republic after 1929 if their parents were undocumented immigrants or non-Dominicans. Haitians call it a racist decision aimed at them—meaning blacks—something Dominican leaders deny.

The United States and the Caribbean Community, a 15-member organization known as Caricom, have urged the Dominican Republic to perhaps find legislative ways to reverse the court ruling. But one of the key persons holding back those efforts is the influential Dominican Cardinal Nicolás López, who backs the ruling and has called anyone who opposes it “liars and charlatans.”

That probably was not what Pope Francis wanted to hear. Ralph Gonsalves, chairman of Caricom, told me in December that when he met with the pope that month, Francis agreed the Dominican ruling was “unacceptable.” (The Vatican has not denied that.)

In January, by naming Haiti’s first cardinal, Bishop Chibly Langlois, who has a more common touch than his Dominican counterpart, the pope may have been sending López a message. The move both symbolically and practically alters the hierarchical center of power on the island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country. That smoothes the way for a much needed Vatican intervention.

The list goes on. Francis should work harder, for example, to advance the cause for sainthood of the late martyr Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who was killed for supporting the very causes the pope trumpets in “The Joy of the Gospel.” And while Francis will not overturn “Humanae Vitae,” he could perhaps convince Latin American prelates to shift their focus away from restricting birth control to addressing poverty. These issues may not seem as epic as the ones faced by Pope St. John Paul II; but if a Latin American pope does not confront them, a historic opportunity will be lost.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Atkinson
4 years 4 months ago
As long as Venezuela sells sweet crude oil to the highest bidder, poverty, birth control, abortions, and a very rich church elite almost royal roman magisterium, will always be secondary to needs of the very rich society that controls and keeps the masses in serfdom.
Jean-Pierre HERVEG
4 years 4 months ago

Can we use Vatican as a simple 'political tool'. This paper mix religion and american politics ... Are there an 'american Christ' and 'catholic 'guns' ?
... The Vatican’s diplomatic guns first have to convince Raúl that the outcome he desires—a Cold War-style spy swap of Alan Gross for a handful of Cuban agents doing time in the United States—is not going to happen. They then need to help the Obama administration find a bargaining chip that is acceptable to both Washington and Havana. A prime prospect: taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism ...

michael alba
4 years 4 months ago
The big question is whether a Communist regime will negotiate its demise which I seriously doubt; however, St. John Paul II showed the world that nothing is impossible to God. We pray of his intervention in that beleaguered country . Congratulations to Tim for an excellent essay on the dire situation in Venezuela . I had my doubts while reading him in Time but now I realize that he is a Catholic brethren. God bless

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