Pope Francis recently visited La Paz and Santa Cruz as part of an eight day whirlwind tour of South America’s poorest nations, although sadly he only spent about four hours in La Paz due to medical concerns regarding the high altitude. This is probably fair enough, considering the 78 year old only has one lung; the other being removed due to an infection when he was a teenager. Many visitors to La Paz would agree that flying from sea level to such dizzying heights is difficult enough for someone with two working lungs, let alone one.
Three quarters of Bolivians identify themselves as Catholic, so it’s no surprise that his visit received a lot of attention. Evo Morales even declared the occasion a public holiday, which was just as well because half of La Paz closed down to allow the Pope Mobile a smooth ride from the airport down to the Presidential Palace. His holy presence even warranted a city wide Dry Law, entailing several days of restricted alcohol sales.
Waiting for the Pope
Thousands of people lined the route, excitedly anticipating their first encounter with the new Pope. The masses had to be patient, however, as he turned up an hour behind schedule leaving some to joke that he was running on Bolivian time. Rather than leisurely driving past and waving at his followers, Papa Frank’s Pope Mobile flew past the crowds at breakneck speeds. Those who had waited hours were able to catch only a quick glimpse.
His Holiness gave an hour long speech at the Presidential Palace promoting equal rights for the working poor and apologizing for the oppression of indigenous Bolivians during the Spanish colonial era.
“You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market,”
“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels. Don’t lose heart!”
“I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross… There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples.”
A rather unusual gift
Despite Francis’ profound words, Evo Morales took the media spotlight that day when he gifted Papa Frank a hammer and sickle crafted into the shape of Jesus on the crucifix. His detractors were quick to accuse him of forcing his socialist ideologies into religion, many labeling the gift crass, offensive and unwarranted.
El Presidente hasn’t exactly been a close ally of the Catholic Church. He removed all crosses and bibles from the Presidential Palace upon being elected to power and declared Bolivia a secular state in the updated 2009 constitution. All things considered, many were surprised to see him welcome the pope with such warmth and enthusiasm.
As it turned out, Papa Frank actually liked Evo’s present and took it home with him to the Vatican. The crucifix was based on a model designed by Luis Espinal, a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by right-wing Bolivian Militia in the 1980’s. Papa Frank had even taken the time to stop and pray at the site of Luis’ murder during his brief visit to La Paz.
The Pope in Santa Cruz
Papa Frank soon left La Paz for the more breathable air of the lowland city of Santa Cruz where he made several public appearances and visited the Bolivia’s most notoriously violent prison, Palmasola.
The prison was originally built for 800 prisoners but now holds between 3500-5000. It runs in a similar fashion to the infamous San Pedro Prison in La Paz, with official guards only patrolling the perimeter of the complex as everything inside falls under the control of the inmates.
Prison cells must be rented by the month while food is bought from local shops or restaurants. There are various small businesses selling life’s necessities as well as inmate security guards patrolling the complex, an important task considering a 2011 riot between rival gangs left around 30 dead.
Inside the prison walls, virtually nothing is provided by the government so prisoners must find work in order to survive. An estimated 90% of inmates in Bolivia are still awaiting trial; presumably many of whom are innocent.
Pope Francis is of course aware of the harsh conditions and could offer little more than prayer and blessings. Nevertheless, he received a hero’s welcome from the prison community, largely because the catholic church has been working for many years to provide education and rehabilitation services to vulnerable inmates.