In this 8 July 2015 photo, Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle, in La Paz, Bolivia. Photograph: L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press
Evo Morales, who fled to Mexico after resigning as president, may not be missed in Bolivia but his absence will be felt at the Vatican. One of the most curious aspects of the first Latin American pontificate is that Morales enjoyed the status he did. He was the Holy Father’s favourite leader in the Americas. Which was passing strange, as he was a tyrant.
Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, took office in 2006. A leftist populist, he was part of the socialist/ communist rise in Latin America: Chávez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua. It is generally acknowledged that Morales put the oil and gas boom to good use, reducing poverty and advancing the cause of indigenous peoples. He did not follow the full-on Chavismo of Venezuela, where state control of the energy sector has led to the pauperisation of what should be a rich country.
Latin American populists of both right and left invoke the people but are less keen when the people take a different view. Morales demonstrated ruthless tendencies early on, suppressing opponents, seizing control of the courts and using the electoral authorities for his own benefit. He promulgated a new constitution that had presidential term limits, but after being re-elected twice thought he would like to run again.
A 2016 plebiscite denied him a mandate to change the constitution so that he could do so this year. No matter. Bolivia’s constitutional court obliged and permitted Morales to run anyway.
The October election was plagued by suspicious activity. During the counting there were periods when there were no reports from certain precincts; when they did report Morales enjoyed significant margins. Some places reported a 100 per cent turnout, heavily favourable to Morales. The manipulation allowed him to avoid a run-off, winning the election outright by a narrow margin.
The people took to the streets in massive protests. Morales first dismissed them, then invited observers from the Organization of American States to investigate. When they reported that there were too many irregularities to make the elections credible, the protests increased. Only the military could quell the growing disorder and declined to shoot the citizenry to protect Morales. When the military leadership “suggested” that it was time for Morales to go, he resigned and fled to Mexico.
It is not the sort of record that would expect to earn Vatican favour, but it did. Morales met Pope Francis six times in six years. At the final meeting he felt comfortable enough to greet Francis as “brother”. In 2015, the papal visit to Bolivia was crowned by a fiery populist address by the Holy Father to the World Meeting of Popular Movements. Morales was seated beside Francis as the Holy Father employed the high-octane rhetoric on economics favoured by Morales.
In 2016, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held a conference to mark the 25th anniversary of St John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. Morales was one of the speakers. The only other head of state to be invited was another Latin American leftist populist, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Bernie Sanders of the United States, then running for president, was also invited. At the time, it was not known that the chancellor of the academy, Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, considered the People’s Republic of China to be the best example of Catholic social teaching in action, but the general tenor of the meeting pointed in the direction of authoritarianism.
Then there was that remarkable moment in Bolivia, instantly symbolic, when Morales presented the Holy Father the blasphemous hammer-and-sickle crucifix, the meaning of which the Holy See’s communication apparatus has not adequately explained to this day. Morales’s gifts keep on giving. He is a devotee of the Pachamama, attending ritual sacrifices in her honour and promoting her cult. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register tweeted that Morales was a “key figure” in the presence of the Pachamamas at the recent Amazon synod.
During the crisis following October’s rigged election, Bolivia’s bishops took a strong line against Morales and his corruption of the election. The Holy See was more muted, following the pattern of the last several years in Venezuela.
Why did Morales earn such favour in Rome under Pope Francis? Partly it might be his indigenous heritage and policies, which resonate with the Holy Father’s preference for the marginal and afflicted. Partly it is his blistering denunciations of market economics, which fit with Pope Francis’ view that “this economy kills”. Partly it is that the Pope likes populist movements, when Latin American and leftist, while remaining hostile to populism when European and rightist. Whatever the cause, all of it was sufficient to get a papal pass on tyranny, Marxism and paganism.
The new interim president of Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez, has taken a rather different tack. She took office holding an enormous Book of the Gospels, announcing that “the Bible was back” in the presidential office.
The hammer and sickle and Pachamama are no longer the accoutrements of the Bolivian president. How long before Jeanine Áñez is given a warm welcome at the Vatican?
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca