When Pope Francis is inaugurated Tuesday in a public ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, billions around the world will be glued to their televisions and mobile devices. As visiting heads of state, dignitaries and representatives of all major faiths meet to greet this humble Argentine Jesuit, the Vatican will be bursting at the columns as Catholics celebrate the recognition of a spiritual leader. And I will be one of them, sitting this side of Atlantic Ocean and with a six-hour time difference. I better set my alarm, before the bells of St. Peter start ringing.
What we are going to witness beyond the sacred and the ceremonial are many flags representing the diverse nations of South America. As one of the regions in the world with the greatest amount of Catholics, the inauguration of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio represents an historic moment for a church and everyone who inhabits the Spanish-speaking world of the Americas. TIME magazine this week refers to father Bergoglio as the “New World Pope.” I would go as far and claim: he’s the Pope of a “New World” order.
March was an important month for news from South America. When Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez died after a difficult fight with cancer, there was an outpouring of sadness from a continent that set aside historical and political differences to recognize the life of a man who tried to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. Although Chávez’s personality-driven revolution may not survive his death, the founding ideals of the early grassroots Chavismo, aimed to spread some of Venezuela’s oil wealth to the poorest and most needy. If Chávez would have surrounded himself during the 14 years in power with great administrators – and incorruptible men – he could have turned a crumbling Caracas into the Dubai of the Americas. He missed his moment.
Even with his many political shortcomings, Chávez was old-style South American caudillismo (authoritarianism) at its best, and worst. When the president wasn’t clinching a fist from the balcony of the Miraflores Presidential Palace, he was out charming the not-so-hungry masses by offering free lunches to anyone who could endure his five-hour speeches. But somehow a message spilled over.
Chavismo became a contagious and contentious political force in South America. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, a close personal friend of the Venezuelan leader, implemented his own form of chavismo in order to consolidate power among his electorate: the many poor indigenous of this Andean nation. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa defended Chávez unconditionally. Argentina’s Kirchner made sure Venezuelans had plenty of beef at their table when food stocks ran dry. Even Brazil, a nation powered by ethanol, oil and the resources of the Amazon, played continental power broker when relations soured and broke down between our nations.
A decade ago, few would have envisioned a continent so united by so much contradiction. Even fewer could have imagined a Jesuit priest from Argentina stepping into the Catholic Church’s highest office.
Latin America is powering forward with unprecedented economic growth and potential. A landmass of untapped energy resources has empowered middle classes from Santiago to Barranquilla, many new to “new money,” in part due to industrial integration and free trade among nations.
This prosperity has translated into hard cash, more shopping and more access to credit. Today, Latin Americans buy Lacoste, Victoria’s Secret or Zara without having to think of Miami malls. When you have access to global brands next to your home or office, why deal with the paperwork of applying for a visa and facing possible rejection? Latin Americans have woken up to a new reality: buy locally, spend regionally.
With global markets such as China and Korea looking carefully at South America as a place to expand investment portfolios, Colombia has shown that it is a reliable partner and friend. Even though politically there remain differences with every country around us, what unites this continent is a common language and a common faith. Faith beyond religion. Faith in our future.
We are on the cusp of the Latin American decade. Although Chávez would have wanted it to start two decades earlier, he did capitalize on sentiment and nostalgia. Even on one of the few occasions where he met president Barack Obama, Chávez peddled one of the literary bibles of South American nostalgia – The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.
If the words of another literary great, Gabriel García Márquez, are as meaningful in Havana as they are in the vineyards of Mendoza, or the electronic hymns of Argentina’s Soda Estereo are as championed in La Boca as they are in Chapinero, Latin Americans are still united by nostalgia: the belief in a past when “revolution” was not corruption or guerrillas taking up arms to defend the interests of drug cartels.
Chávez walked and sang “revolution.” His state funeral was a bizarre meeting of communist ideologues and 1960s Venezuelan folk singers. Sean Penn never looked so out of place. And from the strumming of harps and 12-string tiples to the joyous ‘Alma Llanera’ of the Simon Bolívar youth orchestra, it was about driving home the emotions of South American unity. A politically-charged union rooted in nationalism, trumped by anti-imperialism double speak. It was too much to take in.
Then a week later, from the behind a red curtain, Pope Francis turns up.
We are the envy of many nations. Our economic models are stable and well-managed. Dictatorships are a sad and very real part of our past. Even caudillismo seems to have struck an end with Chávez. We have come a long way from the revolutionary ideal of Ché Guevara. This cigar-smoking guerrillero stigmatized an entire continent of being too poor, too corrupt, too left-leaning. His face and beret is now a global icon printed on placemats, t-shirts and mugs.
Talk of communism now falls on deaf ears. Even Cuba, despite 40 years of a punishing blockade, is embracing reform and some version of private enterprise. The Castros are fading fast, having kept nostalgia going since the end of Ché.
The Church has a people’s pope. Latin America has a new leader. A man who can cross generational lines and shake up stereotypes. It is no coincidence that the Vatican looked to South America. We should celebrate Pope Francis’ entry on the world stage, for this is a man whose life is grounded in humility and religious tolerance. A priest who has lived and profoundly understands the South American experience.