03 July 2015, The Tablet

Paraguay hopes Francis will make historic gesture of solidarity

The Government of Paraguay, the third country on Francis’s three-nation 5-12 July South American visit, is hoping the Pope will make a historic declaration regarding the 1864-70 war, the largest single conflict in the history of South America, which saw extraordinarily high casualty rates.  

Speaking at a pre-visit briefing in London hosted by Catholic Voices, the country’s ambassador to the UK Miguel Solano-Lopez said the war involving Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay saw a genocide against the people of Paraguay. The aftermath of the war saw defeated Paraguay’s territory diminished, its population reduced by 70 per cent, and its economy ruined for generations. Victorious Brazil was established as South America’s dominant military power.

Mr Solano-Lopez said that he was encouraged by Pope Francis’ acknowledgement earlier this year of the Armenian genocide, at the hands of the Ottomans, that began in 1915. Even more Paraguayan lives were lost, he said, than in the Armenian genocide. According to the 1871 census, the population of Paraguay was 116, 351. Only 28,000 of these were men. It had lost 60 per cent of the population, and 90 per cent of the male population.

For this reason the women of Paraguay took charge of the country’s future after 1870, and the Pope has made reference to this.

“For me, the woman of Paraguay is the most glorious woman of Latin America,” he said on 28 July 2013 on the flight back from the Rio de Janeiro World Youth Day. “After the war, there remained eight women for every man. And these women made a very difficult choice, the choice to have children to save the motherland, the culture, the faith and the language. In the Church, we must think to the woman in this perspective, of risky choices, but as women. This must be developed better.”

As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, in Buenos Aires, Francis was well known for his good relations and solidarity with impoverished immigrants from Paraguay. Mr Solano-Lopez is clearly hoping for a special and possibly dramatic gesture of solidarity.

Paraguay with 7 million people is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population but has the highest percentage of Catholics, at 90 per cent. The figures for the first stop, Ecuador (5 to 8 July) are 16 million and 82 per cent, and for Bolivia (8-10 July), 11 million and 76 per cent.

The hopes in Bolivia for this visit are different. Unlike the earlier war, the wounds from the 1932-35 war between Bolivia and Paraguay are no longer raw, and President Evo Morales of Bolivia and Paraguay’s then president Fernando Lugo signed an accord resolving the dispute over the Chaco region that led to that war, agreeing that it had really been brought on by foreign interests. The Bolivian ambassador to the UK, Roberto Calzadilla, emphasised the importance of social movements in driving the growth achieved under Mr Morales, the country’s first indigenous head of state. According to official figures extreme poverty was cut from 38.2 per cent in 2005 to 21.6 per cent in 2012. Mr Calzadilla anticipated that the Pope would recognise the rich cultural and ethnic traditions of the country – symbolised perhaps by his request for coca leaf to chew to help him cope with the altitude of La Paz. Bolivians are used to Westerners asking for oxygen rather than the plant many regard as sacred, when dealing with the 4,100-metre altitude of the administrative capital’s airport, and the Pope’s request has gone down well. Particular recognition of the Jesuit Fr Luis Espinal, assassinated by the military dictators on 22 March 1980 in La Paz two days before Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in San Salvador, is also expected.

On the overtly political front, the ongoing dispute with Chile – the countries have no diplomatic relations – over Bolivian access to the sea through Chile - will be trickier for the Pope to touch on. Bolivia’s claim is currently before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and Chile is fiercely resisting it.

Ecuador for its part will be hoping that that opposition to “neo-liberalism” that President Rafael Correa has embraced since he took office in 2007 will be endorsed by a pope famously sceptical about what capitalism and the market can do for the world’s poor. Francis will also have to pay attention, however, to how far Mr Correa’s programme of tax hikes is welcomed by the people.

The Catholic Voices co-ordinator and co-founder Austen Ivereigh gave a useful resume of what he thought observers should look for from the three-country visit. One of the key events, he felt, would be Francis’ participation in the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia on Thursday. This is the second meeting of its kind that Francis has taken part in, the first one being at the Vatican in October last year.

Mr Ivereigh predicted a highly visual trip, with feasts of colour for the cameras that reflected the popular and culturally open approach of the Pope. The popular Marian devotions – the Shrine of Our Lady at Caacupe in Paraguay is visited by half the population annually, while the Pope shares with Ecuadorans great devotion to “La Dolorosa”  – will be given full papal endorsement. 

The central importance of mission will be reflected in the incorporation of indigenous languages into the liturgies of the Masses – with the one at Quito’s Bicentenary Park on Tuesday having an explicitly evangelical theme.

The “places of pain” - whose residents Francis insists on meeting on all his trips - will include the Santa Cruz-Palmasola re-education centre on Friday, and the “places of poverty” will include a visit to Asuncion’s Banado Norte slums on Sunday.

The emphasis, as always with Pope Francis, will be on encounters and solidarity with the disenfranchised of the world.

Above: People walk past an image of Pope Francis in La Paz, Bolivia, 30 June. The pope will visit Bolivia July 8-10. Photo: CNS photo/David Mercado, Reuters

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