SHAFAQNA – A new letter from Pope Francis to Argentina to mark the 200th anniversary of independence has been read as a rebuke to the current government, but if you know his thought, it’s actually a bold statement about Latin American unity and independence, and Argentina’s role in making that happen.
As Argentina marks the 200th anniversary of its independence on Saturday, Pope Francis has issued a ringing appeal to his countrymen never to “sell off the motherland” and to resist “colonizations of any kind.”
The pontiff’s comments came in a letter to the president of Argentina’s bishops’ conference, released by the Vatican on Friday.
In the immediate wake of the letter, many observers interpreted it as another sign of tension between the Argentine pope and the country’s new center-right government under President Mauricio Macri, whose free market policies have been criticized for opening the door to foreign investors to exploit Argentina’s markets and resources.
In truth, however, those who have followed the evolution of Pope Francis’ thinking over the last several decades will probably conclude that the letter should be set against a much broader context – specifically, the pontiff’s vision of Latin America as a Patria Grande, a united regional bloc able to stand on its own two legs without being beholden to major global powers or commercial interests.
Drawn from the thinking of 19th century founders of modern Latin America, such as Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, the term today generally refers to the press for tighter economic and political unity across the continent.
It’s a vision that has roots in the present, with initiatives such as the Mercosur representing tentative steps towards a more united Latin America. Born in 1991, it’s a trading bloc that today includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
There’s also the UNASUR, which includes a similar, but longer list of countries from the region, and which aims to foster unity on issues such as democracy, education, environmental protection, and the struggle against social inequality.
As he’s done several times before, the pope uses the term Patria Grande in the letter to Argentina, defending the project of the “great homeland” as a “family of ample horizons and loyalty of brothers.”
The Patria Grande, he writes, is a reality which Argentina is called to pray for during the anniversary of its independence: “May the Lord take care of it, make it stronger, more fraternal, and defend it from all kinds of colonization.”
In part, that phrase was read by some as a covert warning regarding excessive influence of foreign countries, including superpowers such as the United States and China, in local and regional affairs.
It’s not a far-fetched reading.
Last year, during his Latin American tour with stops in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, Francis spoke of “factors which still threaten equitable human development and restrict the sovereignty of the countries of the patria grande and other areas of our planet.”
“The new colonialism takes on different faces,” the pontiff said. “At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
In Friday’s letter, addressed to Archbishop José María Arancedo, and through him to “all the bishops, the national authorities and the Argentine people,” Francis also talks of the love for the “motherland.”
“We Argentines use an expression, daring and colorful at the same time, when we speak of unscrupulous people: ‘this [person] is even capable of selling his mother,’ but we know and feel deeply in [our] heart that the mother is not for sale, you can’t sell her … and neither the motherland,” Francis wrote.
Once again, tying that language to his country’s present-day situation is easy enough: Argentina has a mounting international debt, and Macri recently ended a 15-year war with American hedge funds to settle a debt that had forced a previous government to default in 2014. Although that deal reopened the country to foreign markets, some believed there were more pressing internal problems that could have been addressed with the money.
Such a short-term reading probably doesn’t do justice to what Francis intended, because the country’s crisis hardly began in November 2015 when Macri was elected.
What Francis calls “the most wounded children of our homeland” – the infirm, those living in poverty, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the victims and survivors of human trafficking and the minors who’ve been abused – were already abundant in Argentina when Francis left back in 2013.
They were also there in the late 1990s, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in the early 2000s, when he led the local Church during Argentina’s massive economic collapse.
Yet they weren’t there in such great numbers in the 1930s, during the future pope’s childhood, when Argentina was known as the world’s breadbasket and both literacy rates and GDP rivaled those of the most sophisticated European countries.
He grew up in a country of possibilities, not should-have-beens. In the second to last graph, both Francis’ frustration and also hope for his motherland simmer through.
He urges Argentina to “look forward,” saying he thinks especially of the elderly and the youth: “I feel the need to ask you for your help to continue walking down the path of our destiny.”
He asks the elderly to “overcome the throwaway culture” that “the world imposes on us” and dare to dream. To the youth, he calls on them not to “retire their existence on the bureaucratic quietism in which you’re cornered by so many proposals lacking enthusiasm and heroism.”
And then, in a somewhat cryptic way, easily ignored by those who tend to bypass Bible quotes, Francis says he’s convinced that “our homeland” needs to turn Joel’s prophecy into reality, referring to Joel 4:1.
That prophecy talks about the restoration of the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem because “they scattered them among the nations, they divided up my land.”
“You took my silver and my gold and brought my priceless treasures into your temples!” the text Francis signaled also says. It talks about a devastated nation, and about nations being judged as a whole when the time comes.
But it also talks about mountains dripping with wine, hills flowing with milk, and a spring rising, with Israel becoming what it was destined to be.
In Francis’ mind, his country and Latin America, are a broken promise that hasn’t fulfilled their role in history. As one observer pointed out, the letter is a reflection of what Francis believes is Argentina’s manifest destiny.
He thinks that the region, together, can and should be a counter-weight to that colonialism.
In 2005, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote a foreword to a book by a Vatican official from Uruguay named Guzmán Carriquiry, in which the future pontiff argued that Latin America has a pivotal role to play in the major ideological battles of the early 21st century.
Two years later, Bergoglio was the man responsible for writing the final version of the Aparecida Document, collecting the reflections of the Latin American bishops who had gathered in Brazil. This document, that to this day Francis presents to every political leader from the region who visits him in the Vatican, is an ode to regional unity, an appeal to a “permanent continental mission” to counteract regional problems.
And this is the pope’s call to Argentina: “Dream-filled grandparents who push forward, and young people who, inspired in those same dreams, run ahead with the creativity of the prophecy.”