Religion plays a major part in the political affairs of several Latin American countries. Christianity (of various denominations) has strong roots in the region, going back to the time of early colonial settlers. Religion in the region has been in the news recently, with the impending visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba. Newspapers and blogs are paying much attention to this event due to the significance it holds for the entire region. In Mexico, the major chronic issue is illegal drug trading, and the message from Vatican holds symbolic and moral value if not any political value. Cuba is also an interesting case, for the dominant Communist ideology embraced by the nation is antithetical to the doctrine of Christianity. Hence, when the key itinerary of the Pope unfolds over the coming days, it would lead to numerous talking points in news media and blogosphere.
Scheduled to begin on Friday the 23th of this month, the visit could usher in a “forward-looking agenda with wiling and capable hemispheric partners.” (Farnsworth, 2012) The Huffington Post article titled The Latin American Spring, published 21st March 2012, goes on to say that “it is also an opportunity for countries in Latin America to show tangible leadership on a number of issues consistent with hemispheric expectations of representative democracy and open market economies.” (Farnsworth, 2012). This is an interesting observation, for it implies that the purported religious visit has ramifications in the realms of politics and democracy as well. It is also a measure of power wielded by religious leaders in this region that something as sweeping as democratic and economic reforms are thought possible through directives from the Vatican.
The same news item was discussed in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune of 22 March, 2012. Here, author Nicole Winfield presents some interesting insights into the role of religion in the region. It is suggested that Pope Benedict’s visit has the potential to impact the political establishment in Cuba, paving way for the blooming of democracy. Despite the stature and standing of the Pope in the hearts and minds of Cubans, it won’t be an easy task, due to the promotion of atheism as part of Communist propaganda. The following passage shows the opportunities and challenges in the Cuban leg of the tour. It also indicates the potential of religion to bring about progressive change:
“Cuba’s single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party… John Paul’s 1998 visit further warmed relations. But after 14 years there’s no doubt that the current visit of Pope Benedict XVI will help the process of development toward democracy and will open new spaces for the church’s presence and activity” (Winfield, 2012)
Coming to Mexico, religion is an important social denominator in the country, where an estimated 50,000 people were killed during last five years in connection with the war on drugs. The population of the country is overwhelmingly Catholic (more than 80%) and members of the cartels that perpetrate violence and terror in the region are also claiming to be Catholics. In this situation, the pontiff will try to use his religious clout over the faithful and help tackle “what the Church sees as threats to family values, as well as the rise of rival religious movements.” (The Telegraph, 2012) Cuba, on the other hand poses an interesting juxtaposition, for the country’s political culture does not promote religion and only 10 % of the population are Catholics. Nevertheless, considering that part of social work in Cuba is carried out by Catholic institutions, the Pope’s address will highlight and encourage such cooperation between opposing ideological institutions. It will also draw upon historical Christian roots of Cubans to persuade them toward meaningful change.
In sum, what the three articles in question make abundantly clear is the continuing relevance of religion in Latin America. In the case of Mexico, for example, the Pope would believe that the Christian message can thwart the nation’s march toward anarchy. In Cuba, on the other hand, the Pope would hope for a strengthening of ties between Catholic social work organizations and Communist government agencies. Hence, religion, especially Christianity is an integral part of the social fabric of Latin American countries. And this centrality of religion can be channeled to bring about positive transformations in the region.
Farnsworth, Eric, The Latin American Spring, Huffington Post, published on 21st March, 2012, retrieved from <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-farnsworth/latin-america-_b_1367659.html>
Winfield, Nicole, Vatican: Pope’s Cuba trip should help democracy, Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, published on 22nd March, 2012, retrieved from <http://www.wisconsinrapidstribune.com/usatoday/article/38862693?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE%7Cp>
The Pope sets off for tour of Latin America, The Telegraph, published 23 Mar 2012, retrieved from <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/9161956/The-Pope-sets-off-for-tour-of-Latin-America.html>