The twin developments of the death of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio may offer a turning point for Latin America.
Chavez had established an eight-country empire of minions willing to do his bidding including Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba. In addition, the Dominican Republic and Brazil are under his influence.
His power is maintained by massive cash handouts to the poor, which lure them to support his version of revolutionary, socialist change. Free food and medical care flow freely from his oil-enriched coffers through leftist political organizations in each country. While Chavez’ financial ability to sustain the flow of funds is limited by his decreasing oil production — and will soon be cut off if we stop buying his oil as our domestic production surges — but it has continued. After his death, it is unlikely that his Venezuelan successors will be so interested in foreign adventures that they will divert money from domestic uses in Venezuela, where they must compete with democratic forces for political power.
Pope Francis of Argentina is a very different kind of pope. He is truly a man of the people. He is humble, self-effacing and focused on issues of economic and social justice. He commutes to his church every day in Buenos Aires by train from his small apartment. He will bring a new kind of Gospel-focused Catholicism to Rome and will concern himself with alleviating poverty, just as John Paul II focused on fighting communism.
The very fact of a Latin pope is likely to stir a revival of Catholicism in Latin America, where Evangelical Protestants have made huge incursions lately. He has the potential to replace the fraudulent Chavez as the voice of the poor in that neglected region, where a plurality of the world’s Catholics live.
God works in mysterious ways.