BY JOHNNY HAZARD
Jorge Bergoglio, aka Papa Francisco or Pope Francis, arrived in Mexico on Friday, Feb. 12, for a six-day visit. Before his arrival two questions loomed: a.) Would he meet with families of the 43 education students disappeared by the government, with victims of clerical sexual abuse, or with families of victims of the mass murder of women that has plagued Ciudad Juárez since 1993 and all of Mexico in the past few years? and b.) Would he make specific mention of these problems during his marathon of homilies? The answers to these questions turned out to be no and no.
Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi played a stellar role as the pope’s bad cop. First, weeks ago, he announced that there was no time to meet with victims of every possible atrocity (though there was time to meet with socialite daughters of politicians, etc.). He offered to the survivors’ and victims’ groups the consolation prize of front-row seats at the symbolic social justice mass in Ciudad Juárez. As the families of the 43 and their allies among human rights groups from their home state of Guerrero continued to ask whether they would be attended to, Lombardi accused them publicly of “pressuring” the pope. The families then refused the tickets for the mass, which in any case was held 35 hours from where they live. They’d been looking to meet with the pope since he was in Philadelphia in September. Bergoglio waited till he was back in Rome to act as his own bad cop and explain that he was not able to meet with families of the 43 students because of internal conflicts among them. (Is this a variant of the arguments against African liberation from white supremacist colonial rule because “the blacks are fighting among themselves”?) In the same conversation, the pope explained that it didn’t seem necessary to meet with victims of sexually abusive priests in Mexico because he had already done so in Philadelphia and in Europe. (See La Jornada, Feb. 19, front page.)
On Saturday, the day that he mostly dedicated to activities within Mexico City, two people were arrested for holding up a banner along the parade route that read: “The revolution begins now. Wake up! The blind can’t lead the blind.” An older man along another part of the route was arrested for exhibiting a banner critical of the clergy. Twenty police officers were required to detain him and to threaten bystanders and independent reporters. Blogger and columnist Enrique Pérez Quintana comments that the government arranged for the pope not to see poor people—literally installing temporary walls between avenues and poor neighborhoods—and instead to be photographed with mini-skirted, incongruously blond pop stars who happen to be spouses of politicians. Activist priest Alejandro Solalinde has made similar comments, arguing that the pope had good intentions but was used and misled. But the pope and the Vatican knew that the deals they cut with the government and the business class of Mexico would lead to this. Columnist Mariela Castro of el Diario de Chihuahua asks that the money trail that determined where the pope would go and under what circumstances be made transparent. John Ackerman in the magazine Proceso adds that the papal visit “demonstrated the enormous influence of money and power” and cites financing from Telmex, Aeroméxico, Chrysler and Banorte, the opportunism (and exorbitant “security” expenses) of the president, the mayor of Mexico City, and the governors of the states visited, and the constant broadcasting of papal messages on the two major television networks. Ackerman asserts that “as a gesture of gratification and obedience, the pope never departed from the script prepared by the despotic Mexican power structure.”
One avenue that does pass through poor neighborhoods, Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, was used frequently as a papal transportation corridor (apparently because it has a confined lane for trolleys), but neighbors report that the metal curtains of all the storefronts—especially if they were graffitied—were painted over by the city government in a strange, temporary color. Thursday morning, people were removing that paint and letting the tags and graffiti be seen again.
His visit brought the Mexico City metropolitan area to the brink of a pollution alert on Sunday—usually the least dirty day—because of massive traffic tie-ups and the use of powerfully loud and smoky fireworks to welcome him. (A curious violation of Mexico’s historic principal of secularism is that churches, with total impunity, set off these fireworks—which visitors unfamiliar with the custom believed were bombs—in the wee hours of the morning to celebrate saints’ days.) He stayed at the Papal Nuncio in a remote part of the south of the city, and streets and subway stations were closed all along the route to and from there and wherever he went every day.
The pollution that day affected Mexico City but began in the working class suburb of Ecatepec, where the pope spent most of the day and whose diocese was governed for years by a multimillionaire-turned-priest-turned bishop named Enésimo Cepeda. In 2011, 103 women were murdered in Ecatepec. Many of the bodies of those murdered in 2011 and of those murdered this month have been dumped in Río de los Remedios, where remains are hard to find among the raw sewage and garbage. Not a word about this from the pope.
His extravagant traveling style belies his expressed concern for the environment: When he left the city on Monday to go to Chiapas and on Tuesday to Michoacán, he returned to Mexico City the same day, as if there were no lodging in those states. Thus his motorcade snarled city traffic and increased pollution again, unnecessarily, twice a day, not to mention the CO2 pollution caused by these extra flights.
On Monday in Chiapas, where he ostensibly would emphasize Indigenous people’s rights in the epicenter of the Zapatista uprising of 1994, he also had time set aside to meet with “families,” as if they were a group in need of attention. He contradicted again his supposed commitment to the environment, in a country plagued by overpopulation and poverty, by making remarks hostile to people who instead of having children would rather “go on vacation,” and “live in comfort,” people who, when they finally decided that they wanted children, found that “time had passed them by.” He brought up to the stage a couple who had divorced and remarried and looked for some kind of exception to church rules and a parade of people with medical problems that reminded observers of a Protestant revival tent. The organization Católicas por el Derecho de Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Choose) ran full-page newspaper ads demanding a reversal of church policies regarding condoms, divorce and abortion. Dozens of women are in Mexican prisons for having undergone abortions, or even for miscarriages that someone inferred were induced. Much has been made of his asking forgiveness that day in Chiapas of Indigenous people, in a discourse that didn’t go beyond Eurocentric charity.
In Ciudad Juárez he was to emphasize labor and immigration issues. Progressive U.S. media like Democracy Now have repeated approvingly the pope’s apparent barbs against savage capitalism, which he pronounced in Ciudad Juárez (and were heard by tens of thousands more across the river via big screens in El Paso’s Sun Bowl Stadium). To speak of the plight of immigrants who pass through this border city, he used words like “enslaved, kidnapped, extortioned … trafficking.” But, as Arturo Cano, one of the most honest and creative journalists in Mexico, points out in the newspaper La Jornada: “When it comes time to identify causes or guilty parties, however, there are no economic models nor immigration policies; rather there are poverty, violence, organized crime. Symptoms, not causes.”
What was billed as his labor address was spoken in a hall filled with thousands of chamber of commerce-types and their families—again, curiously blond—and no more than 50 workers or representatives of genuine unions, all relegated to the back. The local government bought various full-page ads to claim that a new Juárez has emerged and that there have been “no kidnappings in 22 months.” Journalist San Juana Martínez has detailed in La Jornada many recent cases of young women who are kidnapped and forced to work in prostitution in strip joints in downtown Juárez, just a few blocks from downtown El Paso. Statistics vary, but a figure of 300 women and girls per year killed or “disappeared” in the 21st century seems reliable. The human rights organization CIESO speaks of a pattern reminiscent of “sadistic pornography” in the killings and mutilations of women. The night before the pope’s arrival, activists painted magenta crosses with the names of murdered women and girls on hundreds of telephone poles along the pope’s route. By morning, government employees had painted them over in red.
Proceso, a widely-circulated magazine of news and analysis, dedicated more than half of its Feb. 21 edition (nine articles, all critical, including the one by John Ackerman quoted above) to coverage of the papal visit. The cover reads “What’s Behind the Pope’s Silence” (El trasfondo del silencio papal). Denise Dresser, a usually very moderate commentator, writes in “The Light that Barely Shone” of how the “rebel pope” that many Mexicans had hoped to see was eclipsed by one who “spends too much time with the elites that the church should question”; the one who “was accused of allowing two priests to be captured and tortured during the dirty wars in Argentina”; who “hung around in the National Palace with 500 privileged people, many of whom are icons of the impunity that prevails in Mexico.”