ANALYSIS: In all three South American countries the pope visited, religious and political commentators pored over the trip’s details, dissecting papal body language and deciphering the subtleties of what the pontiff said and, in some cases, what he did not say.
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — In Ecuador, government supporters and opponents both seized on the same papal utterance as evidence that Pope Francis had taken their side during his historic visit last week. In Bolivia, people celebrated the pope’s reference to a thorny regional dispute that made officials in neighboring Chile cringe.
Here in Paraguay, speaking before an audience including the nation’s president, Horacio Cartes, a conservative tobacco magnate who spent time in prison on fraud charges before entering politics, Francis denounced corruption, calling it “the gangrene of the people.”
In all three countries, religious and political commentators pored over the trip’s details, dissecting papal body language and deciphering the subtleties of what the pontiff said and, in some cases, what he did not say.
While Francis has positioned himself as a global figure, weighing in on major issues like climate change and poverty, he faced expectations in returning to his native continent that he also would dive into largely local disputes, something no pope is eager to do.
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The post-papal parsing as the trip wrapped up Sunday was especially pointed in Ecuador, which was roiled by large protests against President Rafael Correa before Francis’ visit. In a brief speech upon his arrival in Quito, the capital, Francis referred to “this Ecuadorean people that has gotten to its feet with dignity,” turning to look pointedly at Correa, who had come to the airport to meet him.
Social networks soon began to buzz with the conclusion that the remarks were a subtle reference to the protesters who had been on their feet, marching through the country’s main cities, over the past month.
Not so, said Correa’s supporters, who interpreted the phrase and the pontifical glance to mean that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church supported his government’s “citizen’s revolution,” which has helped large numbers of ordinary Ecuadoreans emerge from poverty.
“It’s ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted either way,” said Xavier Bonilla, a political cartoonist who has clashed with Correa, criticizing the government’s aggressive restrictions on the media.
Francis’ silence on various sensitive issues was noted repeatedly throughout his tour, particularly in Paraguay, where activists in one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries had hoped for more on issues that included gay rights, killings over land disputes and the persistence of widespread economic inequality.
While Francis met with social leaders and criticized an economic model that sacrifices “human lives at the altar of money and profits,” he spoke in general terms, opting against mentioning specific cases like the 2012 clash at a soybean estate in the Curuguaty hinterland that left 11 peasants and six police officers dead.
“It’s a shame, because Paraguayans needed Francis to say something specific about inequality and land conflicts, but instead he spoke in a general way as if he were talking about any Latin American country,” said Ignacio Telesca, a historian and former Jesuit priest.
Similarly, Francis gave a speech in Ecuador calling for the preservation of the Amazon rain forest and protections for the people who live there. Yet he did not mention Yasuni National Park, a forested area that Correa has marked for oil exploration over the objections of environmentalists.
He also did not speak about freedom of the press, a crucial issue in Ecuador, whose government has been sharply criticized for its strict controls on the media. “He did not show support for freedom of expression,” said Eduardo Durán, a career diplomat and author. “I see that as a gap in the Holy Father’s discourse.”
It was only after leaving Ecuador for Bolivia that Francis made an oblique reference to the topic, saying, “Freedom is always the best environment for thinkers, civic associations and the communications media to carry out their activities with passion and creativity in service of the common good.”
Yet in contrast to his apparent stiffness with Correa, Francis appeared to warm to President Evo Morales of Bolivia. He seemed more relaxed despite some provocative gestures by Morales, a leftist who gave him a wooden cross formed from the Communist symbol of the hammer and sickle.
He also gave the pope a book presenting his government’s claim that Bolivia, a landlocked country, should be granted a corridor of land connecting it to the Pacific — land that was seized by Chile in a 19th-century war.
Chile had made diplomatic efforts to ensure that Francis would stay neutral on the subject, but the pope waded into the controversy anyway, calling for dialogue to resolve the long-simmering dispute. That caused jubilation in Bolivia. The Chilean foreign minister said later that he considered the pope’s words positive.
As the eight-day tour proceeded, it became clear that Francis had carefully composed its arc, tailoring different messages for different audiences and gradually increasing the intensity of his speeches.
At his Masses, he stuck to religious themes and parables meant to appeal to bedrock Catholics. A main goal of the trip was to re-energize the church in Latin America, a vast reservoir of Catholics that has been losing large numbers of converts to evangelical Christian faiths.
While Francis does not come across at first as a commanding speaker — he often mumbles and talks softly, without emphasis — he showed himself capable of connecting with hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
In Bolivia, he riled up a crowd of 2,000 with a rebuke of the evils of a capitalist culture in which people are obsessed with money, and delivered a blunt apology for the church’s involvement in the conquest of the Americas and the horrors visited on the native peoples.
“When he needs to, he can ratchet up the intensity to confidently match that of say, Pentecostal evangelists and populist presidents,” said Daniel Ramirez, an expert on Latin American religious history at the University of Michigan.
Francis also displayed a sense of humor. During his visit to a Bolivian prison, the gusting austral winter wind blew his skullcap off for at least the second time during the trip. “As long as my head doesn’t blow off,” he said, “there’s no problem.”