This week, as Mexico readied for the arrival of Pope Francis, a news conference at the Ministry of the Interior revealed a glimmer of the types of uncomfortable exchanges between reporters and officials that are sure to gain frequency in the coming days.
Francis has repeatedly spoken out against the powerful — be they governments or people — he views as corrupt and unresponsive to the poor. How, the reporters wanted to know, would a government freighted with so many critical problems respond to his blunt talk?
One reporter noted the pope will visit Ciudad Juarez, the sprawling border city once known as Mexico’s murder capital. The reporter suggested that, for the government, the location was “badly positioned.”
Was the government afraid of what Francis might say?
“I would definitely tell you that the expression ‘fear’ does not exist in the government of the republic,” Undersecretary Humberto Roque Villanueva said, launching into a lengthy response during which he asserted three more times that the government does not feel temor, or fear.
Another reporter cited a litany of problems Francis is likely to raise, such as violence and treatment of Central American immigrants passing through the country. Would the pope’s comments prompt a self-critique by the government?
“Of course the government of the republic is conscious of the problems we have in this country, so to hide them wouldn’t make sense for the government. That vision of things wouldn’t function,” he said.
Even before setting foot on Mexican soil, the pontiff has said that he won’t “cover up” the country’s ills.
“I want to exhort you to fight every day against corruption, against trafficking, against war, disunity, organized crime,” he said, in a statement directed toward the people of Mexico.
In his travels around the world, Francis has proven that he speaks his mind.
While visiting the U.S. Congress in September, he challenged its members to stop the arms trade, treat immigrants fairly and fight climate change. Responding to students from Cuba and New York in a video conference, the pontiff called leaders who fail to invest in the new generation “worthless” and “dictators.” In Kenya, he branded slums “new forms of colonialism.”
He has also leveled criticism at the Roman Catholic Church, calling fundamentalism among its members a “sickness,” and saying that those who believe they possess an absolute truth “do evil.”
Francis has specifically planned a trip with deep political implications, following the path taken by migrants who begin their journeys in southern Mexico, ending at the border with the United States. The trip will culminate with a Mass on Wednesday in Ciudad Juarez, a city wracked with narco-violence and the continued struggles of migrants trying to make their way beyond the border fence.
In El Financiero earlier this month, columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio portrayed a strained lead-up to the pope’s visit, during which the Mexican government attempted to reroute the trip toward less controversial locations. The Vatican, he wrote, is “marking its territory,” as it attempts to prevent the government from modifying the pope’s agenda.
“The government looked to take him to areas far from social conflict,” Riva Palacio wrote, “so as not to turn a Catholic celebration in Mexico into an anguishing tour for Los Pinos,” Mexico’s equivalent of the White House.
In his video statement to the Mexican people, Francis said, “The Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of cartels is not the Mexico that our mother [the Virgin Mary] wants. I, of course, will not cover any of that up.”
Kevin Appleby, the director of the International Migration Policy Center at the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, says it’s unclear how Mexican officials will react to such critiques because the church is not known for taking on the government. Though clergy may be more vocal in other countries, this is relatively unmapped territory in Mexico.
“In Mexico over the years, the church has been careful about speaking out about injustices, especially those perpetrated by the government,” he said, speaking by phone. “When the Holy Father comes, he is coming into a culture that is not used to criticism.”
The Center for Migration Studies was founded by Scalabrinian priests, nuns and laypeople, who have historically championed the plight of migrants. Appleby said the Argentine-born pope’s Latin American heritage deepens the impact of his message.
“He can come to Mexico and say look, 'I am one of you, I came out of this hemisphere, I’m the son of immigrants,'" Appleby said. "He has some authority, some knowledge and background here and can speak to these issues. His popularity in this part of the world is something politicians take note of.
“I would not be surprised if every television in Mexico and frankly every Hispanic family is tuned into his visit. That’s not lost on the powerful and the elite, both in Mexico and the U.S.”
So far, there have been few mentions by Mexican officials of the pope’s critiques. Officials who have spoken on the issue have indicated they will handle such comments with diplomacy and are unlikely to contradict him.
Early this month, the country’s Minister of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said that the trip would be an opportunity for Francis to see Mexico as the Mexican people are living it, “with difficulties, with circumstances that, of course, many or some of which we regret, but which, of course, we are also overcoming as a country. We are taking legal measures, public policies to resolve them.”
Tillman is a special correspondent. Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.