"I'm clinging to Christ. ... Thank you, my God. ... Thank you, my beloved nation."
These were among the last words sent to the people of Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez before his death March 5. He sent them in a tweet, expressing a popular piety that belies the American media caricatures, which persisted despite his serving nearly 15 years in office and winning three consecutive elections.
Rafael Correa, elected Feb. 17 for his third term as president of Ecuador with 56 percent of the vote, is a practicing Catholic. He is self-described as "left-wing--not from the Marxist left but rather a Catholic left." Correa was a national leader of Catholic university groups in his student days and he worked a year as a lay missioner serving the poor with the Salesian fathers in the jungles of his homeland. Then he went on to get a master's degree from Louvain University in Belgium and a doctorate in economics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Evo Morales won his second five-year term as president of Bolivia with 64 percent of the vote in 2009. He unofficially launched his re-election campaign last month for the 2014 presidential race, even though it is unclear if the constitution allows him to seek a third term. He is a baptized Catholic with a faith that syncretizes Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Pachamama (Mother Nature) of the Bolivian people.
Nicholas Maduro, newly elected president of Venezuela, was the vice president and Chavez's handpicked successor and will continue his policies in favor of the poor--policies quite compatible with the social justice teachings of the Catholic church. But Maduro only won by 1 percent of the vote and lacks the charisma of his mentor. His opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is calling for a recount, though international observers have stated the elections were free and fair. South America is continuing to take democratic elections seriously, without military intervention or outside interference, as the normal path to social change. So the international community expects Venezuela will resolve this election through dialogue within its own new constitutional laws.
Recent demographic studies from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and by the Pew Research Center show rapid Latino growth in the United States while noting the decline of the church in all Latin American countries, causing much ecclesial confusion.
Still, with all its human limitations, the church is groping its way to adjust. This is not the case with U.S. policies, focused on free-trade agreements, terrorists and drugs. The second Obama administration, with a new State Department secretary, needs to reboot its default policy settings for Pan-American relations.
The new presidents of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela--all major oil and gas exporters--will be in office at least through 2014. In recent years, each country has expelled the U.S. ambassador for interfering in its internal affairs. Ecuador accepted a new ambassador last year and Bolivia and Venezuela have expressed interest in re-establishing diplomatic ties.
These countries have shown high growth rates, each exceeding 4 percent in the last three years. All have made incredible statistical gains, lowering poverty rates and infant and maternal mortality rates while increasing accessible education to millions from preschool to postgraduate studies.
Will the still new Secretary of State John Kerry and his team see what deterioration of diplomatic …