LA PAZ - Pope Francis arrived in Bolivia on Wednesday, praising the government of leftist President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader whose frosty relationship with the Catholic Church has begun to thaw under the Argentine pontiff’s papacy.
Morales has nationalized key industries such as oil and gas to finance social programs that have slashed poverty in the Andean country, where animal sacrifices and pagan worship remain widely cherished.
Francis, Latin America’s first pope, arrived from Ecuador at La Paz’s El Alto airport, at over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, the highest international airport in the world.
Oxygen tanks are always at the ready for passengers to deal with altitude sickness brought on by the thin air.
Locals chew coca leaves and drink coca tea. Coca is the main ingredient for cocaine.
Aboard the plane, the pope drank a tea made of a mix of coca leaves, chamomile and anise seeds to ward off illness, a flight attendant said.
The pope, who lost part of one lung to an infection when he was a young man, will spend only about four hours in the La Paz, the seat of government, before moving on to the provincial city of Santa Cruz for the rest of his two-day stay.
He did not appear to have any difficulties as he left the plane, while he read his arrival speech, and on the ride to the center of the city for a private meeting with Morales.
“Bolivia is making important steps towards including broad sectors in the country’s economic, social and political life,” Francis said in his arrival address, wearing a white poncho over his white cassock to warm him against the Andean wind.
Morales, an Aymara native and former coca grower, came to power in 2006 promising to govern in favor of the poor indigenous majority, marginalized by the ruling elite.
In his address to the pope, Morales, who had frequently clashed with Church officials in Bolivia before relations improved when Francis was elected in 2013, welcomed the pope as a homecoming hero.
“In many historic moments, the Church was used for domination, subjugation and oppression. Now the Bolivian people receive you with joy and hope,” said Morales, wearing a dark suit with indigenous pattern embroidered around the lapels.
“We welcome you as the chief representative of the Catholic Church coming to support the liberation of our Bolivian peoples.”
On his way into the center of La Paz, which lies in a bowl beneath mountain peaks, the pope was due to stop at a spot where the body of Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps was found in 1980. The priest, who was a strong supporter of the rights of miners, was tortured and murdered by paramilitaries.
“Let us pray for this brother of ours who was a victim of interests,” the pope said, asking the roadside crowd to join him in a minute’s silence.
Under Morales’ brand of “indigenous socialism,” Bolivia has vastly expanded the role of the state in the economy, nationalizing key industries and introduced socialist reforms to spread the wealth from a boom in gas exports.
Bolivia’s economy has tripled in size during the nine years under Morales, a prominent member of South America’s leftist bloc, and the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty has fallen to 1 in 5 from more than a third of the population of 10 million in 2006.
It remains, however, one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Francis urged Morales to be sure to blend economic growth with social justice.
“A growth which is merely material will always run the risk of creating new divisions, of the wealth of some being built on the poverty of others,” he said.
Morales, who was elected to a third term last October, has been more pragmatic than some of his closest Latin American allies on economic policy at home, winning him praise from some of the world financial institutions he has excoriated, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The pope, who has made defense of the poor and the planet major planks of his papacy, also praised the fact that the Bolivian constitution “recognizes the rights of individuals, minorities and the natural environment.”
Francis flew into Bolivia from Quito, Ecuador, where he showed his sense of humor during the last few hours of his trip to that country, where he drew crowds totaling nearly 2 million people.
“I have a prepared script but I don’t want to read it,” said the 78-year-old pope to laughs from the crowd, before asking them to pray for him so that he would never forget where he came from.
“Do not fall into a spiritual Alzheimer’s, do not forget!” Francis added in a totally improvised speech.