Pope Francis on Thursday said that public officials should live simply, honestly and transparently as he opened a visit to a Central America that has been rife with corruption scandals and is now coping with political upheaval in nearby Venezuela.
Francis did not mention the Venezuela crisis during his first remarks in Panama after a meeting with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela at the Presidential Palace in Panama City.
However, his spokesman said that he was following the situation closely, was praying for the Venezuelan people and supported “all efforts that help save the population from further suffering.”
Francis stuck to his script in Panama, celebrating the country’s place as bridge between oceans and cultures and holding up the region’s newest saint, slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, as a model for a humble church that accompanies the poor.
He welcomed tens of thousands of young people to World Youth Day, the Catholic Church’s big international youth rally, and urged them to be builders of bridges of encounter, not “builders of walls that sow fear and look to divide and box people in,” a clear reference to the proposed US-Mexico border wall.
He said young people are increasingly demanding that public officials live lives that are coherent with the jobs entrusted to them, and build a “culture of greater transparency” between the public and private sectors.
“They call upon them to live in simplicity and transparency, with a clear sense of responsibility for others and for our world,” Francis told Varela and other Panamanian leaders. “To lead a life that demonstrates that public service is a synonym of honesty and justice, and opposed to all forms of corruption.”
Transparency International estimates that as much as 1 percent of Panama’s GDP, approximately US$600 million, might have been lost to various corruption schemes during the presidency of Ricardo Martinelli, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014.
Martinelli was extradited to Panama last year from the US to face political espionage and embezzlement charges.
In addition, two of Martinelli’s sons have been detained in the US and are being sought on corruption charges in Panama. They are suspected of receiving more than US$50 million in “undue payments” from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which is at the center of one of the largest graft scandals in history.
Odebrecht has acknowledged paying nearly US$800 million in bribes in a dozen Latin American nations in return for favors and works contracts.
That includes at least US$59 million in Panama, although authorities said that the real figure is likely much higher.
In addition to the Martinelli sons, the scandal has already implicated former government ministers under the elder Martinelli, as well as people linked to Varela’s party.
Francis’ visit is taking place against the backdrop of both the turmoil in Venezuela and the ongoing migrant standoff in the US, where the government is partly shut down over US President Donald Trump’s demand for congressional funding for a wall at the US-Mexico border.
The first Latin American pope, who was born to Italian immigrants in Argentina, has made the plight of migrants a cornerstone of his papacy and denounced how fear of migrants is driving populist and nationalist sentiment across the globe.
Speaking on Thursday to Central American bishops, Francis urged church institutions from dioceses down to individual parishes to welcome and integrate migrants, and serve as models for the rest of society to overcome fears of foreigners.
He also urged them to look to Romero as inspiration for being a humble church that listens to the poor and accompanies them as a father accompanies his children.
Young people in Latin America have few opportunities and face dangerous, difficult challenges, he said, citing “domestic violence, the killing of women — our continent is experiencing a plague in this regard — armed gangs and criminals, drug trafficking, the sexual exploitation of minors and young people, and so on.”
Francis has frequently urged young people to resist easy temptations of drug dealing and gang membership, and to especially avoid the lure of corruption. It is a message that will likely resonate with the youth of the region.
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