Latin America

“Latin America still owes a debt to the poor,” says pope on Ecuador visit

Pontiff begins nine-day regional tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay

Pope Francis greets children as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa looks on.
Pope Francis greets children as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa looks on.J. J. (EFE)

As soon as he stepped off his plane in Quito on Sunday to begin a three-nation Latin American tour, Pope Francis offered Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa the Catholic Church’s “commitment and cooperation” so that his government can guarantee “progress and development” for all citizens.

He asked Correa to pay “special attention” to the “the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters” because “Latin America still owes a debt to the poor.”

Correa’s government has been buffeted by scores of protests over tax laws he claims will help the poor

The statements made by the Argentinean-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared to give a boost to Correa’s government, which has been buffeted over the last four weeks by scores of protests from conservative sectors over controversial tax laws he claims will help the poor.

After a warm embrace, Correa thanked the pope for his recent encyclical on climate change, in which he called on global leaders to put a stop to humankind’s damaging of the environment.

“If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out,” Correa said, quoting the Bible.

The pope’s remarks in Quito set the stage for his messages about inequality in the region during his nine-day official trip, which will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the first time since his appointment that Pope Francis has visited a Spanish-speaking Latin American nation (he made a trip to Brazil in 2013).

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“Francis will have the opportunity to speak in his own language, which will give him all the security he needs to improvise any of his speeches that have already been written,” explained Vatican City spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

In reference to the social conflicts facing the Correa government, the pope said that the Church was also ready to help meet the challenges, by encouraging respect for people’s differences through “fostering dialogue and full participation.”

After four weeks of massive protests over Correa’s proposals to hike inheritance and capital gains taxes, opposition leaders called off the demonstrations in time for the pope’s visit. But one group surrounded the bus the pope was traveling on, while shouting anti-Correa slogans as the vehicle made its way from Quito airport.

The president, who has accused his opponents of trying to organize a “soft coup,” said the laws were needed to help distribute wealth evenly in the country. But the opposition believes they would only hurt average Ecuadorians who are trying to improve their financial situation.

Demonstrators surrounded the bus the pope was traveling on, shouting anti-Correa slogans at the vehicle

The pope lauded the country’s efforts, which have led to a more than four-percent growth rate over the past decade, but stated several times that there was still a need to help the most vulnerable.

Around 81 percent of Ecuador’s population is Roman Catholic.

During his flight between Rome and Quito, Bergoglio spoke to 75 journalists who accompanied him on the Alitalia airliner. While he listened patiently as many spoke with him or exchanged a few words, the pope also showed his sense of humor when one journalist explained to him that La Paz, the Bolivian capital on his itinerary, is situated 4,000 meters above sea level. He should not worry about the altitude, the reporter told the pontiff. 

“That’s okay,” the pope quipped. “I shall chew on coca leaves.”

Pilgrims and dollars

Some 13 million people are expected to attend the 13 official events that will be held in Quito and Guayaquil during the pope's visit.

The pope will meet with different civil organizations while anti-government protest leaders are expected to give him a list of their grievances concerning Correa.

Spending surrounding the pope's visit is estimated to be close to $3 million, with a lot of funds coming from anonymous donations. The Episcopal Conference has also introduced a special commemorative kit to raise money.

The pope-mobile is a 4x4 White Jeep Wrangler Sport Unlimited.

Tourism for the visit is expected to generate some $130 million for the cities the pontiff visits.

Some 1,800 journalists from more than 350 media outlets have been accredited to cover the visit.

Ecuador's post office has issued 10,000 commemorative stamps with the pope's image.

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