Ecuador Is The First Stop On Pope Francis' South America Trip
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Pope Francis is back on the continent of his birth. The Argentinian pontiff is on a nine-day swing through some of the region's poorest countries. And as the first pope from the developing world, he is expected to continue his focus on issues affecting the downtrodden. From Ecuador, reporter John Otis has the story.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Workers set up stage lights, rows of plastic chairs and security barriers. They are preparing for the pope's first outdoor mass of this trip which will take place this afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of people will be crowding into Samanes Park in the Pacific port city of Guayaquil. It's the first papal visit to Ecuador since John Paul II came here 30 years ago.
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OTIS: Local musicians are so excited that they've composed a half-dozen pope songs including this one. Francis traveled to Brazil two years ago, but his native language is Spanish and this is his first official trip to Spanish-speaking South America. That makes for a special connection, says Monsignor Antonio Arregui, the archbishop of Guayaquil.
MONSIGNOR ANTONIO ARREGUI: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: He says, "we feel like the pope is particularly close to us because he talks like us." What Francis has been saying also resonates. In his encyclical released last month, the pope called for radical reforms to curb environmental degradation and climate change. Those most affected by these twin problems, he wrote, are the poor. Indigenous groups in Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, are resisting efforts to explore for oil, natural gas and gold, which could uproot them from their lands. That's why the pope's call for sustainable development is especially timely, says Alex Wilde, a research fellow at American University in Washington, D.C.
ALEX WILDE: You have to take the interests of the poor into account in developing, whether it's water, natural gas or whether it's oil or whether it's land. I mean, all of these things are a common patrimony. And the poor have tended to be sidelined in the way that they have been developed.
OTIS: It's unclear whether Latin American leaders are listening. Most economies in the region are slowing. Analysts say pressure is building on revenue-strapped governments to extract even more fossil fuels and minerals to pay for antipoverty programs. On the other hand, South America is largely ruled by left-wing leaders who claim to share the pope's concerns for social justice. In Bolivia, President Avo Morales has sparred with his country's more conservative Catholic hierarchy. But he likes Pope Francis, says Kathryn Ledebur who directs the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group.
KATHRYN LEDEBUR: There's this idea that they can actually sit down and get things done and that there's trust and a common bond there.
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OTIS: Pope Francis began his trip Sunday with a lavish ceremony in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. But the pontiff wants to keep the focus on society's weakest. So he plans to visit a nursing home in Ecuador, a prison in Bolivia and a children's hospital in Paraguay. These are the kinds of gestures that make Francis seem more accessible than his predecessors. After a recent mass at the Guayaquil cathedral, I meet Migual Pineda who is selling posters of the pope at the church entrance.
MIGUAL PINEDA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "He's humble," Pineda says. "He will give you a hug, not like other priests who keep their distance from the people." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
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